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Spirits Soar at These Aviation Museums

Practically everyone remembers his or her first flight, whether it was on a fancy jet airliner, a puddle jumper or perhaps even a private plane. At America’s aviation museums, travelers can relive those moments and see some of the world’s most innovative and inspiring aircraft.

A surprising number of destinations have aviation museums, and they almost always are worthy inclusions on a tour itinerary. Here are six aviation museums to get your memories — and perhaps your dreams — rolling down the runway. Let’s fly west to east across the U.S.

Museum of Flight


The Museum of Flight has more than 175 aircraft and spacecraft, including some giants — the first jet-powered Air Force One, a Blackbird spy plane (complete with drone), a supersonic Concorde and a B-29 Superfortress among them. It also displays float planes, sailplanes, helicopters and more. Check out the tiny Aeronca C-2, one of the first American planes practical for the average person to own. C-2s were practical but basic, too. The pilot sat on a plywood seat and had five instruments, a stick and rudder pedals. A heater and brakes cost extra. A later Aeronca plane, the L-3B, was a still-basic World War II observation and VIP transport plane nicknamed the Grasshopper.

The museum’s first location in 1965 was in downtown Seattle on the site of the 1962 World’s Fair (which produced the city’s famous Space Needle), but a few years later, it was moved about 10 miles south for more space and the availability of a significant building in aviation history, the Red Barn, where the Boeing Co. began. Another Boeing link in the collection is a replica of the company’s first plane — a float plane from 1916 that William Boeing and Conrad Westervelt built.

Groups get the benefit of complimentary tours from especially knowledgeable docents.

“We have generations of people in this region with aerospace backgrounds who volunteer here,” said Ted Huetter, senior public relations manager. “You can get stories from the real experts.”

San Diego Air and Space Museum

San Diego

Of the many impressive holdings of the San Diego Air and Space Museum, one stands out because of its link to aviation history — a replica of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the first plane to cross the Atlantic Ocean nonstop. The original was built in San Diego — as was its replica — and some of the people who worked on the original also worked on the replica. Of note: It’s flightworthy but not likely to fly again.

The museum is one of the jewels in San Diego’s famous Balboa Park (17 museums and cultural organizations). Other standout holdings include: a replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer; displayed without fabric on its wings to show the intricate woodwork; a mock-up of the Bell X-1; “a bullet with wings” that was the first plane to break the sound barrier; and the actual Apollo 9 command module that flew a 10-day mission around the moon and helped set the stage for Apollo 11’s lunar landing.

One of the museum’s biggest artifacts is a Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat. The massive airplane was built in San Diego, served missions in the Gilbert and Marshal Islands in World War II, went into the Coast Guard’s fleet, appeared in a movie (“The Devil at 4 O’Clock”) and was eventually donated to the museum. After a restoration, it was towed through the streets of San Diego and lifted by crane into the Pavilion of Flight.

EAA Aviation Museum

Oshkosh, Wisconsin

When you land in Oshkosh, either literally or figuratively, be prepared for the intriguing and unusual — and often historic — aircraft at the EAA Aviation Museum. EAA stands for Experimental Aircraft Association, which began as a local club for people who built and restored their own aircraft and now is a worldwide organization with 200,000 members.

The year-round museum has more than 200 aircraft, many with great stories. Consider the single-engine racer that Ettore Bugatti (of auto racing fame) was building in a Paris furniture factory on the eve of World War II. As the German army neared Paris, the plane was hidden in a barn in the countryside, staying there for 30 years. It came to the U.S. in 1970, changed hands and eventually was donated to the museum. The beautiful plane never flew.

Another gem is Spaniard Juan de la Cievra’s autogiro, the direct predecessor to the helicopter. Spinning rotor blades on top of what looks like an otherwise normal single-engine plane acted like wings and permitted very slow flight and nearly vertical takeoffs.

Pay special attention to the Pioneers of Flight exhibit, a tribute to World War II aviation called the Eagle Hangar and Pioneer Airport. Pioneer Airport recalls the early days of flight and features more than 50 vintage planes in seven period hangars. It operates from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and can be booked for short flights. Not everyone can brag about taking off from a grass runway.

National Naval Aviation Museum

Pensacola, Florida

The Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903, and only eight years later, the U.S. Navy had its first airplane. The long story of naval aviation comes to light through more than 150 aircraft (airplanes, helicopters and flying boats) at Pensacola’s National Naval Aviation Museum.

That story includes the NC-4, a flying boat that crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1919, years before Charles Lindberg’s flight. The NC-4’s journey required refueling in Canada and the Azores before reaching Portugal. Its top speed was 85 mph. Other aircraft include a Ford Tri-Motor (an early airliner), a Flying Tiger P-40B Tomahawk from early in World War II and A-4E/F Skyhawks, the blue and gold streaks the Blue Angels performance team used from 1974-86. (Marvelous trivia: The Skyhawks on display are close together, but in flight, they are even closer — only 36 inches apart.)

Today’s Blue Angels are based at the nearby Naval Air Station Pensacola, and their practice flights zoom over the museum and along the coast past Pensacola and back. Practice days are posted, so keep looking up.

Udvar-Hazy Center

Chantilly, Virginia

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on the Capital Mall in Washington, D.C., houses significant aviation artifacts — starting with the 1903 Wright Flyer that Orville and Wilbur Wright flew to inaugurate the age of powered aviation — but the Smithsonian had too many artifacts and not enough room to tell all the stories it wanted to tell.

That explains the Udvar-Hazy Center next to Dulles International Airport in Virginia. The Smithsonian opened this gargantuan facility in 2003, and it attracts more than a million visitors a year who absorb the story of flight from early ballooning to space travel.

A relatively tiny Piper J-3 Cub was the first artifact placed in the enormous Boeing Aviation Hangar, which is the length of three football fields and 10 stories tall. Soon enough, it had companions that include the Enola Gay B-29 Superfortress bomber, an Air France Concorde, a Boeing 367-80 transport jet, planes from the German Luftwaffe, aerobatic biplanes, helicopters, sailplanes, ultralights and even a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. The Blackbird’s top speed is classified, but it is more than 2,100 miles an hour (coast to coast in 1:04:20).

Most docents are pilots, flight instructors and engineers, and none work from a script while leading tours.

If your brain can take in more information, the center also includes the McDonnell Space Hangar, where the centerpiece is the space shuttle Discovery, and the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar, where skilled technicians prepare aircraft for display.

Military Aviation Museum

Virginia Beach, Virginia

The Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, Virginia, transcends its unpretentious name by showcasing one of the largest collections of World War I and World War II aircraft in the world.

Most of its vintage planes are airworthy, and visitors get a special thrill when one of them roars to life and flies off into the blue Virginia sky.

The museum’s first plane has a convoluted history. It is a World War II Curtiss P-40 fighter built in Buffalo, New York, and provided to the Soviet Union through the World War II Lend-Lease program. It crashed, and its remains were recovered north of the Arctic Circle in Russia.

The museum now has more than 65 planes in five hangars. They include a P-51 Mustang, a B-25 bomber, a PBY Catalina flying boat, a Curtiss Jenny, a Sopwith Strutter and even a bright red Fokker DR1 triplane of the type the Red Baron flew in World War I.

Groups can have a meal amid the aircraft while talking with mechanics who work on the planes and pilots who take them out for a spin. If you visit from May through late September, flight demonstrations are included in admission through the Summer of Flight program. Brave visitors can ride along a flight over the countryside in a Stearman biplane or a replica 1931 WACO biplane.