Take flight to an air and space museum

People with a fondness for airplanes can find a lot to like when they visit Southern California, where there are plenty of opportunities to see historic aircraft up-close and personal. In some cases, they'll see a lot more than just aircraft. If you have someone in your family who is fascinated by the world of flight, here are some great places to visit.


San Diego Air and Space Museum

The San Diego Zoo gets all the press when it comes to activities in the state's southernmost city, but in the same general area — Balboa Park — the San Diego Air and Space museum displays an excellent variety of flying machines that span the ages from the earliest days of flight to the Space Shuttle. Throw in a 4-D theater, flight simulators and fascinating special exhibits and the San Diego Air and Space Museum is definitely worth a visit when you're in the area.

The museum's current headline exhibit is about space aliens. It consists of temporary exhibits set up to take you through a complete examination of why there are likely to be alien life forms existing on other planets and how and why that might be possible, based on our own scientific knowledge. The exhibit takes you through the usual stories about unidentified flying objects and how the media has helped create certain images of what aliens might look like. Then it takes you into the reality of life here on Earth and how unusual creatures have adapted to hostile environments — miles below the ocean surface, for example.

The museum has an impressive collection of vintage aircraft on display, all organized in chronological order, taking you through the early days of flight, then through the world wars and post-war period right up to the space program. From biplanes to jet aircraft, the airplanes are all in mint condition (a few are reproductions) and visitors can really get a sense of what it was like to fly in these old machines.

If you want to know what it's like to fly in a jet fighter, try out the motion simulator that, for $8 a passenger, allows you to take the controls and "fly" around San Diego. The elaborate simulator will turn you and tilt you and will re-create the sensations of flying much more effectively than any computer game at home. We found the simulated gravitational forces we experienced to be amazing.

Another fun part of the museum is the 4-D Zable Theater that features various movies that put you right into the action through 3-D glasses and seats that rumble and tilt and spray you with air and water. It's not exactly on a par with amusement rides at Universal Studios or Disneyland, but it's pretty close — and an unexpected treat.

For more information on the San Diego Air and Space Museum, phone (619) 234-8291 or visit http://www.sandiegoairandspace.org.


USS Midway

Also in San Diego, visitors have a chance to see a naval museum rivaling anything you would see on the East Coast. The museum aboard the USS Midway is a must-see for anyone who wants to tour a historic aircraft carrier. The museum is an impressive visual and historical experience that appeals to all ages.

We found the Midway to offer just the right balance between a structured, orderly display and one that is more individualized to fit each visitor's particular interests and time. As part of the admission price, each visitor is loaned an audio device and headphones so that they can listen to prerecorded explanations of 29 different points of interest in various locations around the ship. But you're totally on your own. You can see these points of interest in any order, or skip some, if you like.

The Midway was the world's largest warship when it was launched in 1945 and remained so for more than a decade. Named for the Battle of Midway, which took place in the South Pacific during World War II, the carrier did not actually see service in that battle, but did serve in combat during the Vietnam War and was one of six carriers sent to fight Iraq during Desert Storm.

Visitors get a good, up-close look at the living and working conditions on board the Midway. Entering on the massive hangar deck, they are first treated to several exhibits offering history on the ship and its aircraft. Doorways open here and there to allow visitors to step into the galley and mess-deck area and into such work areas as the weapons-control station, metal shop and post office.

Originally designed to carry propeller-driven fighter aircraft, the Midway soon was adapted to the jet aircraft that became the mainstay of American naval airpower. The deck was reconfigured and catapults and electronics were upgraded to handle the ship's F/A-18 Hornets, A-6 Intruders and A-7 Corsair II's — up to 68 jet airplanes on any given mission.

Today, visitors will find examples of those aircraft on the flight deck as well as an E-2C Hawkeye and an F-4 Phantom II, one of the workhorses in the Vietnam War. Helicopters and historic propeller-driven aircraft also are on display.

For more information about the U.S.S. Midway San Diego Aircraft Museum, visit http://www.midway.org or phone (619) 544-9600.


March Air Force Base

Travelers along Interstate 215 just south of Riverside probably have noticed the collection of military and vintage aircraft a short distance from the freeway, but those who have not bothered to stop are truly missing something. The March Field Air Museum provides a remarkably detailed look at the history of aviation and, in particular, the use of aviation in modern warfare.

Sprawling alongside the runway at March Air Force Base are more than 60 aircraft of all sizes and shapes, from little single-engine prop planes to the mammoth B-52 bomber. Just a few steps away is the indoor museum that tells the story of how aircraft were first used in warfare and how they have become a vital part of our nation's military power. Thousands of artifacts are on display to bring it all to life.

Visitors are given a map of the museum floor and the aircraft displayed outdoors on the flight line. Rather than just displaying airplanes, the museum has organized a sequential series of exhibits that take visitors through the 20th Century beginning with World War I and the creation of March Field in 1918.

Exhibits depict the base's early history and then move on to the stories of World War II and how March was used extensively during the war for training. Various battles are explained and visitors learn the different types of aircraft and missions undertaken during the war. One exhibit, for example, focuses on the famed Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American pilots that played a vital role during the war.

The progression of exhibits takes the visitor forward to the Korean War, the Vietnam War and, finally, Desert Storm, offering photos, diagrams and artifacts from each period to convey these experiences and the role that air power played in each.

Throughout the museum, the staff has assembled a treasure trove of authentic equipment from each of these eras. Several aircraft are on display in the museum itself, including vintage fighters from both world wars and some of the first jet aircraft ever built. But then step outside and, there on the flight line, is a fleet of airplanes that probably is larger than the air forces of some third-world countries.

For more information, call (951) 697-6600 or visit http://www.marchfield.org.

For more information on travel in California, visit http://www.californiaweekend.com.

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