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
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
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
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
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
Republic P-47D Thunderbolt
Douglas A-1E Skyraider
Curtiss SB2C Helldiver
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.
We’ve found that many museums and other attractions in the southwest allow visitors to bring their dogs along. That policy is probably, at least in part, so that people don’t leave their dogs in their cars. For whatever reason it is, we’re good with it.
Gunther was able to join us on the second of our two visits to the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson. The exhibits that we saw on March 6 were all outside. It was a lovely day and there happened to be an airshow training program taking place at a nearby airfield, so we saw plenty of planes on the ground and in the air. As I wrote in the posting about our first day’s visit, there are hundreds of airplanes on the grounds of the museum, and taking them all in, even with a two-day pass, is a lot to handle.
There are about 400 aircraft at the Pima Air & Space Museum, inside hangers and outside on the ground, and each of them has an interesting story to tell. I wanted to limit the number of photos in this posting to 10 or 12, but couldn’t decide what to exclude. I didn’t include photos of the EWACs (early warning and control) airplanes like the Grumman E-1 Tracer that flew over Europe during the Cold War, or the bombers like the couple of Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses on display. Even with the two-day pass, we could have spent a lot more time looking at these airplanes and learning about their place in history.
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.
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.
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).
We visited the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque. It’s a museum that had formerly been located on Kirtland Air Force Base, southeast of Albuquerque, but closed on Sept. 11, 2001, and then temporarily relocated to Old Town Albuquerque before opening in a new facility in 2009. It’s a very impressive museum, with many historical exhibits, plenty of room for traveling exhibits, and a great collection of World War II- and Cold War-era aircraft and missiles.
The museum starts with a historical survey of nuclear research, paying homage to the men and women who discovered the incredible power – for constructive as well as destructive purposes – of splitting an atom. There’s a good bit of exhibit space devoted to the United States’ development of the first atomic bomb, including artifacts from the U.S. Army facilities in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the materiel for the test and actual bombs was created. A short film describing the training of the crews of the Enola Gay and Bockscar, the B-29s that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was really interesting; it had interviews with many of the members of the Enola Gay crew (conducted some years ago) in which they said they viewed the operations as helping to bring a quicker end to hostilities in the Pacific. In the summer of 1945, everyone in the United States and the country’s allies wanted the war to end.
It’s not easy, but I think it’s necessary, to learn about all of the destruction caused by these atomic weapons. I was moved to see the atomic bomb replicas, realizing that the actual weapons killed many tens of thousands of civilians but also ended a war that Japan was willing to continue with perhaps many more casualties than even Little Boy and Fat Man caused. The idea of an Allied invasion of Japan’s islands, similar to the D-Day invasion of Europe, had, frankly, never even occurred to me – I had never thought about the fact that there had been plans to invade Japan that were developed because of the necessity to keep the Manhattan Project under wraps even to the majority of the U.S. military. Because Japan was running low on military resources, it’s easy to surmise that the planned invasion would have gone the way of the Allies, just as it’s easy to see the victory would have come at a horrific human cost as well.
This is one of the reasons we enjoy going to museums, I think: the information they display fill in a lot of gaps in knowledge that I didn’t even know we had.
The museum had many Cold War-era artifacts inside its building, including disarmed nuclear missiles (some large, some small) that were placed in readiness in Europe in the years following World War II.
“Writing a Wrong”
There was also a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution that examined the history of the incarceration of Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1945. “Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II” displayed many artifacts from some of the 10 incarceration camps and many more smaller facilities in which 75,000 Japanese Americans were detained from March 1942 to March 1946. The families had to sell nearly everything they owned in their households and businesses, and carried only what they could take with them to the camps. Some decades later, the U.S. Congress recognized that the civil rights of these people had been violated and President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which formally apologized, and made restitution, to those who had been incarcerated. Some of the camps, which were all west of the Mississippi River, have been developed into U.S. national historic sites, and I believe an effort is underway to get Camp Amache, which was located in far southeastern Colorado near the Kansas border, national historic site status as well. I don’t remember when I first learned about the incarceration camps, but I do know it was well after I’d graduated from high school. It’s a dark period in American history, to me, and I think it needs all of the light that can possibly be shone on it.
World War II and Cold War Aircraft
The exterior grounds of the Nuclear Museum feature seven aircraft developed to deliver nuclear devices (or protect those that did), the sail from the nuclear submarine James K. Polk, and a large variety of disarmed nuclear missiles and rockets. I thought it was interesting that many of these photos have contrails in their backgrounds from aircraft originating from Kirtland Air Force Base.
A B-29 Superfortress, which was the model of bomber used to drop nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. A replica of the 100-foot tower used to test “The Gadget” at the Trinity test site in New Mexico (see above) is at left.
I was very happy to see examples of two of my favorite Cold War-era aircraft: the F-105 Thunderchief and the Soviet MiG-21 (they’re my favorites for no better reason than I just think they look awfully darned cool).
Much of the museum is devoted to the social impacts of living in a world protected and powered, and threatened by, nuclear power: bomb shelters, advances in nuclear medicine, and nuclear power as a source of sustainable energy.
We spent about four hours at the museum, and they were well spent. I learned much more about subjects and events that I was at least aware of, and I learned plenty more about events I knew nothing about. We talked a lot about the enormous amount of money spent on all of these weapons, and of the lives lost in combat as well as in maintaining them, but we recognize and appreciate that they were built to ensure that Little Boy and Fat Man have been the only nuclear weapons used in war.