The National Museum of World War II Aviation

April 30, 2022 – Colorado Springs, Colorado

The city of Colorado Springs is home to a number of U.S. military installations, including the U.S. Army’s Fort Carson; the U.S. Air Force’s Peterson Air Force Base, Schriever Air Force Base, and Air Force Academy; and the U.S. Space Force’s Cheyenne Mountain Station, Space Command, and Space Operations Command.

I spent some of my early years (1975-1979) growing up just south of Colorado Springs, and it was fun to be able to camp in the Goddard for a week in April a few miles from my childhood home. I’d forgotten how common it was to see people in military fatigues while walking around Colorado Springs: almost 10 percent of the population is active-duty military, and the defense industry is responsible for about 40% of the Pikes Peak region’s economy.

The U.S. military’s strong presence in Colorado Springs makes the city a fine host for the National Museum of World War II Aviation, which opened in 2012. The museum has a collection of 28 aircraft dating from the 1920s through just after World War II, and here’s what makes this collection unique: each of them still flies. Nancy and I have been to plenty of aircraft museums to see hundreds of aircraft, but this was the first one in which all of the aircraft could be taxied to a runway and take off. The airplanes are used in a number of airshows across the country, and therefore must be maintained to be reliable and safe in the air.

The non-profit museum is co-located at the Colorado Springs Airport with a private business called WestPac, which specializes in restoring and maintaining vintage aircraft. Our tour of the museum on April 29, 2022, also included a good look at what WestPac does to restore these beautiful birds and keep them in the air.

North American Aviation T-6 Texan

This T-6 Texan is one of 15,495 of the aircraft built by North American Aviation between 1935 and 1951. The Texan was used as a training aircraft for pilots of the U.S. Army Air Force (which later became the U.S. Air Force) and the U.S. Navy, as well as air forces of the British Commonwealth, during the World War II era and into the 1970s. The T-6, with a cockpit built for the flight instructor and student, has a maximum speed of 208 mph and a range of 730 miles. Because of the number still capable of flight, the Texan makes frequent appearances at modern-day airshows. That’s Pikes Peak (elev. 14,115 feet), which had received some new snow up top a day or two before this photo in late April, above the cockpit.

Waco JYM

That’s our guide for the tour, docent John Lynch, in front of a 1929 Waco JYM airplane. This particular aircraft is known as “The Lindbergh Plane” because Charles Lindbergh, who in May 1927 became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, later flew this airplane to help promote the new industry of airmail service (which had employed Lindbergh before his historic flight). The airplane pictured provided airmail and air taxi service on the nearly 900-mile-long route between Chicago and Minneapolis.

The Waco JYM doesn’t have anything to do directly with World War II but as is the case with all aircraft, its service record helped develop the technology used in later airplanes. The museum is right to be proud of having this airplane in its collection: it’s one of four Waco JYMs produced for Northwest Airways, and this 93-year-old aircraft is the only one still capable of flight (note the pan underneath the engine to catch oil – all of the aircraft in the museum’s collection have those). Mr. Lynch, a U.S. Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, provided a thoroughly educational and entertaining tour; he was able to speak not only about the mechanics required for powered flight from the viewpoint of an engineer, such as wing and propeller design, but also the global developments of World War II from a historical perspective. He’s one of the better docents Nancy and I have had the pleasure of meeting.

Douglas Aircraft Company SBD Dauntless

This is an SBD (for Scout Bomber Douglas – in U.S. Navy nomenclature of the day, the first two words of the acronym describe the function and the last word names the manufacturer) Dauntless; they were originally designed by Northrup but the model was further developed and then introduced by Douglas in 1937. The first flight was in 1940. The Dauntless was a light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft with a maximum speed of 255 mph and a range of 733 miles. It had two .50-caliber forward-facing machine guns and two .30-caliber rear-facing machine guns (which were operated by the gunner/radio and radar operator, who was kept plenty busy in the back of the cockpit). An SBD also carried up to an 2,250-pound bomb load. These were the primary U.S. Navy aircraft in service during the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and a Dauntless was the first airplane to sink an enemy ship in World War II (a Japanese submarine, three days after Pearl Harbor).

I don’t think Nancy nor I were prepared for how big these Navy planes were – I guess we’re just used to primarily seeing, in person at least, fighter aircraft that were used in the European theater of the war. An SPD-5 had a length of 33 feet, wingspan of 41.5 feet, and a height of 13.5 feet, all with an empty weight of 6,400 pounds. Interestingly, the Goddard, the fifth-wheel trailer in which we live, has a length of 35 feet and a height of just over 13 feet, but it has a dry weight of 14,000 pounds — it’s not expected to take to the air, though.

If you’ve seen either version of the movie “Midway” (the 1976 release with Charlton Heston or the 2019 edition starring a number of CGI pixels), the Dauntless is the airplane that gets the most screentime while showing the events of the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. In the latter battle, these aircraft sank or disabled four Japanese aircraft carriers. Also serving in the Battle of Guadalcanal, the Dauntless was, despite its slow speed and relatively light armament, a very hardy and reliable dive bomber. These airplanes sank more enemy ships in the Pacific Ocean than any other World War II bomber. As aeronautic and armament technology increased rapidly during the war, the production of SBDs ceased in 1944.

It was a great experience to see an example of the aircraft that was able to so effectively counterattack the Japanese naval forces during the early weeks and months of the United States’ involvement in World War II. This particular aircraft has an interesting story: it crashed into Lake Michigan in May 1944, during aircraft carrier training exercises, and wasn’t extracted from the lake until the mid-1990s. It has since been restored to be a fully functional flyer, one of only six SBDs in the United States still capable of flight (one-tenth of one percent of the original total of 5,936 produced between 1940 and 1944).

Grumman TBM 3-E Avenger

An unidentified tour participant, who seems to be in a lot of these photos, lends a sense of scale to this TBM Avenger. With a gross weight of 15,500 pounds, this was the heaviest single-engine aircraft of World War II. Grumman built the first Avengers, which originally flew just a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. It was formally introduced in 1942, and Grumman would go on to build almost 2,300 TBFs (torpedo bomber, and the “F” was for “Grumman,” for reason that probably makes sense from a military perspective). Electing to stop building Avengers in 1943 so that it could focus on the production of fighter aircraft, Grumman awarded a contract to General Motors to continue building the torpedo bombers. GM would call its versions TBMs (“M” for “Motors”). In all, Grumman and GM built almost 10,000 Avengers for the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Allied naval and air corps. Note the folding wings, which allowed for more of these aircraft to be carried by … aircraft carriers.

TBF Avengers were not an immediate success story: of six unescorted aircraft that participated in the Battle of Midway in early June 1942, five were shot down and the sixth returned with one crewman dead and the other injured. As the war progressed, however, crews gained invaluable experience (each aircraft had a pilot, a gunner/radio operator, and a bombardier) and the Avenger played a pivotal role in naval operations; the airplanes destroyed two Japanese super-battleships and sank dozens of Japanese submarines in the Pacific and German U-boats in the Atlantic. The TBF/TBM had a maximum speed of 200 mph, with a range of 1,000 miles. It carried one 2,000-pound torpedo or 2,500 pounds of bombs, in addition to three .50 caliber machine guns and one .30 caliber machine gun.

George H.W. Bush, who would later serve as a U.S. President from 1989 to 1993, was shot down by Japanese forces during a September 1944 bombing mission while flying an Avenger. He parachuted from the plane and was picked up offshore by an American submarine.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning

Here’s the first fighter aircraft we saw on the tour: the P-38 Lightning, which was the only truly successful twin-engine fighter seeing action in World War II. It was used primarily in the Pacific theater of the war, where big oceans and dense tree canopies made having redundant propulsion systems desirable. The Lightning was the first fighting aircraft in history to exceed 400 mph, and the only American fighter in production from the beginning of World War II until its end. The Lightning was armed with four .50-caliber machine guns, a .30-caliber machine gun, and four hardpoints for bombs or rockets. P-38s were credited with destroying 1,800 Japanese airplanes in the Pacific during the war. Lockheed made just over 10,000 P-38s during its production.

This particular P-38, like many of the other aircraft in the museum’s collection, has an interesting history – including the deepest combat history of any other airplanes in the museum. Pilot Ken Sparks, on a mission on the last day of 1942, was credited with two aerial victories while flying this airplane. He downed one craft with gunfire, and then inadvertently clipped another with the Lightning’s right wing. The wingtip lost several feet of material, but the aircraft survived while the Japanese craft crashed. Sparks would have 11 more victories in several additional aircraft. This airplane was buried for decades near an airfield in Papua New Guinea, and was restored by WestPac in 2017.

This is another very large airplane, especially for a fighter, which made getting a good photo difficult – it has a wingspan of 52 feet. Empty, it weighs 12,800 pounds – twice the weight of the Douglas SBD Dauntless.

Republic P-47D Razorback

This was an interesting exhibit, located just behind the P-38: it’s the hulk of a P-47D Razorback, which was found in roughly the same condition as the remains of the Lightning. WestPac has plans to restore it, which would likely make it the only flying Republic-built P-47D in the world. It, like the P-38, was buried in the jungle for more than 50 years and gives you an idea of what the WestPac restorers sometimes have to work with.

Republic P-47D Thunderbolt

This is the same model of aircraft as shown in the previous photo, but it has the later bubble canopy that improved the pilots’ abilities to see their surroundings. With eight .50-caliber guns totaling 3,400 rounds, P-47s were the most heavily armed Allied fighters of the war. They were also fully capable as bombers; a Thunderbolt could carry about half the bombing ordinance of a B-17 Flying Fortress. Thunderbolts had a top speed of 433 MPH and a range of 800 miles. About 15,500 P-47s were manufactured during the war years, and their versatility saw them perform in every theater of the conflict. As we were to discover at yet another aircraft museum in a few months, Thunderbolts were built primarily in Evansville, Indiana, in the southeastern corner of the state.

Douglas A-1E Skyraider

This airplane wasn’t discussed much on our tour, but it caught my eye for a couple of reasons: it’s painted in the livery of the South Vietnam Air Force, and it’s positively loaded for bear. The A-1E Skyraider was designed by Douglas during World War II as a aircraft-carrier-based single-seat replacement for the Curtiss Helldiver (see below) and the Grumman Avenger (see above). Prototypes first flew in March 1945, and Douglas Aircraft would go on to build 3,180 of these aircraft. Skyraiders saw a lot of action in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War. An A-1E had four 20mm cannons and up to a dozen rockets. Depending on the mission, a Skyraider – powered by a single Wright 2,800-hp engine – could carry bombing materiel equivalent to that of a four-engine B-17 or B-24: it was tested to carry 10,000 pounds of bombs. While Skyraiders were flown in aerial combat during the Vietnam War by the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, and the South Vietnamese Air Force – two of these aircraft shot down a Soviet MiG jetfighter – the primary mission of the aircraft was to provide air support for ground troops. It was the most accurate bomber of that conflict.

Grumman F3F-2

Our tour continued into the maintenance hanger of WestPac, which was a great experience. Compare this Grumman F3F-2 to the P-47 in a previous photo, and you’ll see how rapidly aeronautics advanced when there was a world war underway. The F3F-2, the last U.S. Navy and Marine biplane fighter, was introduced in 1936 and retired from service in 1941 – before the United States entered the war, and the same year that the P-47 entered service. The F3F-2 had a .30-caliber and a .50-caliber machine gun, but could carry only 700 total rounds of ammunition. It could also carry one 116-pound bomb under each of its lower wings. Its engine is a Wright Cyclone producing 950 horsepower (less than half that of the Thunderbolt’s Pratt & Whitney’s 2,000 hp), and it had a top speed of 264 miles per hour – a little better than half of the P-47’s top speed. It’s a beautiful airplane for its (or any) time, to be sure. but it’s also instructive to see how quickly technology can improve when the conditions couldn’t be more serious. We saw this particular model in WestPac’s service center being readied for its annual inspection so that it could once again take to the skies.

Curtiss SB2C Helldiver

Here’s an aircraft currently under restoration by WestPac, the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver-1A. These airplanes had a troubled beginning, as their heavy weight. as well as issues with control and stability, caused multiple delays after a prototype first flew in December 1940. Curtiss was heavily criticized by the U.S. government for failing to produce combat-ready Helldivers in the first four years after the placement of the order, but the first SB2Cs finally saw combat in November 1943 and performed admirably during the latter period of the conflict – replacing the Douglas Dauntless SBD. Helldivers carried four .50-caliber guns and one .30-caliber gun, in addition to a thousand-pound bomb. Eventually 7,140 of these aircraft were constructed. This particular airplane was used as a trainer and saw action for a short while after World War II. It was later sunk in a lake, but recovered in the 1980s and is now one of WestPac’s restoration projects.
This is the Wright 2600-8 engine of the Helldiver (shown at top left in the preceding photo; the propeller has been removed). The engine produces 1,700 horsepower and takes the aircraft to a maximum speed of 295 MPH and a range of 1,165 miles. I think it shows just much work went into the design of all of these beautiful aircraft so that America could contribute to winning World War II. Moreover, it shows what must go into their ongoing maintenance to make sure that they still fly safely; when we owned a house, I felt proud of myself when I remembered to add oil to the lawnmower.

The National Museum of World War II Aviation is tremendously fascinating. Seeing a range of aircraft developed for both air combat as well as bombing was illuminating. It has fewer aircraft than most aviation museums we’ve seen, but the idea that all of the restored airplanes are still capable of flight really sets the museum’s collection apart. If you’re in the Colorado Springs area, the museum is well worth a visit – the aircraft there are really quite beautiful machines.

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