The Aerospace Museum of California

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Some museums are enclosed atmospheres where haughty people walk about with their hands folded behind their backs, contemplating the static art hanging on walls. But there are some museums where you run excitedly from one gigantic interactive display to the next. The Aerospace Museum of California is the latter.

Man’s fascination with flight goes back to the time when our ancestor, Og the Caveman, first observed birds flying and he wondered why his plump, hairy body could not do the same. Try as he might, he simply could not free himself from the grip of Earth’s gravitational pull. It would be many centuries before humans figured out the formula to achieve flight. The Aerospace Museum of California (AMC) near Sacramento will help you understand just how difficult that accomplishment was and why it took so long to reach that goal.

One of the earliest attempts by man to fly was in the year 1010, when a Benedictine monk, Oliver of Malmesbury, jumped off the top of the Malmesbury Abbey. He managed to entertain his fellow Wiltshire, England residents before crashing to earth and breaking both of his legs.
Above, one of the displays at the AMC is this Boeing-built 727-200 that was used by FedEx. It is one of a few of the aircraft where visitors can climb on-board and explore the inside of a flying machine.

It seems that another recorded attempt by man to fly like a bird occurred in about the year 1162 in Constantinople, Turkey. A foolhardy wannabe aviator made himself a gigantic set of wings out of fabric. He climbed to the top of the city tower and quickly plummeted to his demise.

Above, the inside of the Boeing 727-200 FedEx cargo jet.


Sometime between the years 1271 and 1295, Marco Polo, the Italian merchant, explorer, and writer traveled through Asia along the Silk Road. His written escapades into the Mongol Empire and China would give Europeans their first glimpse into the enormity of that part of Asia. Sometime during his travels to China, Marco Polo observed massive flying kites that carried human beings. But he preferred to go back to Italy via camel. His chronicles may not have motivated anyone to risk flying but it did inspire Christopher Columbus.

Above, a panorama of the vast outdoor display at the Aerospace Museum California.

Although the chronicles of Marco Polo did not initially inspire anyone to take that leap of faith and take up flying, it may have been an inspiration to another famous Italian, Leonardo de Vinci. Sometime between 1488 and 1514, de Vinci made several conceptual drawings of what he thought would make adequate flying machines. As with other aspiring aviation designers, de Vinci used the natural design of bird wings for the concept.

Above, up close and personal is what you get to the numerous aeronautical displays. Not all of the aircraft can be entered, something about the Air Force, who own most of the items, and some liability issues that they want to avoid. Nonetheless, just walking around and underneath this diverse collection is astonishing.

When most of us think of man’s great achievement in the annals of flight, we think about the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright. On October 22, 1900, the brothers made their first flight in an unpowered glider. And then that famous flight at that North Carolina beach town of Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903, where Wilbur and Orville made their first controlled powered airplane flights at Kill Devil Hills.

The Aerospace Museum of California is located on the grounds of the former McClellan Air Force Base in North Highlands, California not far east of the state capital of Sacramento. Situated on a 4-acre parcel that features over 35 outdoor aircraft displays and a huge indoor auditorium that displays collections of aerospace memorabilia from early flight to military and civilian aviation to items from the NASA Apollo missions.

In February of 2007, the museum’s 4-acre museum park and the 37,500 square foot building was officially opened and dedicated as the Hardie Setzer Aerospace Pavilion. Since then the museum has welcomed over 300,000 visitors. The pavilion was named in honor of Hardie C. Setzer, a major benefactor of the museum who was a philanthropist, World War II aviator, and local businessman.

As you wander around the AMC complex, you can see restored and maintained aircraft being shuffled to various locations inside the grounds.

Above, a young aviation enthusiast takes time to record a vintage F-80-B fighter jet from the 1940s.

Above, the F-80-B fighter jet that you can get up close and personal. This Lockheed-built Shooting Star was the first jet fighter used operationally by the United States Army Air Forces.

Above and below, the North American Aviation T-6 Texan, a single-engine advanced trainer aircraft used to train pilots of the United States Army Air Forces. It took its first flight‎ on April 1, 1935.

There were 15,495 of the T-6 Texan’s built by North American Aviation. They were used during World War II and into the 1970s.

The original aerospace museum was established in 1986 as the McClellan Aviation Museum and was chartered by the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The collection that was housed there included an impressive array of aircraft and aviation history memorabilia.

By 1995, the U.S.A. had begun a process of military downsizing and base closures. At the end of 2001, McClellan Air Force Base was closed and became a civil aviation airport, McClellan Airfield.

At the end of the base closure in 2001, the entire collection of the McClellan Aviation Museum was transferred on indefinite loan from the U.S. Air Force to the newly created Aerospace Museum of California. Visitors should be aware that not all aircraft can be entered into their interior due to liability concerns of the U.S. Air Force.

So, let’s step back a little and discover the history of McClellan Field, the site of the Aerospace Museum of California. The U.S. Air Force, which was initially formed as a part of the U.S. Army on August 1, 1907, and became a separate branch of the U.S. Armed Forces on September 18, 1947, opened McClellan Field in 1935. It became known officially as McClellan Air Force Base in 1948, getting its name from Major Hezekiah McClellan (1917-1936) who was a pioneer of early aviation and the exploration of the Arctic Circle in the 1930s.

Above and below, one of the pieces of aviation history in the museum is the Russian Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17PF Fresco E, a high-subsonic fighter aircraft produced in the USSR beginning in 1952. It was an advancement of the MiG-15 that was used in the Korean War in the early 1950s. MiG-17s were first used in combat in 1958 in the 2nd Taiwan Strait Crisis and then during the Vietnam War, proving to be a major threat against the more modern supersonic fighters of the U.S.A.

After the base was officially closed, individuals like Hardie C. Setzer, a local businessman, and several others began formulating plans to develop a more permanent home for the collection. In 2001, the museum incorporated as a non-profit organization.

In the year 2004, the museum would move to its current address at 3200 Freedom Park Drive, McClellan Park. A year later, in 2005 the museum changed its name to the Aerospace Museum of California and designed were developed for a large indoor pavilion. February of 2007 saw the museum opening a new 35,000-square-foot complex which was named the Hardie Setzer Pavilion in honor of the man who was one of the museum’s greatest benefactors.

Above, the iconic McDonnell Douglas built F-4 Phantom. This tandem two-seat, twin-engine, all-weather, long-range supersonic jet interceptor and fighter-bomber was originally developed for the U.S. Navy and first entered service in 1960. The Phantom fighter-jet had a top speed of over Mach 2 and could carry 18,000 pounds of weapons. It would eventually be adopted by the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Air Force. Beginning in 1959, the F-4 set 15 world records for in-flight performance.

Above, the Lockheed EC-121D Warning Star was by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Forces as part of their early warning and control radar surveillance aircraft operations during the 1950s. The EC-121s were used extensively in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War between April 16, 1965, and June 1, 1974.

Above and below, the Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar, so named for its ability to haul cargo and its “twin-boom” design that made it appear as if it were a flying railroad boxcar. Aside from hauling cargo, this airplane was designed to air-drop not only cargo, but parachute troops as well. It began production just after the second world in 1947 and continued in production until 1955 when in total more than 1,100 C-119s had been built.

It is an amazing feeling, not only for an aviation enthusiast but to the casual aerospace museum visitor, to get so up close and personal to these fine examples of man’s contribution to the world of avionics.

Above, the Douglas C-53 Skytrooper was part of the Douglas C-47 Skytrain or Dakota designated military transport aircraft that was developed from the civilian Douglas DC-3 airliner. These aircraft were extensively during World War II by the armed forces of many countries to transport cargo, troops, and wounded. A large number of the DC-3s and military surplus variations would enter service in the commercial sector after the war. More than 10,000 of this aircraft were produced in Long Beach and Santa Monica, California and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma where 5,354 were built March 1943 and August 1945.

Above, the Piasecki CH-21C Workhorse/Shawnee tandem rotor helicopter was designed and built by the Piasecki Helicopter Corporation in Pennsylvania. These so-called “flying bananas” entered service on April 11, 1952, and were retired by the military in 1967. Initially designed as an Arctic rescue helicopter, it would become a multi-functional workhorse that could be fitted with wheels, skis or floats. This utility helicopter had special winterized features that allowed it to operate in temperatures as low as −65 °F. Company founder Frank Piasecki, who was ousted from the company in 1956, started a new company, Piasecki Helicopter, which was renamed Vertol Corporation until being bought by Boeing.

Above, the single-seater Douglas A-1 Skyraider attack aircraft that saw service from the late 1940s and into the early 1980s. The versatile Skyraider was a piston-powered, propeller-driven aircraft that lasted well into the jet age. It was given the nickname of “Spad” for the World War I French biplane fighter aircraft.

Above, the four-engine Douglas C-54 Skymaster transport aircraft that was used by the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II and the Korean War. Like its sister, the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, it was derived from a civilian airliner, the Douglas DC-4. Used mainly for cargo transport, this aircraft was used during the Berlin Airlift to haul coal, supplies and fuel. It had the distinction of carrying presidents, prime ministers, and military staff and variations of this craft were utilized in non-combat duties that included air-sea rescue, scientific and military research, as well as missile tracking and recovery.

Above, the British Aircraft Corporation’s AC Jet Provost that was used by the Royal Air Force (RAF) from 1955 to 1993. It was originally designed and developed by Hunting Percival from the earlier piston engine-powered Percival Provost basic trainer.

Free to roam among the displays of flying vehicles can generate the fancy of many a young student.

Props and jets, the museum has it all. Just take care to be prepared for the high temperatures that can hit Sacramento.

Above, the Grumman HU-16B Albatross “Sacramento” a twin–radial engine amphibious flying boat that was used by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and the U.S. Coast Guard as a search and rescue aircraft.

Above, the North American F-86F Sabre, or Sabrejet, now sits out of the elements inside the museum’s large pavilion. This “transonic” jet fighter was America’s first “swept-wing” fighter that encountered Soviet MiG-15s in dogfights during the Korean War, making them the earliest in jet-to-jet air-battle history. These highly maneuverable jets were in production from 1949 to 1956 when more than 7,800 of them were manufactured in Italy, Japan, and the U.S.A.

Above and below, visitors can have the opportunity to engage in flight simulators, provided they are working at the time of the visit.

Above, among the NASA Apollo memorabilia is this suit that was used by astronaut Buzz Aldrin during training missions.

Above, it’s not rocket science, or is it?

Inside the museum’s rotunda are a vast collection of historical aircraft engines including specimens from a World War I-era Gnome and Rhone rotary piston engines, large radial piston engines, jet engines, and rocket motors.

In all, the museum contains over 40 different aircraft from the 20th century up until as recently as one of the last Grumman F-14D Tomcat that was retired from U.S. Navy service in 2006.

Along with a very impressive assemblage of commercial and military aircraft, the museum’s collection of aircraft memorabilia contains an assortment of objects that showcase Sacramento’s contribution to America’s aerospace history.

Beside the aircraft and memorabilia, the museum has an art gallery that contains some impressive aircraft artwork featuring more than 50 original works.

The Aerospace Museum of California is easy to get to:


3200 Freedom Park Drive
McClellan Park, CA 95652
(916) 643-3192

Above, a map of the collection, and below, some of the aircraft that are on display:
Beech UC-45J “Expediter”
Boeing 727-200 The N466FE registered FedEx Boeing
Convair F-102A Delta Dagger
Convair F-106A Delta Dart
Convair VC-131D Samaritan
Douglas A-1E Skyraider
Douglas C-53 Skytrooper
Douglas C-54D Skymaster
Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II
Fairchild-Republic A-10A Thunderbolt II (Warthog)
Fairchild C-119G Flying Boxcar
General Dynamics FB-111A Aardvark
Grumman F-14D Super Tomcat
Grumman HU-16B Albatross
Grumman TS-2A Tracker
Lockheed EC-121D Warning Star
Lockheed F-80B Shooting Star
Lockheed F-104B Starfighter
Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star or T-Bird
McDonnell Douglas F-4C Phantom II
McDonnell F-101B Voodoo
Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17PF Fresco E
Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21F Fishbed
North American F-86L Dog Sabre
North American F-86F Sabre
North American F-100D Super Sabre
North American T-6G Texan
North American T-28B Trojan
North American T-39A Sabreline
Piasecki CH-21C Workhorse
Pitts Special S-1C
Republic F-84F Thunderstreak
Republic F-105D Thunderchief (Thud)
Sikorsky CH-3E Jolly Green Giant
Taylorcraft L-2M Grasshopper
Vought A-7D Corsair II

If visiting an aircraft museum is on your bucket list, wait no further to add another drop in the bucket by visiting the Aerospace Museum of California near Sacramento, California.

All photographs are the copyright of Jim Jackson Photography and Nida Jackson Photography. Please contact me with any questions, comments or for authorization to use photos or for signed, high-resolution copies.

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