Pima Air and Space Museum

Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, has a 2600 acre facility on-base that locals call “the Boneyard.” It contains over 4000 obsolete aircraft, lined neatly “row on row” like a military cemetery.  “The Air Force doesn’t like us calling it the Boneyard,” said our tour guide at the Pima Air and Space Museum, across the street from the base. “They want us to call it the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group.” But of course the museum doesn’t because (1) tourists are only going to hear “Aerospace Mainte…” before they tune out and (2) “Boneyard” is so much cooler.

I’d passed the museum (and the Boneyard) hundreds of times – living in Tucson as an undergrad at the University of Arizona and visiting my father, who retired there – but I went in for the first time just a couple of weeks ago.  The museum has 6 large hangers/galleries plus 80 desert acres of planes dating back to World War II.  It was the 80 acres that gave me pause.  I always seem to be in Tucson when its 100 degrees in the shade and I wasn’t willing to fry in the cause of aviation history.  This time, however, I had a temperate early March day and Mr. History Tourist urging me on.  Mr. HT wanted to see a B-17.

The larger and newer aircraft sat outside.  It turned out that the area covered by the planes wasn’t as vast as “80 acres” would imply and could easily have been walked (an option), but we opted for their shuttle tour.  The tour is about an hour long and you’d think that I’d balk at being lectured about planes for that long, but I actually loved the tour and the hour flew by.  The guide told “backstairs” stories about the planes that don’t appear on their sparsely worded exhibit labels. After the tour, we walked back to the planes that we wanted to see closer up.

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They have two planes that were used by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as Air Force Ones.  They’re smaller than the Boeing 747s that usually carry the President and were used when there wasn’t landing space for a larger plane.  Johnson called the smaller one “Air Force One-Half.”  They’re both on loan (as many of the museum’s planes seem to be) from the Air Force Museum.  The part that broke my heart: they used to be allowed to give interior tours of the larger one but the Air Force decided that it was causing too much wear and tear and stopped it.

The hangers contained smaller and older planes. There was one hanger for WWII Pacific planes and one for WWII Europe.  My favorite story came from the Pacific:

Lt. Louis E. Curdes was flying his P-51 Mustang, Bad Angel, over Japanese-held Batan Island in 1945 when he noticed a Douglas C-47 transport with American markings heading toward Batan. As it got closer to the island, it started lowing its landing gear.  Curdes figured that it was an American plane that either had fallen into Japanese hands, or would fall into Japanese hands as soon as it landed on the island.  Either way, he couldn’t let it land, so he he shot it down.  But he shot it down carefully, first one engine then, as it began to lose altitude, the other.  It glided into the water.

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It turned out that it was still in American hands. The pilot had taken off from the Philippines, gotten lost, and was running out of fuel when he spotted the landing strip on Batan. If Curdes had not shot it down, the plane and its occupants would have been captured by the Japanese.  As it was, the 13 on board were rescued and Curdes received his Distinguished Flying Cross — the only one ever given for shooting down friendly aircraft — not long after.


Mr. HT’s B-17 was in the 390th Memorial Museum, dedicated to the 390th bomb group that flew missions over Europe and lost 714 men.  Technically, it’s an independent museum that just happens to be on the grounds of the Pima Air Museum.  Its literature says that I’ll Be Around is the only fully restored B-17 in America.  There’s also a hanger dedicated to the space program, which we skipped (because it was getting late and we had to be elsewhere).  The space hanger had simulators to ride, included in the price of admission, which probably would attract children.

We were there for 4 hours, which I would say is the minimum you need to do it justice.  Some other points:

– They run a bus tour of the Boneyard.  That requires an entirely separate process, including a separate ticket and some security hoops to jump through, since it requires access to a military base.

-We loved their café. It served lunch basics – soup, sandwiches, salads – but what we had were of an impressive quality.

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-The facility is entirely dog friend.  They even let the dogs into the indoor exhibits. Other than the Wild Pony Museum in Corolla, North Carolina, it’s the only museum that I’ve run across that allows it.

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6 Responses to Pima Air and Space Museum

  1. I keep meaning to visit a RAF museum near me, I think I will get on with it now!

  2. Jeff Smith says:

    My wife and I visited there last spring on a trip around the US by car. As a prior career US navy pilot it was sad to see examples of all the planes I flew….lots of memories, but HT you are correct…it IS a boneyard, nothing catchy about the official Air Force title “Aerospace Maint…blah blah blah”! Definitely a tour for all of your readers to go to as you don’t need to even like aviation to enjoy it, but just to see the history and magnitude of it all!

    • Planes aren’t at the top of my interest list, but I must say that I have loved both the aviation museums (this one and the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, Virginia) that I’ve visited. The history is fascinating — so much more to it than engineering — and both these museums did a terrific job presenting it. The only thing I felt bad about were all those planes at the Pima Museum, left out in the heat. I suppose it’s impossible to house all of them inside and the dry heat isn’t as bad for them as one would think (I hear that’s why the Air Force stores its aircraft in the Boneyard — it’s a dry heat).

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

  3. Interesting! I’ve heard of this museum but haven’t made it around to visiting. I do wonder about their claim that it is the only fully restored B-17 in America though. I know the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon (home of the Spruce Goose) has one, and you are able to tour the inside of it on certain days (fantastic experience). If you are ever in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, it is worth a visit – Mr. HT would love it. And the wine is excellent too! Here’s a post from Evergreen about the story of their B-17 – I love the part about how they acquired their nose turret. http://evergreenmuseum.org/evergreen%E2%80%99s-mystery-lady/

    I thought the Kalamazoo AirZoo museum had a B-17 as well, but I’m not sure on that one.

    • I wondered about the “only fully restored B-17” claim too. I know that the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum has one, but I’m not sure what constitutes “fully restored.”

      We have every intention of getting to the Pacific northwest soon. I’ve only ever been to Seattle, so want to see the rest. Will put the Evergreen Aviation Museum on our list. Thanks.

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