Strolling Amok

Pops goes on tour.

Pima Air & Space Museum

How’s this for obscure? This Columbia XJL-1 amphibious plane was developed and built from a Grumman design in 1946, then accepted for testing by the Navy in 1947. The 3rd of 3 built, it suffered repeated structural failures in 1948, and was dropped from the program in 1949. Two surviving examples were sold to a Martin Aircraft engineer for $450, and he worked at restoring them until his death in 1955. In 1957, his widow sold this one to a Chicago resident on the condition that he make the plane fly at least once, which he did later that same year.

If you like a goodly percentage of aircraft that you’re unlikely to see anywhere else, the Pima Air & Space museum is for you. It’s a private, non-profit museum in Tucson, Arizona. With 150 aircraft indoors and another 150 on the grounds spread out over 80 acres, this is an aircraft extravaganza not to be missed. They claim that you can see everything in 3-4 hours, but this is an optimized estimate based on fast-marching and tram-riding like there is no tomorrow. I suspect this timing assumes that the visitor take a stout dose of amphetamines, wear roller skates, and have an aversion to reading informational placards. If you want to stop and gawk or want to get up close, the additional minutes quickly add to the hour count.

This 1970 Pereira Osprey II amphibian was tested for use as a civil police observation plane in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. It successfully completed tests, but was dropped anyway. It became a home-built kit plane in 1975, with 200 sold. This one was wrecked in 1982 after an engine failure, then was rebuilt over the next 6 years. It can reach 130 MPH, which is not too shabby for an amphibious Short Takeoff and Landing craft (STOL).

There are 4 hangers, of which I toured one and listened to a volunteer docent do his thing on each craft. I got there about 9:15AM and gawked, then did the docent-guided tour at 10:30, which lasted until 11:20. That gave me just enough time to grab a reserved seat on the tram tour, which lasted almost an hour. By that time, I decided that nutrients were in order and went to the on-site Flight Grill for sustenance and rest. Unusually robust menu selections there, thanks to an actual cook and staff.

1940 PBM-5A Mariner amphibian. For the Navy, it served as a long-range reconnaissance and air-sea warfare platform, while Coast Guard used them for search and rescue duty.

Being old and reasonably decrepit, the tram tour and restaurant rest did not provide more than a token restoration from the initial two hours on my feet, and it became decision time. I could make a symbolic effort at trudging through any of 3 hangars remaining, or walk through the 390th Memorial Museum, which is dedicated to the United States Army Air Force 390th Bomb Group at Framlingham in East Suffolk, England. The 390th building looked reasonably small, so I tottered on in. The recorded video interviews with crew members there during WWII, the group photos of each crew serving there, the large photos taken during missions, the tools of the trade and of course a B-17 on display made it very worthwhile. One placard noted that, overall, the high toll taken by German fighter attacks, antiaircraft batteries, mechanical failures leading to crashes, and accidents meant that any one crew member could expect a 14% chance of returning home alive and intact. Sobering.

The Grumman F9F-8P Cougar was a swept-wing derivation of the Panther, this one being fitted with a long nose for reconnaissance duties. Intended as an interim design, they were unusually adaptable and did not see the end of production until 1957, when this last one was built. They remained in service until 1974. No doubt the bang per buck and low maintenance costs of this simple workhorse delayed the call for more modern, exotic, and high-maintenance fare.

I had arrived just a few days after a procedural change in the Boneyard Tour on the other side of the highway, which is the vast storage area where thousands of obsoleted planes are either parked for potential restoration and reuse, or scavenged for parts and recycled. That change went from being an on-demand bus tour to a reservation system requiring a several-week waiting period with background check, for obvious reasons. Signs of our times. I’m not sure I would have taken the Boneyard Tour this round, but the new rules eliminated that choice entirely.

The descriptive text under most of these photos may lead you to assume that I’m knowledgeable about these aircraft. Nope. I cribbed nearly all of it from the placards parked in front of each. The extent of my knowledge reaches more toward, “Ooo, pretty plane!” and “Oh, that one looks fast!” Not too deep, all considered.

Douglas B-18B Bolo. Yet another plane I never heard of. It entered production in 1936 and was obsolete as a bomber by WWII. It was phased out by the higher-performance Boeing B-17, which had been developed at the same time but was not selected because the prototype crashed. 122 B-18s were retrofitted to be sub hunters over the Caribbean and Atlantic, and were used as such until 1943, when they shifted to transport duty. With an all-out speed of 215 MPH, they were sold as surplus afterward.

No display would be complete without a Fairchild A-10A Thunderbolt II, otherwise affectionately nicknamed the Warthog. Designed specifically around a 30mm rotary cannon firing armor-piercing depleted uranium shells at 4,200 rounds per minute, it proved so effective at killing Iraqi tanks, ground attack, and surviving direct hits during the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War that it was saved from early retirement as well as the incessant bleating by armchair expert detractors. Its intended replacement by the expensive and problem-plagued F-35 (the most expensive military weapons system in history) has not panned out so far, so now the Warthog is destined to remain in service until 2040, or until something more operationally effective comes along. That might take awhile. Watching one of these performing low-speed evasive maneuvers is a mind-bender, and stretches one’s concept of what is possible. It is eccentric, devastatingly effective, and difficult to defend against from the ground. The F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon may have deeply upset enemy troops and tank crews, but the sight of an inbound Warthog terrified them. If I recall rightly, there were occasional accounts of Iraqi tank crews simply bailing out and running for distance, which was smart. “You naughty, naughty boys, here comes…The Punisher!” Ow.

1929 Fleet Model 2 Trainer. A very popular trainer right up to the early 1940s, it boasts a top speed of 105 MPH and a ceiling of 12,000′.

Bell AH-1S Cobra. A mainstay in Vietnam, it served as a protective escort for Huey troop-carrier helicopters and, despite appearances, shared 80% of its parts with same.

The Republic RF-84F was the Air Force’s first recon-specific jet design to serve. They were on use from 1952 until the early 1970s.

The Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. The distinctive mast-mounted sight above the rotor allowed it to hide while it scouted for tanks, which it was equipped to attack. These served in Iraq and Afghanistan until retirement in 2016.

First flown in 1947, the Beechcraft N35 Bonanza was a very popular civilian plane. It evolved and remained in production until 1982. This one was purchased new in 1961 by academic and world explorer Marian Rice Hart. Once it was modified for long distance flights, Ms Hart made the first of her 7 solo trans-Atlantic flights beginning in 1966, at the age of 74. She flew it over every continent except Antarctica. Most of her flights were solo until she reached age 87. She (at age 89) finally parked it in Tucson in 1981 after a minor landing accident upon her return from a tour in South America. She passed away at the age of 98 in 1990. Respect! They made ’em pretty tough in 1892, I guess.

The Pentecost E-III Hoppicopter! This 88-pound, 20 HP personal transport was designed by Horace Pentecost during WWII. He promoted it to the Army as an alternative to parachutes, and the Army made about 20 flights with the rig tethered close to the ground, the main fear being a stumble during take-off or landing. That would result in the two pairs of 12′ counter-rotating blades transforming into shrapnel (at best). This was quickly seen as an absurd level of hazard, and they quickly dropped interest. That he got it to fly was quite an achievement, but presenting it without having reached any further than that single target was his mistake. He perhaps might have hoped that the Army would carry it to Grumman for further “real-world” development, but without sensing a quick, easy fix, that’s not going to happen either.

1934 Lockheed Model 34 Electra. This one was built in 1934, too. It competed with the Douglas DC-2 and Boeing 249 for the commercial passenger airline market, and did well. This is the first aircraft that Lockheed’s legendary Kelly Johnson (of SR-71 fame) worked on. Amelia Earhart piloted one in her ill-fated 1937 flight around the world. The Army Air Corps glommed 20 of these from civilian owners during the war for personnel transport duties, and post-war, the big boys sold off their 10A Electras to regional airlines as well as business and personal users.

The 8-passenger Beechcraft Model 18. The prototype first flew in 1937, designed for airline use at small fields and with low operating costs. This 18D was capable of operating with floats and skis, and during WWII became widely used by the military as a twin-engine trainer.

Ahhh, the Grumman F-14A Tomcat here is a naming descendant of the F4F Wildcat of the 1930s, and resulted from then-Defense Secretary McNamara’s attempts to force the big and heavy F-111 swing-wing into becoming a Navy interceptor. Design work on the F-14 began in 1967, with the first production units reaching the USS Enterprise carrier in 1974. With it representing the next evolution of swing-wing design, it served in every major military conflict for the next two decades, finally retiring in 2006. If you like this plane (as I do), you can watch it with glee in the period film “The Final Countdown”.

Just another shot of the Tomcat, with wings folded back. At the time, for me this pretty much represented the Hammer of Thor, though the A-10 Thunderbolt/Warthog later took that title in my mind.

McDonnell FH-1 Phantom I. This was the Navy and Marine Corps’ first all-jet fighter. Requested by the Navy in 1943 for carrier operations, the second prototype landed aboard the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1946. With four .50 caliber machine guns in the nose and 8 rockets under the wings, it was a 479 MPH threat, but was retired from active service in 1949 because of the extraordinary pace of advancement in jet engines and airframes in that period. And, it served in the Reserves until just 1954!

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15UTI Fagot. In 1946, the Soviet Union bought some Rolls-Royce Nene jet engines from Britain. Then miraculously, the MiG-15 showed up in 1948 with an exact copy of the Rolls’ engine aboard. (Wikipedia cites the engine as having originated from German BMW samples and blueprints seized after the war, which were used directly in the earlier Mig-9. It turns out that an updated version of the Mig15bis, or second, began using updated RR copies in 1950). When it showed up during the Korean War, it could easily take down anything but our F-86 Sabre, which had not at all been expected. After all, how advanced a fighter could a bunch of rustic, depressed, vodka swilling drunkards come up with when things got serious? Answer: pretty advanced. They grabbed German technology just as quickly as we did, and questioned it less. Originally delivered to the Polish People’s Republic in 1953 as a single seat fighter, this example was converted within the decade as a badly-needed trainer. It had treacherous speed and handling limitations, but worked well within its performance envelope. This one was acquired by the US Air Force in the 1980s for research projects, then mothballed at Davis-Monthan AFB about 1990.

In production from 1958 to 1981, the McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom II was a large and fast, all-weather air superiority fighter designed to protect aircraft carriers from Russian bombers. Designed with “the next war” in mind, it traded away a cannon to depend solely on missiles, and added a Radar Intercept Officer behind the pilot to handle all the new offensive and defensive electronics. Pressed into service in Vietnam, dogfights forced it out of its supersonic bias, exposing handling problems and missiles that could not track fast-turning MiGs in close quarters. As is often the case when an aircraft is misapplied away from its original intended role, ideology gave way to reality. Many of the various aircraft pressed into service in that ground war had been designed with the military’s obsession with aerial nuclear war in mind, and suffered attrition in this action. On the Phantom II, cannons were eventually added, more capable missiles were swapped in and developed, and wing mods improved handling at the expense of top speed. This E-model represents updates made to suit its new role, and the plane became a principle player in that conflict.

The Curtiss O-52 Owl was the last of the “heavy” observation planes developed for the US Army Air Corps. Developed in 1939, the Army ordered 203, and by 1941, their performance proved to be inadequate to the unexpectedly different overseas scenarios presented by the events of that year. The planes were quickly relegated to US-based courier and submarine patrol duties. Some were shipped to our Russian allies, who used them as intended and developed a general dislike of them as a result.

And now for something completely different. One Robert Starr was designer and pilot of “smallest piloted aircraft that could still fly” craft since 1949. Feeling that he did not receive sufficient credit for his efforts then, he later worked on his own craft for five years and made its first flights in 1984, taking the record for smallest airplane. However, one of Starr’s former partners showed up a few months later with an even smaller plane, and took the record. Guinness then decided to break the category into monoplane and biplane, which each filled. Starr reappeared in 1988 with an even smaller biplane, the Bumblebee II, setting a new record and destroying the plane when it crashed. Starr donated this one to the museum in 1990. No doubt the II’s stall speed was dangerously close to its maximum speed. Nonetheless, Starr is immortalized in the Guinness book of records, along with a guy who holds the record for most toilet seats broken with his head in one minute, and a couple with the farthest marshmallow nose-blow and mouth catch. Ugh.

A replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer. I wrote about this at the last aircraft museum I visited, so all I’ll add is that any debate about who was first up in a heavier-than-air craft is largely based on nationalistic pride, and the reluctance of sanctioning bodies of the period to award anything outside of their own observations and control. The Wright Flyer didn’t make it to France until years later, where it impressed them with its abilities for controlled flight. Unlike other contemporary efforts, it demonstrated the ability to circle the field and alter altitude at will.

The McCulloch HUM-1 was presented to the Navy in 1953 as a two-passenger craft, but neither the Army nor the Navy were able to find any use for it. A civilian version was then offered for sale, but generated no sales, so McCulloch lost interest in it and turned it back over to its designer, D.K. Jovanovich.

During the tram tour, a maintenance crew heads out to do their thing.

One of many voluminous cargo aircraft on display outside.

One of my childhood favorites, the Convair B-58 Hustler, which was the first operational Mach 2 bomber. It had no internal bomb bay, using wing mounts and a combination fuel-and-bomb pod underneath. It was in service from 1960-1970. When accurate Soviet ground-to-air missiles appeared, it was relegated to low-level penetration, for which it was ill-suited, and it was eventually replaced by the smaller swing-wing FB-111A. Very expensive to purchase and maintain, that and its 22% loss rate due to very quirky handling traits made officials eager to replace it. Lethality is supposed to only swing one way.

Lots of helicopters, and lots of MiG fighters as well.

If all you do is depend on the tram, you miss out on finding out what some stuff is, and how it was used. I remember these as being used for distributing large crates, but have no idea when, where, and load limits. A small sign is underneath it.

This Boeing 787 Dreamliner was cited as a prototype that was written off, since it was used for structural testing well above its design maximums. Nobody’s going to put passengers in it, so…here it stays. Its low operating costs are saving the airlines money, but the plane has been plagued with various problems since the start, and Boeing has invested $32 billion to develop it so far, with 4 years of delays to get it to production. It’s a radical departure from the status quo in big passenger airliners, so here’s to boring longevity in addition to the already-proven fuel economy and quieter operation. “ANA” on this plane stands for All Nippon Airways, Boeing’s largest customer for the 787. Most airlines are ordering nine-abreast coach seating instead of eight, which provides the narrowest seats of any jet airliner, ever. International flight in this configuration is “not recommended for taller or larger individuals”. Personally, I would equate a long flight in the narrowest seats ever made as roughly comparable to waterboarding, and sooner or later, someone’s going to snap.

In the 390th Memorial Museum is a nice example of a B-17, with an upper gun turret displayed on a platform.

Steps are added underneath so that visitors can poke their heads in and take a look around.

Here we go. As you can tell from the previous shot, you’re already inside the belly skin and are looking up at the deck, facing aft.

A look toward the cockpit.

They only rope off areas where you’re most likely to not recognize the hazards, but otherwise, it’s hands-on.

Chug up a staircase to a media display platform, turn back, and this is what you see. The “Flying Fortress” was initially considered able to defend itself from enemy fighter attack, without an escort. That proved tragically optimistic. In a group, they could put up a stout resistance together. Stragglers were easily picked off, however, which made the trip through flak a double hazard.

This large and impressive diorama of the Framlingham area was made by volunteers. No doubt the same area today would be unrecognizable, coated with housing developments, shopping malls, and small abandoned tracts.

A window from the second floor affords a view.

This is quite a place, and I’ve only seen part of it. Besides the other hangers, I didn’t make it to the Space building where the X-15 is kept.

If you consider that through this bloated blog post, you have seen the Pima Air & Space Museum or perhaps seen the best of it, or highlights of it, then you need to know that you haven’t. If you are traveling to or through Tucson and like such things, you need to plan for a stop. If you do, wander over to the Super Guppy and take a bizarre snapshot of it. I was unable to. Perhaps you will be.

If you wonder what the basic tram tour of the grounds is like, you can look at the video below for as long of its 18 minutes as you can stand.

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4 thoughts on “Pima Air & Space Museum

  1. very, very cool. I want to see this place someday (asap). made me remember volo antique auto museum… and all seriousness aside I thought an “Air and Space” museum might indeed be entirely empty.

  2. I’ve been there twice now, each time it was the reason for going to Tuscon. That back row of helos? The orange CG HH-52A # 1450 was one of mine, I think I flew/worked on that out of CGAS San Francisco.
    I really like seeing an aircraft I worked on at a museum.

    The naval air museum at Pensacola is another place worth the stop.. great aircraft collection and a really good Coast Guard aviation display. They have a picture of the first whole of CG aviation (pilots & mechanics/crew) at a school from back in 1917.

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