The Pima Air & Space Museum (Part 1)

by John Delach

Seeing the Pima Air & Space Museum for the first time forced me to ask myself: Why wasn’t this on my radar screen as a destination to see vintage airplanes? It’s not as if I’m a rookie or a rube when it comes to airplane museums. I live on Long Island and have visited the Cradle of Aviation museum located on old Mitchel Field to see their collection of airplanes built on Long Island principally by Grumman and Republic. In fact Grumman was the principal sponsor when it remained an independent manufacturer, the navy’s biggest supplier of jet fighters and Long Island’s biggest employer. The museum’s gem is the Luna Module 13, aka the LEM from Apollo 18 that never launched on its moon mission due to budgetary cutbacks. The moon’s loss was the museum’s gain.


I’ve visited the Smithsonian Air & Space facilities both on the mall and out at Dulles International Airport, the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio and the US Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. They all include treasures. The Smithsonian’s grand prize is the original Wright Flyer, a Concorde in Air France markings and the shuttle Discovery. The air force has the one surviving B-70 stored outside and its grand prize (in my opinion,) a monstrous B-36 Peacemaker stored inside. The Navy has the NC-4, the only one of three Curtis flying boats able to finish the first trans-Atlantic crossing in 1919, eight years ahead of Charles Lindberg. Christened, the Lame Duck, NC-4 survived the difficult flight from Rockaway Beach to Lisbon, Portugal with multiple stops in 10days and 22 minutes.


The primary reason Bill and I planned a trip to Arizona was to visit the military aircraft bone yard in Tucson. It was only when I began my due diligence that I discovered the starting point for the tour was at the Pima Air &Space Museum. I was surprised to learn that this museum was in a separate location several miles removed from the Davis-Monthan AFB, the home of the bone yard. I called the museum before we departed to determine tour details and discovered there were two tours daily, one at 11 AM and one at 1 PM.


We planned our visit on Friday, the one full day we had in Tucson and we agreed to be at the museum when it opened the next day at 9 AM, an easy task as our Hampton Inn was about ten-minutes from the site. Unexpectedly, we found about 50 people had already lined-up outside the entrance when we arrived at 8:45. We concluded that folks who go to airplane museums in 105+ degree heat tend to be early birds. Despite our “late” arrival, we secured tickets for the 11 AM bus. We had to undergo a security check designed to ferret out anybody with a record or a warrant hanging over their heads. This was becoming serious.


We had enough time to visit three of the five climate controlled hangers before boarding the bus and we couldn’t help but notice the large number of aircraft displayed outdoors as we walked from one hanger to another. We began in Hangers One and Two attached to the entrance. Both had decent collections but nothing unusual. We found a B-24 in pristine condition in Hanger Three. This is the type of bomber my father fought in with the Eighth Air Force flying 47 missions as a navigator on two separate tours of duty. The museum recovered their B-24 from the Indian Air Force and a museum crew flew it to Tucson. I was duly impressed by the tale of their flight across Asia, Europe, the Atlantic and cross-country. By then it was time to board the bus.


Laggards once again, we found the only open seats together were in the rear. However, they were great with plenty of leg room and an unobstructed view. As the bus left the museum, Bill and I were startled to see a B-36 parked on the grounds. We both believed that the sole remainder of these heavy bombers was located at the Air Force Museum. What a find and a must-see for us when we returned from the tour.


Our guide, Trish Hughes, an accomplished aviator and instructor, explained we were heading to Davis-Monthan AFB where we would have to vacate the bus while security inspected it. The driver stopped at the commercial entrance where a large garage blocked our path. It was actually a double-ended shed filled with various electronic, chemical, etc. sensors designed to detect the presence of harmful things bad guys would want to slip onto the base.


Few of us encounter direct face-to-face reminders that our nation has been continuously at war since September 11, 2001; this was one of them. We were not alone in the receiving yard. Every commercial vehicle stopped there for inspection. Each truck driver opened the hood of his truck, opened the cargo doors and presented his log to security. Uniformed military police and uniformed federal officers used various devices to inspect the engine compartments and cargo including the best and most basic detector, K-9 German Shepherds.


We were led off the bus and into the shed while our coach received a thorough going over including a quality sniff test by the K-9. Trish explained that the questionnaire we filled out back at the museum was also being checked against the FBI’s data base. Bill and I quietly shared the same thought with each other: “Pity the poor s.o.b. with an outstanding warrant who took this trip on a lark!”


Cleared to go, we re-boarded and the bus slowly rode through the shed before we were cleared onto the base.


(To be continued.)