Today I visited the main attraction for me in Tucson, the Pima Air and Space Museum. While the “boneyard” tour is no longer available, what I saw here far surpassed my expectations. This is truly one of the best aviation museums I’ve ever seen. I could go on and on about all the great stuff I saw, but I’ll try to stick to the highlights here.
One way this museum differs from most others is that, with a few exceptions, there are no ropes or barriers separating you from the aircraft. In most cases, you can walk up close and peek around them. Here, I’m sitting inside a Boeing 720 (a smaller derivative of the 707) simulator. I recognized the basic controls and instruments, but when I tried to figure out the wall of gauges in the center my eyes glazed over. I’m sure they all mean something, and I have a lot of respect for the pilots who knew how to make these planes work.
There’s a great display of the SR-71 Blackbird, its CIA versions, and the various accessories that went with it. I got a better view of the one at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, but these are still super cool planes and the fastest that ever flew with the exception of rocket planes like the X-15.
There are several hangars full of displays, but in my opinion, the outside is where it’s at. Countless airplanes and helicopters of all types are just sitting there, like the Blue Angel F/A-18 on the right. Once again, there are no barriers. You can walk right up to them, around them, and even touch them.
What you see here is just a tiny part of everything they have on display. There’s an hourly tram tour of the facility, which seemed like a great way to get to know the place and figure out what I wanted to walk back and see later.
It’s not just about military aircraft here. The Lockheed Constellation on the left is still painted in TWA colors, though like most of these planes, it’s faded a bit in the desert sun. Not far away is another Constellation, the original Columbine that Eisenhower used while he was President. I remember seeing Columbine II at the Air Force Museum in Ohio.
This is one of the first Boeing 787 Dreamliners ever made. It was used for testing and certification, then donated to the museum. Pictures don’t show just how huge this plane is, so here I am standing in front of one of the engines. How often do you get to do that? Of course, I wouldn’t want to be standing anywhere near here if the engine was starting up.
That’s a B-36 Peacemaker. It’s even bigger than a B-52! (You can tell because two of them are parked next to it.) It has six turboprop engines AND four jet engines. I took this picture from most of the way across the museum, just to fit the whole thing into a picture.
This is a VC-137, which is the military designation for the Boeing 707s converted into Air Force One. This one served President Kennedy and Johnson. Without the Presidential callsign, this exact plane flew the Iranian hostages back to the US in 1981. On this flight, they called it Freedom One instead.
I’ve seen this funny-looking plane, called the Super Guppy, in space documentaries. NASA built it to fly assembled spacecraft around the country. Apollo command modules, lunar modules, and rockets all flew in here. This particular one even transported the Hubble Space Telescope.
Speaking of NASA, though it’s not officially on display yet, it’s impossible to hide SOFIA, a highly modified Boeing 747SP (note the shorter body) that carried a powerful telescope above most of the atmosphere. A special door just in front of the tail opens on the left side of the plane to expose the telescope. You can see the rails that guide the door into the open position here.
You can’t go inside most of the aircraft, but one exception is this B-17 Flying Fortress. You can stick your head up into the bomb bay, climb a ladder to look into the cockpit, and duck into some of the other gunner positions from the outside. I’ve only ever had this experience once before, in a B-24 Liberator at the Canadian Air and Space Museum in Ottawa. This look inside the more well-known B-17 was even better.
I’ve seen B-29s before, including the two that dropped atomic bombs on Japan, but never had the chance to look inside one until now. Both bomb bays were open to look inside. The metal tube at the top is the pressurized tunnel that people could crawl through to get from the front to the back of the plane. It’s cramped, but downright luxurious compared to the B-17, which wasn’t pressurized at all.
There’s so much more I could show, but this is already a long post. If you’re interested in planes, and anywhere near Tucson, Arizona, definitely come check out the Pima Air and Space Museum. Even without the boneyard tour, it’s among the best aviation museums in the country, and the only one where I’ve had this much access to the planes.
Hi Justin, yes, this is just another one of the things that we should have done in Arizona last year. We passed the area several times, but other things seemed more pressing at the time. But it REALLY looks exciting. Some of your detail is quite absorbing.
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Thanks! I’d go back there again. There’s so much to see that I know I didn’t see everything, and I spent most of the day there.