I love checking out old airplanes, whether it is the work-in-progress 1940s Stearman that lives in the hangar next to mine or the precisely restored fleet in the National Air and Space Museum.
And, there is so much more out there that fits between those extremes, from warbirds to experimental one-offs. Many of these aircraft are housed in private collections that are on display at airports across the U.S. You just have to find them, and carve out some time for a visit.
While some museums are run by corporations, governments, or large foundations, many are essentially the work of a single person or family. Below are five private collections and some of the stories behind how one aviation enthusiast amassed each of them.
Military Aviation Museum
Virginia Beach Airport (42VA), Virginia Beach, Virginia
When longtime general-aviation pilot Jerry Yagen bought a Curtiss P-40E Kittyhawk project in the mid-1990s, no one could have imagined it would lead to this. During the airplane’s long restoration, Yagen, who had no tailwheel experience, began looking for a proper tailwheel trainer, so that when the P-40 was ready, he would be comfortable flying it. He found a Stearman, and later an SNJ that prepared him to fly fighters, just as those models did during World War II. The collecting never stopped and today, the fleet includes dozens of military aircraft from a World War I German Halberstadt CL.IV to a P-51 Mustang, FG-1D Corsair, and even a Messerschmitt Me 262.
McMinnville Municipal Airport (KMMV), McMinnville, Oregon
I do not think aviation fans are jaded, but there are certain aircraft you get used to seeing at warbird museums, such as P-51 Mustangs and T-6 Texans. Those airplanes are here, but so is a Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa (Oscar), a Focke-Wulf 190, and a Grumman Duck, which typically are harder to find. These airplanes are just a tiny sample of the impressive collection amassed by Jack Erickson, who is an aviation legend himself for his work modifying heavy-lift helicopters for timber harvesting, aerial firefighting, and other unusual uses. You can see airplanes from his collection fly during the Oregon International Airshow, August 18-21. You can also book a ride.
Fantasy of Flight
Orlampa Inc. Airport (FA08), Polk City, Florida
Museum founder, Kermit Weeks, has spent his life in aviation, from constructing homebuilt aircraft in high school to gaining renown as a top-level aerobatic competitor during the 1970s and 1980s. The serious collecting started during the same period and in 1985, he opened the Weeks Air Museum in Miami. As his collection grew, he started developing a larger site in Polk City. Today, his collection comprises more than 50 aircraft from the pioneer era through the “Golden Age” of aviation and World War II.
Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome (NY94)
Red Hook, New York
Even as a kid during the 1970s when day-to-day life seemed to have few rules or restrictions, I could barely believe my eyes as I watched the weekly World War I-themed airshow at Old Rhinebeck. Sitting in the bleachers next to the turf runway, I marveled at how close the airplanes seemed as they flew by. The antique fleet was the result of many years of collecting and restoration by the late Cole and Rita Palen, who ran the show for decades. Their successors continue to put on shows that are as unique as they were 50 years ago.
Eagles Mere Air Museum
Merritt Field Airport (4PN7), Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania
Airport owner George Jenkins put together this diverse collection, which mostly covers the 1920s and 1930s but goes back as far as a 1911 Morane-Borel Monoplane. This might be my next museum trip, not just because it is only one state away, but due to the rare machines housed there. There are not many places where you can find a 1917 Polson Special, 1924 Lincoln Sport, 1928 Alexander Eaglerock A-4, 1930 Franklin Sport 90, and a 1932 Brunner-Winkle Bird CK, all under one roof.