In 1993, a chance overflight by a P-51 Mustang led a group of four men to construct the Palm Springs Air Museum. 20 years on, the museum attracts over 100,000 visitors annually and houses a number of flightworthy aircraft. Adam Duffield takes a look at the museum for AeroResource.
The Palm Springs Air Museum is located in the Cochella Valley, approximately 1.5 hours east of Los Angeles and is on the east side of the Palm Springs International Airport. Following the conception of the idea, the museum opened to the public in November 1996 and has over the years amassed a sizeable collection of varied aircraft with a large number restored to, and maintained in, flightworthy condition.
On arrival at the Museum you are immediately greeted by 5 static aircraft easily visible from the road. Also, just by the entrance, is a Distinguished Flying Cross monument that was dedicated in 2004 to honour those airmen that have received the award. The external face of the building is also graced by some wonderful aviation themed sculptured cladding giving a wonderful first impression.
Inside the door is a well stocked shop with just behind the admission desk. Heading down the only corridor leads to an information desk at a ‘Y’ junction. Here, a number of the museums volunteer team were on hand to provide information on not only the museum layout but also the days special events along with other pertinent information. Either side of this junction leads you to one of the two main hangars – the Pacific Hangar to the left and European to the right. These themed areas not only house aircraft that are relevant but also other exhibits such as the Pearl Harbor diorama and scale model warships within the Pacific hangar and Tuskegee airmen mural and Jackie Cochran exhibit in the European. Of particular interest within the European hangar is a section dedicated to the ‘Bloody Hundreth’ of the 100th Bomb Group which, today, is the 100th Air Refulling Wing based at RAF Mildenhall. This exhibit is believed to be the only permanent one of its kind within the United States.
Leading on from the European hangar is a third, smaller one that is home to the museums B-17 along with a small maintenance area, café and the Berger Youth Exploration Centre. Both the main hangars also lead outside to a number of externally housed aircraft. This area also gives a wonderful view over the Palm Springs International Airport with a beautiful backdrop of the Little San Bernardino mountain range.
Back at the main entrance there is also a set of stairs to a first floor library area. This houses over 8500 reference volumes and includes a complete collection of Life magazines from 1936 to 1949. There are also a number of flight simulator areas for visitors to enjoy and includes a wrap around screen simulator.
The museum is home to over 28 aircraft with almost all of them restored to flightworthy condition. At any given time however, due to costs of licensing and on-going maintenance, only 5 or 6 of these aircraft are licensed to fly.
The collection is predominantly built up of World War 2 era warbirds inkeeping with its primary goal however a number of more modern jets and helicopters add to the diversity of the collection. Amongst the aircraft are some of the following more notable examples –
Grumman TBM-3U Avenger (N7075C/JR456) – This aircraft was originally delivered to the US Navy in 1945 as serial 53785. After being registered on the civil register in 1963 it spent some time as an air tanker. It currently wears the markings of Royal Navy MkIII Avenger JR456.
North American B-25J Mitchell (N8163H/44-86747) – Carrying colourful tail markings and the un-missable nose art of ‘Mitch the Witch II’, this Mitchell is oneof the museums main flying aircraft. Every year it takes part in the annual Memorial Day flower drop where over 3000 carnations are dropped from it. It is also a movie star having featured in the movie Pearl Harbor as ‘Ruptured Duck’
Supermarine Spitfire FR14c (NX114BP/NH904) – Another ‘Pearl Harbor’ movie star, this aircraft was once registered in the UK as G-FIRE and flown in a bright red paint scheme. It also served with the Royal Belgian Air Force under the serial SG108 after its brief RAF career. The aircraft now carries the unusual paint scheme of No.80 Squadron of the RAF.
North American P-51D Mustang (N151BP/44-74908) – This aircraft has recently been repainted to reflect that flown by the oldest surviving Tuskegee Airman Lt Bob Friend. Carrying the nose art ‘Bunny’, the aircraft distinctive red tail has also been signed by no less than 12 surviving Tuskegee pilots including Lt Friend himself.
McDonnell Douglas TA-4J Skyhawk (N518TA) – Constructed in 1972, this aircraft was restored to flight in April 2010 after a five year rebuild in which the aircraft was converted to TA-4J standard and as such is a mix of at least two different airframes. Now displayed in US Navy colors, this aircraft is up for sale at the time of writing for $2.95 million.
Douglas C-47B Dakota (N60154/476423) – Another of the museums regular flying aircraft, this was originally delivered into RAF service with 187 Squadron in 1945. Having also seen service with the Belgian, French and Israeli Air Forces, the museum acquired it in 2003 and it now carries the nose art of USAF DC3 44-76423 ‘What’s Up Doc’
Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress (N3509G/44-85778) – This aircraft is one of the museums main exhibits and, for a small $5 donation to the restoration to flight fund, you are able to climb inside for a guided tour of this impressive warbird. Displaying ‘Miss Angela’ nose art this is one of a few very rare opportunities to get up close and personal with a B-17.
Other World War 2 aircraft include a Grumman F7F Tigercat (NX207F), Grumman F8F Bearcat (NL700A), Grumman FM-2 Wildcat (N47201), Curtiss TP-40N Warhawk (NX999CD/44-7084)and a Chance Vought FG-1D Corsair (NX62290) which is the aircraft on which the Disney Planes character ‘Skipper’ was based.
Rotary wing aircraft are represented by a Sikorsky UH-34J Seabat (154895) along with a Vietnam veteran airframe in the shape of a Bell AH-1G Cobra (67-15574). Moving into the jet era, examples extend from the first US jet trainer aircraft – the Lockheed T-33B (N6633D/TR-591) through to more modern examples such as McDonnell Douglas F-4S Phantom (153851), Grumman F-14A (160898) and General Dynamics F-16N (163277). There is also an ex-Czechoslovakian Air Force MiG-21F (1112) complete with ‘Notorious Natasha’ nose art.
Also present at the time of the visit, although now believed to have departed back to Chino, was a Flugwerk replica FW-190A (N190RF). This aircraft had been at the museum for a couple of months and was awaiting its crew to be flown home. With access to the Palm Springs Airport, there is always a chance that something special such as this stops for a short term visit.
Within the two main hangars themselves the lighting conditions, whilst not perfect, are better than some museums however with no external windows all lighting is artificial. At the time of this visit, the majority of aircraft within the Pacific hangar had been relocated outside due to a private event at the museum over the weekend therefore moving around and obtaining shots of the remaining aircraft was relatively easy. Within the European hangar all aircraft were present and due to the number of aircraft and available space they are reasonably tightly packed in meaning that obtaining full shots of some aircraft can be tricky. The third hangar that houses the B-17 is not as well lit and combined with the size of the aircraft means there are few angles from which to shoot.
The museum exhibits outside however are much easier to photograph. The five aircraft on display by the entrance are all spread out and, during the evening, have small floodlights providing some illumination for those wanting to try something a little different. At the back of the museum, the aircraft are slightly closer together however still in good positions and the sun moves around from behind the main building by around midday providing excellent lighting conditions. If, as during this visit, aircraft have been moved outside from the hangars, there are some lovely photos to be had.
The Palm Springs Air Museum has a good variety of aircraft restored to a very high standard. Fans of nose art and attractive paint schemes will fall in love with a large proportion of the aircraft on display whilst the extensive library facility is an excellent facility for those performing research. The volunteers that are present throughout the museum are all very knowledgeable and friendly taking the time to talk through the displays and offering to take photos for visitors in front of the aircraft. This is particularly true of those that support the B-17 including a veteran crew member formerly based in the UK who flew over 30 sorties.
With frequent events held over numerous weekends throughout the year, including flying of some of the collection, this museum is certainly one not to miss out on if you are in the area.