March 4, 2022 – Tucson, Arizona
Until 1947, the U.S. Air Force was a component of the U.S. Army (during World War II the branch was known as the United States Army Air Forces). In 1966, during a celebration of the anniversary of the establishment of the U.S. Air Force, military commanders in the Tucson area realized that many of the historic World War II- and 1950s-era aircraft stored on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base were being lost – as was much of U.S. military history. Airplane parts were being sent to smelters so their metal could be used in modern aircraft production. Base officials began to set aside examples of the aircraft along the base’s fenced perimeter so that the public could see them. Although the practice saved many aircraft from the smelter, this wasn’t an ideal solution. The Tucson Air Museum Foundation of Pima County was formed that year, and the foundation found a 320-acre site of BLM land just south of the Air Force base. The foundation’s first aircraft acquisition was a B-24 Liberator. Many years (and hanger constructions and aircraft acquisitions and hanger expansions) later, the Pima Air & Space Museum is the country’s largest non-government-funded aviation museum. The museum has more than 100 civilian, military, and experimental aircraft in its four indoor hangers (totaling a quarter-million square feet) alone, as well as many more parked on the grounds outside for a total of about 400 aircraft.
This overhead shot of the Pima Air & Space Museum shows the extent of the museum’s collection [for a sense of scale, the two large gray aircraft next to each other on the left side are B-52 Stratofortresses (Stratofortressi?); they each have wingspans of 185 feet]. The four hangars open to the public are at the top of the photo (courtesy of the Pima Air & Space Museum).
Recognizing that its collection is large and takes aircraft enthusiasts a lot of time to visit, the museum smartly offers a two-day pass that Nancy and I took advantage of. Because March 4 was pretty breezy, we opted to spend that day looking at the aircraft inside the hangers. I’ll share just a few of the ones that I enjoyed viewing, listed in order of their year of introduction.
Introduced in 1939, the Curtiss P-40E-1 Warhawk was heavily used by not just the U.S. Army Air Force, but also the Royal Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the Royal Australian Air Force during action in World War II. With a production number of 13,378 aircraft, it was the third-most produced American fighter of the war following the P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt. The Warhawk lacked a dual-speed supercharger and therefore couldn’t compete in high-altitude combat against the Luftwaffe’s fighters in Europe. It did, however, perform admirably in the theaters of North Africa, the Southwest Pacific, and China. The Warhawk had a top speed of 334 mph.
It was a tremendous pleasure to stand next to this aircraft, one of my favorites of all time. This is the Supermarine Spitfire Fr. XIVe. The Spitfire is recognized as the best British-made fighter of World War II. Along with the Hawker Hurricane, this is the aircraft (or rather, an earlier version of it) that defended London and its environs during the Battle of Britain (July-October 1940). Although more Hurricanes were involved with the battle, the Spitfire’s higher performance gave it a higher victory-to-loss ratio. The aircraft’s design was modified constantly during the course of the war, improving performance through engine changes, wing design, and other alterations. From an aesthetics standpoint I actually prefer earlier versions of the Spitfire in which the fuselage extends to the tail, but the bubble canopy afforded pilots much-improved views. That’s a Rolls-Royce Griffon 65 engine near the left wing, the same V-12 liquid-cooled model that would have been used in this model of Spitfire (earlier models used the Rolls Royce Merlin engine). The Griffon saw widespread use beginning in 1941 and remained in production until 1955. It had a rating output of 1,730-2,420 horsepower. In order to accommodate the Griffon engine, the Spitfire’s nose had to be redesigned and the propeller went from three blades to five. With the Griffon engine, the Mark XIV had a top speed of 446 mph – 20 percent faster than the first production models. Nancy and I appreciated that many of the aircraft on display at the museum had a representative corresponding engine next to them. The last Spitfires were retired from active duty in 1961, but about 70 (out of 20,351 produced) of the aircraft remain airworthy.
The Consolidated B-24 Liberator, introduced in 1941, was used by every branch of the U.S. military in every theater of the war. About 18,500 Liberators were made, including 8,685 by the Ford Motor Company at its Willow Run manufacturing plant near Belleville, Michigan (incidentally, we have camping plans at a campground near the site of that plant in August). The B-24 was the world’s most-produced bomber, multi-engine aircraft, and American military craft in history. The B-24 had a cruising speed of 215 mph (maximum speed of 297 mph) and a range of 1,540 miles. American technological advances by the end of the war (including the development of the B-29 Superfortress, which had a range nearly three times that of the Liberator) made the B-24 obsolete. The fellow in the blue vest at lower right is a docent for the Pima Air & Space Museum; although he’s not a World War II veteran, he had a lot of interesting information to share about the B-24. The youngest of America’s World War II veterans were born around 1927. My family has an interesting history with the B-24: one of my mom’s uncles and one of my dad’s uncles were best friends at McPherson College in McPherson, Kansas, and flew the Liberator from North Africa together, about 25 years before my parents met.
Here’s another one of my favorites: the North American P-51 Mustang. Before the United States’ official entry into World War II, British military authorities had approached North American to build P-40 Warhawks but the company decided instead to build a more modern aircraft of its own design. A prototype of the P-51 was rolled out about three months after the contract was signed, and the Royal Air Force was flying Mustangs in January 1942. The first Mustangs were underpowered compared to other contemporary fighters, but that problem was rectified when the P-51s were fitted with Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. This P-51D had six .50 caliber machine guns rather than the four in earlier versions and could reach an airspeed of 437 mph. More than 15,000 P-51s were built; the last Mustang left U.S. military service in 1957 and the last Mustang left other forces (the Dominican Republic Air Force) in 1984. Nearly 100 Mustangs in private ownership are still flying.
The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was introduced in 1944, toward the end of World War II, but it certainly left its mark. B-29s carried more bombs, higher, farther, and faster than any other bomber. Superfortresses had a maximum speed of 358 mph, a range of 4,100 miles, and a service ceiling of nearly 32,000 feet. Over 3,000 B-29s were built and many continued to serve not only as bombers, but as reconnaissance planes and fuel tankers, into the early 1950s.This particular Superfortress, serial number 44-70016, served with the 330th Bomb Group and flew a total of 32 combat missions over Japan. It was retired in 1959.
While most of the Pima Air & Space Museum’s collection is devoted to military aircraft, there are plenty of civilian airplanes on display as well – including some suspended from the ceilings of its hangers. This is a Taylorcraft BC-12D, introduced in 1945. It has a maximum speed of 105 mph. My dad, Steve Goering, became a licensed pilot as a young man and has since flown quite a few different fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. A number of years ago he flew a Taylorcraft BC-12 belonging to a family friend. That’s a Hughes OH-6 Cayuse, a helicopter introduced in 1963, behind the Taylorcraft – Dad flew one of those when he first went to Vietnam as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot during his in-country orientation flight in the late 1960s.
The North American F-86 Sabre was the best known aircraft of the United States’ first jet fighters. Design work began as World War II was ending in 1945, and the first prototype flew in August 1947. It was the first swept-wing jet fighter to enter American service, and, in a dive, exceeded Mach 1 – another first for an American aircraft. Sabres had a top level speed of 599 mph, and made their name during the Korean War. Eventually, 25 different countries would use Sabres in their armed forces. This particular model, an F-86E, was delivered to the U.S. Air Force in April 1951. It was first assigned to Japan and then transferred to Korea for the remainder of that war. It was retired in 1959.
The Grumman F-9F Cougar was originally envisioned to simply be a swept-wing version of the F-9F Panther, one of the first carrier-based fighters in the U.S. Navy, but despite retaining the F-9 designation it was a different aircraft altogether. The new design gave the Navy an aircraft capable of competing with the Soviet Union’s swept-wing MiG-15 aircraft, which was very effective in the skies over Korea. Grumman delivered the first F-9F Cougars in December 1952. This aircraft, an F9F-8P photo reconnaissance model, had a top level speed of 637 mph – still subsonic, but fast enough to compare with the MiG-15. In 1954, a U.S. Navy pilot set the transcontinental crossing speed record in a Cougar, completing the 2,438-mile flight in just over 3 hours and 45 minutes – it was the first time that the distance had been covered in less than 4 hours. Grumman produced almost 2,000 F-9F Cougars; the last Cougar was retired in 1974.
Introduced in 1958, the Bell UH-1 Iroquois is perhaps the most-recognized helicopter in the world. Versions of the Huey (the nickname is derived from the original U.S. Army designation of HU-1, and it’s certainly better known than “Iroquois”) remain in both military and civilian service today. More than 16,000 Hueys have been built since its introduction. Each branch of the U.S. military had its own version of the Iroquois by the mid-1960s, and the helicopter is perhaps best known for its use by the U.S. Army in Vietnam as a gunship, as well as cargo transport, medical evacuation, search and rescue, and other operations. The Army used 7,000 Hueys during its operations in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. The first Iroquois had a maximum speed of 127 mph and its various armaments included 7.62mm machine guns and 70mm rocket pods. My dad flew UH-1s as an Army instructor at Fort Rucker, Alabama, where he was an instructor; as well as in operations at Wertheim Army Airfield, West Germany; and at Fort Carson, Colorado. The particular UH-1 shown is from the 174th Assault Helicopter Company, deployed at Duc Pho in Quang Ngai Province from 1967-1970. The 174th was a sister unit of my dad’s F Troop, 8th Cavalry Regiment at Chu Lai, about 40 miles from the 174th. While at the museum I saw a few men my dad’s age walking slowly around this Huey – their memories were their own, but they were almost palpable.
This exhibit shows a variety of memorabilia from Vietnam-era helicopter operations. The U.S. Army Air Cavalry reintroduced the Stetson hat (to the left of the shirt) during the Vietnam War, and the Stetson hat is still worn during the Air Cavalry’s military ceremonies. The hats were originally worn beginning in the 1870s by U.S. Cavalry soldiers. The helmet, at right of the shirt, is a Gentex APH-5A worn by U.S. Army flight crew. The flashlight below the helmet is an Army-issued angle-head model. That’s a model of the Sikorsky CH-54 Tarhe helicopter to the left of the flashlight, along with a model of a mobile field hospital. In the center is a U.S. Army M60D 7.62mm machine gun, as mounted on U.S. Army helicopters. This display brought back a lot of memories for me (well, not so much the M60, but the shirt, helmet, and flashlight certainly did).
The neat thing about a lot of aircraft museums is the range of technology on display. The first aircraft you see when entering the main hanger is a reproduction of a Wright Flyer, which the Wright brothers flew a few feet above the North Carolina sand dunes in 1903 with a top speed of 30 mph. Then there’s this Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, introduced in 1966 and with a top speed of 2,200 mph and a service ceiling of 16 miles above the Earth. Sixty-three years isn’t that much time, but look how far aviation advanced in that period. We’d put men on the moon and bring them back to Earth 66 years after the Wright Flyer took off. The Blackbird could fly across the transcontinental United States in a little over an hour – it took the F-9F Cougar 3 hours and 45 minutes to do that only 12 years earlier. I haven’t asked Dad, but I’m pretty sure that he has no hours flying the Blackbird; even if he did, he probably couldn’t tell me.
Here’s an aircraft that my dad did fly. The Bell AH-1 Cobra was originally conceived as a private venture, but Bell shifted its production of the helicopter to support wartime efforts in Vietnam and the Cobra was in the air over Vietnam by 1966. Although it doesn’t look much like the Iroquois, the Cobra and UH-1 have more than 80 percent of their parts in common. The Cobra has a top level speed of 141 mph, and was originally armed with two 7.62mm multi-barrel Miniguns or two 50mm grenade launchers, or one of both, along with either 7 or 19 70mm rockets, depending on the model of rocket launcher. Both the U.S. Army and Marine Corps continue to use modernized versions of the Cobra in their operations. This Bell AH-1S Cobra is close to the AH-1G my dad flew in Vietnam; the AH-1G is the original production model, and the AH-1S has an upgraded engine to the AH-1G.
Even if it represents a smaller percentage of its total collection, the aircraft inside the hangers of the Pima Air & Space Museum are truly impressive. They’re historic, they’re beautiful, and some of them are terrifyingly efficient at what they were designed to do. There were dozens of other aircraft that I didn’t include in this posting: a McDonnell FH-1 Phantom, a Grumman F-14 Tomcat, a Hawker Hurricane, a Grumman F-11 Tiger, a Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt … the list of aircraft just under a roof at this museum is incredible. Seeing a Huey up-close again, as well as other aircraft that my dad has flown, was really rewarding. Here’s a fun fact: my birth in June 1969 was induced a few days early so Dad could see me before leaving for Vietnam. I was born in McPherson, Kansas, where my two great-uncles (the B-24 Liberator crewmen) were friends a quarter-century before I was born.
In another post, we’ll return to the Pima Air & Space Museum and take a look at the aircraft outside the hangers (some of which my dad has also flown).