The Pima Air & Space Museum Beckons All Airplane Geeks

The biggest problem Pima visitors face is running short on time.

Pima Air & Space Museum
Aircraft of all kinds dot the sprawling grounds at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona.Pima Air & Space Museum

Restoring and maintaining historic airplanes consumes an enormous amount of time, as well as money, a few reasons some of the largest aviation museums in the United States, like the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, are primarily funded by the U.S. taxpayer. You’d imagine then that a privately funded museum for aviation aficionados might be missing a few of the more glamorous whistles and bells. A brief visit with a friend last week to the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona, proved that notion to be all wrong.

The Pima museum sits next door to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, home to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, as well as a number of other operational, maintenance, support and rescue squadrons. The 309th is better known to the public as the keepers of idled airplanes at the USAF boneyard. Think of the base as acres and acres of inactive fighters, transports, bombers and tankers.

Of course, the museum’s the only place to purchase tickets for the boneyard tour, so a visit to the Pima began as a necessity. I’m glad it did, too, because touring the Pima’s outside displays turned out to be an incredible way to spend the time waiting for our number to come up for the boneyard tour. Despite an enormous number of well-qualified, friendly docents, who seemed to be everywhere on the Pima’s 80-acre campus, we grabbed the museum trolley that ferried us past airplane after airplane — C97s, C124s, F5s, B52s, B36s and many others — I’d not seen since my own Air Force days. Of course the docent driving the trolley knew plenty about every airplane we passed, including answers to a few questions we threw at him out of left field.

The Pima museum folks have planted a crop of more than 150 military aircraft spread around — some outside and others inside — the facility's five buildings. The Pima's also home to a few modern airplanes, such as the No. 2, 787 test aircraft, donated by Boeing, and the former Orbis flying eye hospital, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10. The museum includes an entire building devoted to space travel and telling the stories of a bygone era that often began with astronauts sitting in Apollo capsules attached to the top of Saturn rockets. Don't miss the X-plane-era section, which highlights the catalyst these efforts offered to manned space travel.

A few tips for anyone new to aviation-museum trips too. When you visit the Pima, do yourself and your friends a favor by allowing more than just a few hours to take it all in. A good Pima visit demands a day. And here’s an inside secret for getting early tickets to the nearby boneyard tour when the Pima’s registration lines are long. Become a Pima Air & Space Museum member at the $125 bronze level, a membership that includes four tram and four boneyard passes … and of course, no waiting in line.