By K.D. LEPERI
In a lonely stretch of desiccated Sonoran Desert lies the ghosts of many an aircraft. Their ages and missions vary and some relics are in better shape than others. However, whether reciprocating engine, propeller, or jet powered, all have a wonderful backstory.
Located in Tucson, Arizona, The Pima Air & Space Museum is the resting grounds for one of the largest and best collections of aircraft in the United States. From a Wright Flyer to a contemporary Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the museum’s aircraft inventory is both rare and diverse.
Situated on 80 acres, visitors can revel in an eclectic assemblage of more than 300 historical military, commercial, and civilian aircraft from around the globe.
Aircraft aficionados come here because of one-of-a-kind historical aircraft that can be viewed up-close. Many even do annual pilgrimages to honor their aviation connections.
Some come to check out the SR-71A Blackbird — a stealth aircraft surrounded with mystique.
They also come to see six indoor exhibit hangars with three dedicated exclusively to World War II. The latest to open is Hangar 5, devoted to World War II and Pacific Theater aircraft. Look for the PB4Y Privateer and a Ki-43 Oscar.
Admission to the museum is $15.50 for adults and includes docent-led walking tours and free parking. Ground Tram Tours are available daily for an additional $6 a person. Note that because tours can frequently sell out during the busy season, it is recommended you come early to purchase your ticket so as not to be disappointed.
Plan on taking a lunch break at the museum’s restaurant Flight Grill, open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Be sure to save a seat on the patio where you can watch aircraft takeoff and land at the adjacent Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base houses the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), the largest aircraft storage and preservation facility in the world. This is where the famous “Boneyard” lies, also known as the “Graveyard of Planes.”
Since the only way to tour the 2,600-acre aircraft boneyard is by signing up for bus tours that leave the Pima Air museum several times daily, it is best to get there early. Current ticket price is $7 and requires a government-issued photo ID for all individuals 16 and older. Tours are given Monday through Friday, except for federal holidays.
The museum opened in May 1976 with a small inventory of about 50 aircraft, helicopters, and missiles. Today, it is booming with annual attendance around 190,000 a year and another 55,000 at a companion museum in nearby Green Valley, the Titan Missile Museum.
Together, The Pima Museum, which also houses the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Titan Missile Museum are overseen by the Arizona Aerospace Foundation, a non-profit organization. This makes them one of the largest non-government funded aviation and space museums in the world.
The museum has come far since its initial opening.
“It is hard to believe that it has been 40 years since the Pima Air & Space Museum opened for business…the early years were really touch and go for the organization,” said Executive Director Scott Marchand. “We still have some over the horizon plans to take on our most ambitious building project yet – a 150,000-square-foot display hangar for some of our largest and more special aircraft of the jet age.”
For those planning to fly in, Tucson International Airport services Southern Arizona, and is the easiest gateway for general aviation.
The air traffic control tower operates 24/7 all year and is a designated U.S. Port of Entry with 24-hour U.S. Customs and Border Protection services.
Nearby in Marana, 15 nautical miles northwest of Tucson and five miles west of Interstate 10 on Avra Valley Road, is the Marana Regional Airport (KAVQ). It operates as a general aviation reliever airport for Tucson International Airport. Tucson Aeroservice Center is the airport’s FBO. The airport runways include the main runway at 6,901 feet, while the crosswind runway is 3,892 feet.
For great entertainment and food for the entire family, try Home Plate Marana where a children’s menu and seven outdoor batting cages guarantee a fun outing.
Extend your fly-in by several days (or even a long weekend) with visits to Tucson’s other attractions. Old Tucson is only 15 minutes away and features six shooters and a preserved western frontier town. At the base of the Tucson Mountains, more than 300 movies and television shows have been filmed here.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is one of my favorites. It is a combination of a zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden all wrapped up in one location. With 300 animal species and 1,200 kinds of plants, there is much to see. Time your visit to include the Raptor Free Flight — one of the best shows anywhere. Be sure to bring your camera.
Plan on visiting Saguaro National Park to see the rare Saguaro cactus that only grows in certain parts of the Sonoran Desert, usually below 4,000 feet and generally where it is frost-free. The park has two geographically distinct districts with more than 165 miles of hiking trails. Look for 800-year-old petroglyphs in the Tucson Mountain District (West) by walking the Signal Hill Trail.
In the Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park you might even find signs of seven fatal airplane crashes that occurred over the years. Most have been salvaged and some are on display at the Pima Air & Space Museum.