A winter trip to Los Angeles in January left me with a spare day in between meetings. As we’d already done the tourist LA route on the Sunday while we adjusted to time zones, we decided to head out towards Chino and March AFB, home of some collections of aircraft I’d read about for many years. As a geeky kid growing up in the UK in the early seventies, I have memories of Vulcan bombers at high altitude passing overhear, tiny white triangles creating a contrail, so high they were almost out of sight. Aircraft Illustrated was my monthly magazine of choice and I used to read about the Californian airbases and museums and wish I could go there.
January in California is vastly different to the grey skies of the UK. Piercing blue skies are the norm, with temperatures around 23c. The dry climate is perfect for preserving the old alloy of ageing airframes, though the sun takes it’s toll on the paintwork. Stepping from our rental at March AFB Museum, we’re greeted with the piercing note of turbines on take off power as a huge C5 Galaxy angles into the blueness, setting the tone nicely for the main theme of March museum, that of the Cold War era and early jet technology post World War Two.
Pride of place inside the main hall is the sinister Lockheed SR71 Blackbird. Though I’ve seem SR71’s before, it’s setting here in California evokes goosebumps as I read some of the awesome statistics. Once again, I’m reminded that I need to set aside some funds for a copy of Brian Schuhl’s Sled Driver.
Outside in the bright sunlight, I’m quickly reminded of so many of the Cold War era jets from my youth. All designed at a time when military budgets seemed to be limitless, the range of fighter / bombers was something I’d forgotten about with names like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Northrop all here. The display of cold war jets encompassing everything from a T33 right through to Sabre, F15 Eagle and early F14 Tomcat reminds of of the huge range of USAF hardware at that time. Many jets seemed to me to have duplicate roles, with a spares and logistics support that must have been mind boggling. Alongside these were B52, B36 and support aircraft such as KC135 tankers. If, like me, early generation jets are your thing, March AFB Museum is a wonderful place to spend a few hours.
Heading back towards Chino, we dropped in at the Yankee Air Museum. Here, many of the exhibits are airworthy, the giveaway all too often is the small pools of fluids being caught on drip trays as the metals contract after their last flight. It pays to take a walk out back to the ‘boneyard’ area where projects are either being worked on, or are awaiting their turn in the blazing California sunshine. Here we found some really diverse machinery, from an F104 Starfighter to an early Learjet.
Heading back inside, I turned a corner and nodded in acknowledgment at someone passing by. Then stopped and turned after him. “Excuse me. Would I know you from somewhere?”
“Erm, yes you might…”
“Kermit Weeks, right?”
He smiled and held out his hand.
It’s fair to say that Kermit is a living legend in the world of aerobatics and classic aviation. His Fantasy of Flight organisation in Florida has a huge collection encompassing the entire history of aviation and he regularly flies as many of the exhibits as possible, We chat about aviation and why he’s here.
“Have you been to Planes of Fame yet? Steve Hinton’s place is a must see?” We confirm that we’re heading there next.
“He’s just been flying his Northrop wing, you should see it. Have you guys eaten yet?”
“You gotta go to Flo’s. Don’t go to the FBO, that’s just another airport cafe. Flo’s is cool, you should try it.”
It’s apparent that Kermit’s energy and enthusiasm for flight is just as intense as ever. He was genuinely excited at the exhibits and aircraft on display and, like us, his wish is to seem as many kept airworthy as possible.
Flo’s cafe is mid way between Yankee Air Museum and Planes of Fame. It’s what I imagine an American airbase diner would have looked like decades ago with pastel shaded colour scheme and a clientele comprising pilots, engineers and other airport crew. You almost expect to see an old crop dusting pilot sitting in the corner taking in a burger. Kermit’s tip was right, Flo’s is a great little place.
Burger, fries and side salad later, we head to Planes of Fame. Steve Hinton’s collection is aptly named. Walk around the exhibits, there’s a significant number of airworthy aircraft, each one with that important drip tray and many with that aroma of fuel, cooling alloy and oil and testimony to recent flight. If you’re an enthusiast of the action movie genre, you’ll recognise many of the aircraft, famous from every movie from Tora, Tora, Tora to recent James Bond episodes.
The two collections at Chino have to be my favourites. Like Duxford, they are living, breathing collections where the aircraft are still alive. Those that aren’t airworthy are sitting in a long term schedule that will take decades for some, but that far sightedness will ensure that hopefully their turn will come.
It was a little emotional for me to spend the day doing nothing apart from look at old, famous aircraft. These days I seem to be very busy working amongst aircraft and don’t often stop and look around.
As someone brought up in a diet of European aviation history, these museums served as an informative reminder of America’s World War Two conflicts in the Pacific and afterwards in Asia. They’re all located petty close to each other too, so if you have the time to spend, I’d urge you to visit. Walking around, stroking your hand along polished aluminium still warm from flight and breathing in aviation fuel is a pretty cool way to spend the day.