It had been many years since we visited Pima Air and Space Museum. When we first moved to Tucson more than 10 years ago, we took our young grandchildren there and had not been back since, except briefly to create one of our 50 original videos when we first started the Guide two years ago. See our Pima Air Museum video here.
However, my father was visiting for the Thanksgiving holiday and Ms. Karen & I were certain he would enjoy this amazing tour of American history. Dad was born at St. Mary’s Hospital on Christmas Day 1919. That happy event made him, not only a Natural American, but also a Native Tucsonan.
As a young man, Father was a medic in the European Theater during World War II. He doesn’t talk much about The War unless he is with people who lived through that most horrific period in world history.
As expected, he truly enjoyed reminiscing with the Air and Space Museum’s many excellent docents; most, perhaps all, of whom are vets themselves. This vast indoor/outdoor museum dedicated to human flight has a historically important & diverse collection of over 300 airplanes and space vehicles. Its real treasures, however, are the docents. Our recommendation: take a tour; talk to the docents. It will enrich your experience immeasurably.
Many docents had actually flown in the Museum’s fine collection of military planes like the ones on display, and experienced war as few of us (hopefully) ever will. They, like my father, are living history.
Pima Air and Space Museum is actually many museums. The main facility has several hangers, each dedicated to some aspect of flight. For example, Hanger #1 has a replica Wright Flyer. In 1903, the Wright Brothers got one just like this off the sandy beach at Kitt Hawk, NC for a flight of 120 feet at about 7mph. An astounding achievement that changed our world forever.
Only 7 decades later, using a 1950’s design and 1960’s technology, an SR-71 Blackbird, designed and built-in secret at the Lockheed Skunk Works, flew from sea to shining sea in 67 minutes. We had to get into orbit before we could do it faster.
Most of the planes here were designed and built for the U.S. military. They, and those like them, helped preserve the freedoms we mostly take for granted today. But at Pima Air & Space, these magnificent warbirds have been beautifully restored as if they had just rolled off the assembly line, ready to defend us again should the need arise.
Hanger #3 houses, for example, a restored B-25 like the ones used by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle (later “General”) and his squadron in their heroic, audacious retaliatory raid on Tokyo only 4 months after Pearl Harbor. They put the enemy on notice that, while the Empire of Japan had dealt the United States a powerful body blow that dropped us to our knees, they were now in a fight for their lives. Expect no quarter.
Hanger #4 houses later WWII aircraft, including a magnificent B-29 Superfortress, called "Sentimental Journey".
These were among the largest aircraft in service during World War II in the Pacific Theater. It was a very advanced bomber for its time. For example, the B-29 has a pressurized cabin, a fire-control system, and remote-controlled machine-gun turrets.
The B-29 was designed as a high-altitude strategic bomber, but bombing from such heights was too imprecise in those early days to be militarily effective. So, the B-29’s were re-purposed as low-altitude night incendiary bombers essentially roasting the Japanese, military & civilian indiscriminately, in one massive firestorm after another.
Yet the Japanese military would not surrender. So another B-29, the Enola Gay, dropped “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, August 6, 1945. It was the first use of an atomic weapon. With one bomb, the Americans had annihilated an entire city.
And still, the Japanese military refused to surrender. So, three days later we sent them another B-29 called “Bockscar” and delivered another message, this one named “Fat Boy”. In an instant on August 9th, 1945, the Japanese industrial city of Nagasaki ceased to exist. Six days later, in a radio broadcast, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's unconditional surrender. A weary, battered world rejoiced. The War was over.
The 390th Memorial Museum
The predecessor to the B-29 Superfortress was the B-17 Flying Fortress. It was smaller than the B-29 and certainly did not bristle with as much defensive weaponry as the Superfortress. Yet, it did its job effectively in the European Theater.
A restored B-17, “I’ll Be Around” is housed in the newly re-opened 390th Bombardment Group (Heavy) Memorial Museum on the campus of Pima Air and Space. Ms. Karen & I were honored to photograph the Grand Re-Opening in September 2013.
Thirty-one former members of the 390th came from all over the county to witness the re-dedication of THEIR museum. While it’s still hard to believe, I have a photograph of our Tucson mayor, Jonathan Rothschild, with … I know you won’t believe this … Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States, cutting the ribbon. We have no idea how the Mayor pulled this off, but there it is.
The 390th flew bombing missions out of England headed for enemy targets on the Continent. When Ike gave the “Let’s Go” for the D-Day invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944, the 390th laid down a blistering barrage on the Nazi defenders in support of Allied landing troops.
For the next two years, the 390th bombed the bejesus out of Nazi Germany, including the German troops who had our guys surrounded at Bastogne.
During the week just prior to VE Day, bombers of the 390th dropped, not bombs, but food & other supplies, over Belgium and saved hundreds of thousands of Dutch civilians from starvation & hypothermia.
The airmen of the 390th were tough. They knew they had a job to do and that the free world depended on them. They were never turned back by the enemy. More than 700 men of the 390th didn’t make it home. More than a hundred were shot down and languished in Nazi prisoner-of-war camps until the end of The War.
As mentioned earlier, my father was a medic. He was stationed at a military hospital in England. When the wounded were flown back to the relative safety of England from the European front, the first people they saw (if they were conscious) were the X-Ray technicians like Dad. He had to deal with soldiers whose brains had been blown out; whose guts were hanging out; whose limbs were barely attached; bodies riddled with shrapnel. It was ugly and I certainly understand why he didn’t want to talk about it. But his X-Rays guided the surgeons with the best information they could get as they operated.
Only recently did he tell our family about an early morning, only 6 days after he had been notified of the birth of his first child (me). He was sitting on a little hill in the English countryside, during a rare day off, when all of a sudden, came the thundering roar of hundreds of low-flying B-17’s as they flew over in formation in wave after wave headed for the beaches of Normandy. Many towed 3 or 4 gliders each with 6-8 heavily armed soldiers ready to be dropped behind enemy lines. Then he knew, as Ike announced a few hours later, that the long-awaited invasion of Europe had begun. It was the beginning of the end.
Click HERE to view our feature on the 390th and meet some of the airmen, now in their 90's, who returned for the re-dedication events.
Dorothy Finley Space Gallery
Today, astronauts routinely pass over the entire width of the United States in just a few minutes. Accordingly, Air & Space has excellent exhibits of spacecraft, including an Apollo space capsule trainer in which you can practice docking maneuvers. Good luck with that!
Titan II Missile Museum
Pima Air and Space Museum also includes the Titan II Missile Museum in Green Valley just off I-19. This is one of the most unique museums in the world.
We wholeheartedly recommend to visitors and locals alike that they go to the Titan. Almost all have an immediate reaction, something akin to “How can a missile museum be of any interest?” Yet, all those who have accepted our recommendation have told us afterward how fascinating the tour was.
You can get a preview by watching our short, original video. Then go to the Titan II Missile Museum. The experience is totally awesome!
If you understand what is represented there, you will leave wondering how the human race survived the Cold War. Even in hindsight, it seems implausible.
Titan II Missile Museum
1580 W. Duval Mine Rd.
Across the road from Pima Air & Space is Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and the 309th Aerospace Maintenance & Regeneration Group with over 4,000 military aircraft residing in a state of preservation.
Boneyard tour tickets are sold at the Pima Air & Space admissions desk. Tours are on a “first-come, first-served” basis and they recommend you purchase your tickets when the museum opens at 9 AM. The tour bus boards at the Museum entrance.
Security is tight, so leave your backpacks & camera cases in your car before you board. Adults: $7. Children 12 & under: $4. We have not taken this tour but hear from reliable sources that it is worthwhile.
Dining at the Air & Space Museum
Pima Air & Space recently opened their restaurant, the Flight Grill. They serve a variety of tasty items, including burgers, sandwiches, wraps & salads.
Pima Air & Space is also available for special tours & events. It makes one amazing venue for corporate meetings, birthday parties, and even weddings.
Tucson Attractions Passport Savings
If you are going to visit several Southern Arizona attractions, you can save a ton of money by purchasing the Tucson Attractions Passport. This buys you 2 for 1 admission at most Southern Arizona attractions along with other discounts.
Generally, if two of you visit only two attractions, you have more than recouped your $18 investment. If you plan to visit more than two attractions, such as Pima Air & Space Museum and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, we recommend you buy a Passport for every two adults in your party. The savings are substantial.
Pima Air & Space Museum
6000 E Valencia Rd, Tucson, AZ 85706
To learn about more worthwhile museums in Tucson, whether art, history, science, or just fun, see our list of the Best Museums here.