April 09, 2023

Museum Review - Pima Air & Space Museum

I recently went to Tucson, and finally got a chance to see one of the best air museums in the country. I'd been trying to get to the Pima Air and Space Museum for several years, but various things had thwarted my efforts. Finally, the DSL meetup gave me the chance to see what is probably the best private air museum in the country, and with people to follow me around, too.

A look out over the airplane park at Pima1
Type: Large Air Museum
Location: Tucson, AZ
Rating: 4.8/5, One of the best air museums in the country
Price: $20 for normal adults

Pima is right next to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the place the US military has chosen to keep planes it is not using at the moment, which allows them to have a massive outside collection that most museums couldn't support. You will probably see the rows of planes gleaming in the sun as you drive in, and be struck by the scale of the place. The only air museum that I've been to that felt like this, with cool planes around every corner, was the Air Force Museum in Dayton. Of course, being a mostly-outside museum in Arizona does have its downsides. We were there in mid-March, so it wasn't terribly hot, but it's a lot of walking in dirt with little shade (except when very close to the bombers). If this is a priority destination for you, don't try to go in the summer. And whatever the time of year, make sure you have sunscreen, water, and a hat.

The main hangar at Pima2

You enter the museum through the main hangar, which is a fairly decent air museum all by itself. Highlights include an SR-71, an F-14, an F-4 in Thunderbirds colors, an F-11 in Blue Angels livery, an F-107, a DASH drone and most importantly a B57 nuclear depth charge. There are a number of artifacts. Unless it is the dead of winter, you should ignore all of these for now and head straight for the outside park, because it's only going to get hotter throughout the day. This will dump you out in the middle of the section on land-based Cold War fighters, which has pretty much one of everything from that era, or two if there was a major change in type (for instance, straight-wing and swept wing F-84s). My only critique of this (and of the outside section more broadly) is that the layout often feels rather random. For instance, one row starts out with an A-7, then an F-100, an F-106, an F-102, an F-80, two F-84s and an F-16. This is fine if you're an aviation enthusiast on your own, but at this point, Cassander and I were trying to give an overview of jet fighter development to about 20 people, and it would have been much easier had it been chronological.

Per tradition, I had to hug the B573

But the sheer scale of the outside park covers a lot of problems. There's a big section on naval aircraft which has a few of my particular favorites, a long row of bombers including a B-36 (which is massive and a really neat airplane, despite what Cassander will tell you) and two B-52s, and big sections on helicopters, military transports, VIP planes, AEW and special missions aircraft, water bombers and airliners (including the prototype 787). Most are at least moderately rare, and if you're into airplanes, then it's great fun to get to look at them. My advice is to make sure you bring someone you can talk to, because that makes it much more fun. I had a great audience for this, and I deeply appreciate them. I will say that the signage outside isn't great, usually limited to name, role, and years in service. That's fine if you know planes, but probably wouldn't be great if you didn't. Also, the outside park could really do with a bit of shade that isn't under a wing, and some of the airplanes aren't in great shape. Be sure to drink lots of water.

The B-17 in the hangar

The hangars are generally pretty good, although not as astonishing as the outside park. Three hangars are located to the left as you leave the main hangar, and they have most of the WWII collection. This was good, although I've seen pretty much all of these planes fairly recently. There was the inevitable P-51, but also a Hurricane (and not a Spitfire), a B-24, a B-29, a PB4Y-2, a PBY, and an FM Wildcat they fished out of Lake Michigan after falling off of one of the paddle-wheel carriers. The only exception was a two-seat Okha kamikaze trainer, which I didn't even know existed before I saw it. That was the unexpected highlight of the trip, to go with the excellent and expected B-36. We didn't actually make the last hangar, because we essentially ran out of time. The hangar over by the helicopters is supposed to be their space collection, but for some reason, drones and a rather nice UH-60 are included, along with no actual space hardware that I could see, just replicas. The last hangar is an independent museum for the 390th Heavy Bomb Group. They have only one plane, a B-17, but it's very pretty and there's a lot of interpretive material around it.

The coolest plane they have

This is a great museum. It's not quite to Dayton's level, despite the inclusion of naval aircraft, but it comes close. Try to go when it's reasonably cool out, do the outside parts first, and remember that this is very much an all-day museum. But do go if it's at all convenient.

1 Courtesy of Citizen Austin.

2 Courtesy of Citizen Austin.

3 This and later images courtesy of Garrett.


  1. April 10, 2023cassander said...

    A somewhat different account was written by some of the participants of Bean's visit. Their names have been withheld to protect the innocent. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.

    Half a row, half a row,
    Half a row onward,
    Past endless rows of planes
    Strode the one dozen.
    "Rightward, my nerd brigade!"
    "Queue behind me!” he said."
    Past endless rows of planes
    Walked the one dozen.

    “No! Leftward, nerd brigade!”
    Was there a man who dared?
    Yes, thought the tour guide. Yes:
    Cass has just spoken.
    His is not to make reply,
    His is not to speechify,
    His is but to see and cry.

    Past countless rows of planes
    Trudged the one dozen.

    Lockheed to right of them,
    Grumman to left of them,
    Northrop in front of them,
    Gleaming and numbered;
    “B-36? A mess!
    All fear the Hog’s caress!”
    Brains overflowed with planes:
    Cassander, with finesse,
    Fooled the one dozen

    “Peacemakers weren’t mistakes:
    Bombers made Russia quake!
    Rudel was such a fake…”
    Venting his spleen and bile
    At being harried,
    Pissed at the lies, Bean spoke.
    Let’s see Cassander choke!
    Pompous, though ill-prepared,
    Cass met the verbal stroke—
    Flim-flammed and parried.
    Pedantry scorched the air.
    (Death toll: one dozen.)

    Martin to right of them,
    Curtis to left of them,
    Sukhoi behind them,
    Gleaming and numbered;
    The guide unleashed a boast:
    “You know, I wrote a post…”
    Cass knew his butt was toast.
    Flanked by his precious planes,
    Bean proved he knew the most.
    Smugly, he looked about
    For his one dozen…

    “Those geeks are both insane.
    Who cares that much for planes?”
    To lunch they’d wandered.
    Who cares that much for planes?
    No winner, king, or swain,
    Nor the one dozen!

  2. April 12, 2023The Fatherly One said...

    The F-4 in Thunderbird colors. I saw them perform (maybe using that very plane) at Sprit in St Louis County in the 70's May perhaps even have some pictures from that day. The most impressive portion of the show was the cartridge start. Woof, woof, woof, off they went with all planes started with precise timing and no failures.

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