History of Flight Takes Wing at Planes of Fame Air Museum

Patrick Mott is a free-lance writer who contributes frequently to the Times Orange County Edition.

There are two main pursuits in the neighborhood of the Chino Airport: dairy farming and vintage aviation. Unless you're still in the 4-H Club, give the moo-cows a miss one time and check out some of the most magnificent flying machines in the world.

9 to 11: Even if you're only enough of an aviation nut to know the difference between a P-51 and Pee-wee Herman, you'll find the gee-whiz quotient at the Planes of Fame Air Museum at the Chino Airport to be magnificently high, particularly lately.

The museum, an assemblage of appealingly aging hangars and machine shops, houses one of the most extensive and needle-bright collections of aircraft--particularly airworthy aircraft--in the country, according to museum spokesman Bob Reed. Many of the planes in the collection are static displays, technically accurate and scrupulously maintained yet forever ground-bound, but several others are ready to be pushed out and fired up, and frequently are.

We started out with the hangar housing a grouping of mostly World War II-era craft, including a Messerschmitt Me-109 and a handful of Japanese planes, as well as several scale model representations and Japanese wartime artifacts in a display case (the museum's scale model collection is one of the largest in the United States, Reed said).

Farther down the ramp, a second hangar enclosed an even larger display of scale models, as well as the headquarters of Fighter Rebuilders, a shop that restores old war birds to flying status. Along with the models, the museum had assembled an eclectic display of such arcane artifacts as actual instrument panels from planes dating from World War II to Vietnam-era jets.

In the westernmost hangar, those jets made up the predominant, but not the most historically significant, display. The mostly static collection includes such worthies as the first operational jet fighter ever produced, the Messerscmitt Me-262, still sleek and low. Farther along was a P-80A Shooting Star, an F-8 Crusader, an F-11F painted in Navy Blue Angels colors, an F-86 and a pair of Russian MiG fighters, a model 17 and a model 15.

But the prize of that particular hangar, and one of the newest additions to the museum's collection, is a Northrop N9MB Flying Wing. Cobbled together on long weekends over the past 12 years, it is the only flying model of the fabled Wing in existence (the other, a static display, is in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum). It is a twin-engine prototype of the 1940s-era Flying Wing bomber and is the design precursor of the current B-2 Stealth Bomber. Painted a blinding yellow and blue, it is a cleaner-than-clean 60-foot wingspan boomerang and was flown for the first time Nov. 8.

The Wing is only one of several resurrected birds that can still be seen from time to time roaring over the heads of nearby cattle. The museum also houses lovingly tended planes such as three P-51 Mustangs, a B-25 Mitchell bomber, an F4U Corsair fighter, a P-47 Thunderbolt, a P-40 Warhawk (of Flying Tigers fame) and a huge Grumman TBM-3 Avenger, the same type of plane flown in the Pacific by George Bush.

But the place of honor of late goes to a magnificent four-engine C-121A Constellation airliner parked near the front fence. A prominent bit of nose art identifies it as the Bataan, the plane that served as Gen. Douglas MacArthur's airborne command post during the Korean War. Sleek and dolphin-shaped, the Bataan has been restored to the configuration--including all interior amenities in exact reproduction--that MacArthur specified in the early 1950s.

Admission to the museum is $7.95 for adults, $1.95 for juniors under 12 and free for children under 5 when accompanied by an adult. Separate admission to the Bataan tour (currently on Saturdays only) is $3 for adults, $1 for juniors and free for children under 5.

11 to noon: Airports like the one at Chino invariably have wonderful cafes, and Flo's Airport Cafe, a short walk from the museum, is one of the most welcoming. It's the sort of place pilots love: a boxy room with a certain cheerful lack of decor (That bench outside the front door? It's a former church pew.), a short counter for quick bites, tables close enough together to eavesdrop on flying talk (or join in); sunny, motherly waitresses who smile and pamper you, and inexpensive, real food. I ordered a grilled turkey and Swiss on sourdough with a simple green salad for $4.75. Best bets, according to regulars: the chili for lunch and, if you decide to eat before you take the self-guided museum tour in the morning, the ample breakfast plates.

Spend longer than an hour in here and you'll start talking with your hands swooping through the air like a pilot and peppering your conversation with phrases like "ground loop" and "radar profile." You might even want to take a few minutes to visit the gift shop next door (called Over-Flo's--it's where those waiting for a table go on weekends) and browse for an aviation-related gift or two.

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