By SANDI HEMMERLEIN – In modern times, we’ve been a bit spoiled when it comes to travel. We don’t have to sail a ship to go to Hawaii. We don’t have to traverse the continent by wagon. We don’t even have to drive our cars relatively short distances (to, say, Vegas or Mammoth).
And it’s all thanks to the pervasiveness of air travel.
Southern California has played an important part in aviation history – from manufacturing (Hughes, Douglas, Lockheed) to recreational flying to piloting to defend our country. So, it’s no wonder that we still have so many active airfields and air museums devoted to the great beasts that have sailed our skies.
Here are six places where you can picture yourself in the pilot’s seat, sit in a cockpit, and even take flight – just like the great airmen and airwomen of SoCal once did during The Golden Age of Aviation (and beyond).
1. Flight Path Learning Center & Museum, LAX
While some planespotters sit and watch the commercial jets fly in and out of LAX from El Segundo, the never-built runways of Surfridge, or Dockweiler State Beach (now that The Proud Bird Restaurant is closed for renovation until next year), you can get a real lesson in aviation history near the freight terminal and cargo planes of LAX at the Flight Path Museum. Yes, LAX has a museum – and it’s open to the public! You can even board the “Spirit of ’76,” a restored DC-3 parked on the tarmac that first flew in 1941 and was retired in 1982 (and is said to have been frequented by both Howard Hughes and Charles Lindbergh). Inside the museum, they’ve got a unique collection of model biplanes and flight attendant fashion as well as a number of other exhibits that send you on a journey from room to room in this surprisingly huge space. The docents are friendly, knowledgeable, and eager for visitors. You might even meet a former pilot with some stories to tell.
2. Long Beach Airport, Long Beach
There’s something really special about Long Beach Airport. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s so small, making boarding and deplaning a breeze. Maybe it’s because the airport is a “no jetway” zone, so you get to walk right out on the tarmac to your plane. Because of that small size (and its limited commercial flight schedule because of local noise ordinances), not many commercial travelers actually get to experience it first-hand. But even if you don’t have a boarding pass for a flight departing out of LGB, it’s worth a visit to see the Streamline Moderne vintage terminal, the historic photos of the Douglas Aircraft Company (including the origin story of “Rosie the Riveter”), and the WPA-era mosaic tiles. (Those were hidden under carpeting for years and only just recently uncovered!). Despite the dearth of jumbo jet traffic, Long Beach Airport is actually incredibly busy – mostly with small, private planes. You get to see some of them on display at the annual “Festival of Flight” (formerly called the “Long Beach Fly-In”), where pilots and plane aficionados come together to arrange flight lessons and scenic rides high above the L.A. basin.
3. March Field Air Museum, Riverside
On the March Air Reserve Base, just east of the 215 Freeway, there’s a museum that specializes in retired military aircraft – and they’re some of the hugest ones you’ll ever see. From the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress (a.k.a. the “Big Ugly Fat Fellow,” or BUFF) to the Boeing B-47 Stratojet Bomber (which was designed to fly at high subsonic speed and altitude), some of them are so larger than life that they seem almost impossible to fly. During your visit, go ahead and marvel at the engineering of planes like the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, which was designed specifically for aerial refueling. Some of these aircraft are giant enough to lift and transport large and heavy cargo – and in the case of the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter (a.k.a. the “Hanoi Taxi”), nearly 600 American prisoners who’d been held captive in North Vietnam. All of the planes at March were used throughout the 20th Century, though not every one of them actually saw combat. In addition to the restored planes, there are also other heritage aircraft parked in the Restoration Hangar, getting ready to go out on display.
4. Torrance Airport – Zamperini Field, Torrance
You’ve got two great opportunities to experience flight at the Torrance Airport: at Robinson Helicopter Company and at the Western Museum of Flight. At Robinson, you can experience history in the making by taking a free tour of the factory, where they assemble and test helicopters used as newscopters, police helicopters, and private civilian copter craft. And then you can watch their test pilots fly them to make sure they won’t crash after being shipped off to their new owners. If antiques are more your thing, head a few doors down to the volunteer-run Western Museum of Flight for their historic displays, videos, and knowledgeable docents. There are lots of great opportunities here to sit in cockpits and snap some photos, but leave some extra time to browse their small but surprisingly great gift shop. And if you look up while standing outside of the hangars, you might see a Robinson R-22, R-44, or R-66 in flight.
5. Aviation Museum of Santa Paula, Santa Paula
Santa Paula has neither the biggest local airport nor the largest collection of interesting planes, but the no-frills air field and its hangars let the privately-owned vintage planes housed there shine. There’s a ton of hidden history you can’t see here, too: Santa Paula Airport was built on top of land that had been wiped clean by the St. Francis Dam flood. Two ranches that had been devastated by the flood – each with its own airstrip – were combined to create the airport, which locals built with their own bare hands. Since many of the original structures remain, it’s the perfect place for people to store and display their vintage aircraft (around 300 at any given time). The first Sunday of every month, you can visit for free, explore, and meet the local pilots. Anybody who wants to learn how to fly a Cessna civilian plane can attend the airport’s resident flight school, CP Aviation – because, shockingly, if you’re old enough to drive a car by yourself, you’re old enough to fly a plane by yourself. And after you’ve worked up an appetite, stop by the Flight 126 Café for a delicious meal and amazing service.
6. Sky Sailing, Warner Springs
If you’ve ever wished that your pilot would hand the controls of the plane he’s flying over to you, then you must venture to East San Diego County to take to the skies with Sky Sailing. Experiences range from a gentle ride in a motor-less sailplane (also known as a “glider”) that gets towed up to cruising altitude to a motor glider and a “Super Spectacular Aerobatic Ride.” Regardless of which flight experience you choose, the scenery will be spectacular up there, above the mountains that are situated between Cleveland National Forest and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. If you’re at all nervous about being a pilot or a passenger, do a quick winetasting for some liquid courage at one of the wineries clustered along Highway 79 just north of the flight school and gliderport.
Hangar 24’s brewery is in an actual aircraft hangar across the street from the Redlands Airport – the very same hangar where master brewer Ben Cook (a former homebrewer) once gathered with friends for a post-flight beer. Take a quick tour of the inner workings, and have some fun tasting the brews while you watch the planes go by.