San Diego Air & Space Museum opened its doors for the first time on February 15, 1963. It was initially called San Diego Aerospace Museum and was located in the Food and Beverage Building in Balboa Park, currently known as Casa Balboa. The museum became an instant success and its collection grew quickly prompting the move to a new building nearby in 1965. Over a decade later the museum was planning to move again when a devasting fire on February 22, 1978 destroyed most of the museum’s collection of over 50 aircraft.
Today the San Diego Air & Space Museum is housed in the historic Ford Building which was constructed in 1935 for the California Pacific International Exposition. The building entrance is guarded by a Convair YF2Y-1 Sea Dart, a prototype delta-winged seaplane fighter aircraft designed to take off and land on twin retractable hydro-skis. It is accompanied by one of the nine surviving Lockheed A-12 Blackbirds, a reconnaissance aircraft built for the CIA by Lockheed’s Skunk Works division. The museum’s Blackbird was used on secretive spy missions over Southeast Asia before it was retired in 1969 and put into storage at Palmdale, California.
The admission counter is located in the entrance rotunda, where a flying replica of the Ryan NYP-3 Spirit of St. Louis is displayed alongside Bell X-1 mock-up, Sopwith Pup, Apollo 9 Command Module, General Atomics RQ-1K Predator and other drones. The walking tour is designed to take you through history of aviation. You start in the Early Flight gallery with a model of Montgolfier Balloon and various glider reproductions including Chanute and Wright gliders.
The World War I gallery includes a Curtiss A-1 Triad replica, Fokker E.III Eindecker replica, Albatros D.Va replica, Nieuport 11 and 28, SPAD VII and a famous Fokker Dr. I Dreidecker (Triplane in German) replica. The Dreidecker became famous as the aircraft in which Manfred von Richthofen, known as the “Red Baron”, gained many of his aerial victories, and in which he was killed on 21 April 1918.
Next is the Golden Age of Flight gallery, covering the period of barnstorming in the surplus aircraft from WWI, many technological advancements in aviation engineering, and many record setting flights. The gallery displays a Ryan M-1, Consolidated PT-1 Trusty, Ryan B-5 Brougham, Gee Bee R-1 replica and many others. The gallery also displays a red Lockheed Vega 5B reproduction used as a prop in the biographical film “Amelia” about Amelia Earhart starring Hilary Swank.
The World War II exhibit includes a Boeing P-26 Peashooter reproduction, North American P-51D Mustang, Messerschmitt Bf 109G-14 replica, Supermarine Spitfire Mk.XVI, Douglas SBD-4 Dauntless, Chance Vought F4U Corsair, Mitsubishi A6M7 Zero, Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat, Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat and a cockpit section of a Douglas C-47. San Diego Air & Space Museum also possesses a replica World War II-era German Horten Ho 229 which was the first jet-powered flying wing. A team of Northrop Grumman aviation engineers created it using the original plans for a National Geographic documentary. Radar testing conducted at the Northrop Grumman test range revealed that the Horten’s radar signature was 60% smaller than Messerschmitt Bf 109, the main Nazi fighter of WWII. The only surviving Horten Ho 229 airframe is displayed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.
We finally arrive at the Modern Jet & Space Age gallery with Douglas A-4B Skyhawk, McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornet “Blue Angel 1” on display together with Gemini spacecraft and Apollo Service Module mock-ups. There is also a center pavilion with a Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina, Ford 5-A-B Trimotor, Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17, McDonnell Douglas F-4J/S Phantom II and a Bell AH-1E Cobra helicopter. It is available for reservation for special events.
A lot of exhibits in the museum have ties to San Diego, due to its rich aviation history. The museum’s Catalina was constructed nearby by Consolidated Aircraft. The Spirit of St. Louis was also built in San Diego by Ryan Aeronautical and North Island Naval Air Station is known as a birthplace of Naval Aviation. A visit to San Diego Air & Space Museum wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Gillespie Field in El Cajon, CA where the museum’s annex is located with many more aircraft on display.