Many of the museums are located at airports, so you can fly in to visit, except for those at military bases. To visit other sites, such as the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, expect to drive a good distance. The city of Los Angeles is huge, at just over 500 square miles, and Los Angeles County stretches from Long Beach to Edwards Air Force Base. Neighboring towns, such as Chino and Riverside, are still 30 to 50 miles from downtown LA. Plan your route ahead, for flying and driving, to minimize your time in traffic. In these days of COVID-19, check all destinations for their latest opening hours and visiting policies.
Edwards Air Force Base
All pilots should make a trip to the high desert of California, where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, Neil Armstrong piloted the X–15, and space shuttles landed. The Air Force Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base exhibits 41 aircraft and all manner of test flight equipment and memorabilia. It’s open to those with military ID, but if you don’t hold the proper credentials, public tours are scheduled every month. Tours are free, but reservations are required well in advance—they’ll be checking your background. More aircraft are exhibited outside at Blackbird Airpark, on the south side of Palmdale U.S. Air Force Plant 42 Airport.
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum—Simi Valley
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum preserves and exhibits the documents, photographs, and memorabilia of Ronald Reagan, America’s fortieth president. Exhibits recount Reagan’s childhood, his film and political careers, and his family. The presidential exhibit features a replica of the Oval Office and a piece of the Berlin Wall. Pilots will want to visit the Air Force One Pavilion to view the Boeing 707 jet that flew seven presidents from 1973 to 2001, plus a Marine One helicopter. Pay your respects to the “Gipper” at his grave outside.
Planes of Fame Air Museum—Chino
The Planes of Fame Air Museum at Chino Airport was the first aviation museum in the West, established in 1957. Today, it exhibits nearly 100 aircraft, with many in flyable condition. The museum holds a large collection of Japanese aircraft, including the only airworthy Mitsubishi Zero. Each month, the museum hosts a “Flying Day,” which starts with a talk about the day’s featured aircraft, followed by a flight demonstration. The annual Planes of Fame Airshow draws many military aircraft owners, making it one of the largest gatherings of warbirds in the United States. Some of the museum’s flying aircraft include a North American P–51D Mustang, a Lockheed P–38J Lightning, and a Republic P–47G Thunderbolt. The 2021 airshow is scheduled for October 30 and 31.
Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation—Burbank
The Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation is a 75-foot-tall, Spanish/Mission Revival monumental gate at the Pierce Brothers Valhalla Memorial Park in Burbank. The gate was built in 1924 and dedicated in 1953 by aviation enthusiasts as a final resting place and monument to pioneers of flight. One person interred there is Charles Taylor, the mechanic who built the engine for the 1903 Wright Flyer. It also houses a memorial plaque for Amelia Earhart and a monument to the space shuttle accidents. Housed in a corner room is the Burbank Aviation Museum, which displays model airplanes, photos, and memorabilia documenting Burbank’s aviation heritage. The portal can be visited whenever the cemetery is open; the museum is open on the first Sunday of each month from 1 to 3 p.m.
Spruce Goose Flight—Cabrillo Beach
The Spruce Goose, the largest flying boat ever built, made only one flight, with the eccentric, multi-millionaire pilot Howard Hughes at the controls. The aircraft taxied from its mooring at the Port of Los Angeles on November 2, 1947, and made a brief, 26-second flight on Los Angeles harbor, flying toward Cabrillo Beach. The best spot to view the flight site is from Cabrillo Beach or its jetty. Another option is from the Long Beach Cruise Center next to the historic Queen Mary ocean liner, or even from the beach at Long Beach. (Hughes’ successful flight of the Spruce Goose was vividly depicted in Martin Scorsese’s 2004 film The Aviator.)
Torrey Pines Gliderport—La Jolla
Since the 1920s, sailplanes have soared on the ocean breezes above the beachfront cliffs at Torrey Pines Gliderport, 95 miles south of LA and 13 miles north of San Diego. In 1930, Charles and Anne Lindbergh flew here and each earned a glider rating, with Anne becoming the first female glider pilot in the United States. In the 1970s and 1980s, some of the first hang gliders and paragliders flew at Torrey Pines. Today, the gliderport doesn’t launch sailplanes, but does provide training and a flying site for hang gliders, paragliders, and RC model sailplanes.
California Science Center—Los Angeles
To see historic spacecraft in the heart of LA, head to the California Science Center. The California Science Center is located within the historic Exposition Park, which includes the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, site of the 1932 and 1984 Olympics. Among the science exhibits, guests can view a Lockheed A–12 Blackbird spyplane and a capsule from each of the three NASA programs that put humans on the moon. Displayed are a Mercury capsule that carried “Ham the Astro-chimp” on a suborbital flight in 1961, the Gemini 11 spacecraft in which astronauts Dick Gordon and Pete Conrad set a new altitude record in 1966, and the Apollo command module that carried three Americans to a rendezvous with a Russian Soyuz. In a special gallery, visitors can view the Space Shuttle Endeavour, which launched into space 25 times.
March Field Air Museum—Riverside
If you’re the kind of pilot who likes big bombers, you must visit the March Field Air Museum in Riverside. Parked on the flight line are some of America’s largest military aircraft, including the Boeing B–17 Flying Fortress, North American B–25 Mitchell, Boeing B–29 Superfortress, Boeing B–47 Stratojet, and Boeing B–52 Stratofortress bombers, and numerous large cargo jets. The museum is located on the west side of March Air Reserve Base’s runway.
Aviation Museum of Santa Paula—Santa Paula
This museum is actually a group of private hangars called the “Chain of Hangars,” each exhibiting the owner’s personal collection, which may include antique or experimental aircraft, a classic car or motorcycle, model aircraft, and piles of aviation artifacts. The hangars are open to the public on the first Sunday of each month (weather permitting) from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. For pilots, this is a chance to chin wag (as much as you’re able) with other aviation enthusiasts and look at lots of stuff.
Palm Springs Air Museum—Palm Springs
Fly to Palm Springs International Airport to visit this museum that focuses on World War II combat aircraft. Notable airplanes include a Supermarine Spitfire, Curtiss P–40 Warhawk, and a Consolidated PBY Catalina “Flying Boat,” currently under restoration. While there, why not splurge on a flight in one of the museum’s vintage warbirds, such as a North American P–51 Mustang or Lockheed T–33 Shooting Star jet.