The Sharks of the Air
If you should find yourself in the Coachella Valley, one of the best places to visit is the Palm Springs Air Museum. There are flying museums all across the country, including one within walking distance of me in Santa Monica. But none I have visited could hold a candle to the one alongside the Palm Springs International Airport.
One would think you can do justice to such a museum in an hour or so. Well … not exactly! There are not only three large hangars full of WWII warbirds, but several dozen planes are also scattered outside on the tarmac. Along the walls of the hangars are numerous exhibits, some with videos on a loop, about selected topics.
What interested me the most was a unit called the Flying Tigers. In 1941-1942, there were pilots from all three air services recruited and organized as the 1st American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force (probably because they were originally constituted before the United States entered the war). Included also were also a number of Chinese pilots trained by the Americans. All were led by General Claire Lee Chennault.
The mission of the Flying Tigers was to defend China from the Japanese Air Force. And this they did with a vengeance using a hundred-odd fighters painted with a fierce shark face as in the photo above.
Their success was stunning. The Japanese planes were not well-armored against fighter attacks, with the result that the Japanese lost some 296 planes to the Flying Tigers’ 14. In time, the Japanese had come to fear the sharks’ teeth aimed at their throats.
The Luftwaffe Drew This Card Too Often
I have always enjoyed visiting aircraft museums. The one in Palm Springs is nothing short of spectacular. The Western Museum of Flight in Torrance is smaller, but fun to visit. Until 2002, there was a great Museum of Flying on the north end of Santa Monica Airport. Then it closed down. We heard that they were looking for a place to move somewhere in the desert. It appears they never found one.
Then, all of a sudden, we heard that it was re-opening on the south side of Santa Monica Airport. Finally, Martine and I paid it a visit yesterday afternoon. The new Museum of Flying is about one-fourth the size of the old one and focuses heavily on the airport’s history with Douglas Aviation, back when it was named Clover Field. Still it was sufficiently interesting to engage our attention for a few hours.
Russian Yakovlev Yak-3 Fighter from World War Two
Among other displays, they had a Russian Yakovlev Yak-3 fighter parked outside (above). The much beloved plane was preferred by Russian pilots over the planes supplied by the United States during the days of Lend-Lease, such as the P-51 Mustang and the Supermarine Spitfire.
It was good to see the Museum of Flying back from the dead. I hope they can accumulate enough money and volunteers to grow back to what they used to be before a greedy landlord snuffed them out of existence to get a higher rent.
Martine with Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress in Background
Aviation museums run the gamut from “gearhead” airplane body shops to extensive collections of aircraft and exhibits. In this latter category is the Palm Springs Air Museum, adjacent to the Palm Springs Airport on Gene Autry Trail. We allotted four hours to seeing this museum, and—to Martine’s point of view anyway—it was about four hours too short.
Apparently, the Coachella Valley is home to many aviation veterans of the Second World War. The museum was crowded with volunteers who knew the planes intimately and were willing to answer questions.
Near the little café in one of the hangars was a huge Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress that was being restored by aficionados. For a five dollar donation, we could walk through the plane from the cockpit to the rear door. It was a tempting challenge, though I knew it would be a tight squeeze for my portly frame. So we ponied up the ten bucks and did it.
For starters, the highly analog cockpit controls (see above) were a revelation to a digital denizen such as myself. We barely managed to make it up the ladder to squeeze in the space behind the cockpit. The B-17’s crew of ten must have been immune to claustrophobia, especially the tail gunner and the gunner in the 360-degree rotating gun position under the aircraft. The former was totally cut off from the rest of the aircraft by the rear bomb bay.
The B-17 was featured in a number of war films including Memphis Belle (both versions: 1944 and 1990), Flying Fortress (1942), Air Force (1943), 12 O’Clock High (1949), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970).
If you ever find yourself in Palm Springs, and if you are as much of a history nut as I am, you could do worse than spend a whole day at the Palm Springs Air Museum. (I had to promise Martine that we would return so that she could finish viewing all the exhibits.)