Exploring flight and family history at the Pima Air & Space Museum

By Kathy McMahon

We entered the Main Hangar of the Pima Air and Space Museum, and I saw my 17-year-old son’s eyes widen at the sight of dozens of floatplanes, helicopters, and airplanes surrounding us from floor to ceiling. My favorite was just ahead—the SR-71 Blackbird. The fastest manned plane on the planet, the 107-foot-long Blackbird exemplifies elegant midcentury-modern form married with dynamic function.

“This baby can fly,” Uncle Jack said with a slight laugh. Uncle Jack, a 90-year-old WWII veteran who’s a little sore in the joints, but sharp as a tack, always breaks the silence with laughter. He pulled my son, Paul, toward him and whispered in his ear, “This is a spy plane.” It was my son’s first time at the museum, so Uncle Jack was acting as our tour guide—he pretty much knows this place from Blackbird to Tomcat.

Before Uncle Jack’s unofficial, exclusive tour, the “Boneyard” Tour was first on our itinerary. We headed back to the outside entrance to board our coach, which was headed for Davis-Monthan Air Force Base’s plane graveyard, of sorts. Except, instead of abandoned piles of plane parts, the base’s Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) performs resurrections.

 

Video: Pima Air & Space Museum

 

Takeoff

Through the tour bus’ large windows, we soon saw our first glimpse of the boneyard; acres and acres of aircraft that were waiting to be recycled or regenerated. Our docent immediately began talking about the aircraft along “Celebrity Row,” which has several iconic planes that have retired to Arizona’s rust-preventive dry air. Our docent guide, Bob, talked about some of these planes as if they were old friends, and in a sense they were, as each was a warhorse that served its purpose well.

It seemed like there were endless rows of A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, or “Warthogs,” which were a strong match for tanks on the ground. It saddened Uncle Jack to see these once mighty warcrafts retired.

“I guess they got old and tired, like me,” Uncle Jack said with a chuckle. Paul looked at me, and I could tell both of us were thinking: there he goes again—always the jokester.

When we stepped out of the motor coach back at the museum, Uncle Jack was smiling like a kid in a candy store—it was his chance to show off his aircraft prowess and the planes he manned as a radio operator/gunner.

Getting up to speed

With a quick visual survey of the museum’s Main Hangar, Uncle Jack rubbed his hands together, let out a low whistle and said, “Where do we start?”

“How about at the beginning,” I said, and motioned for them to follow me over to the replica of the Wright Brothers’ pioneering, powered aircraft, which sailed above Kitty Hawk in 1903, and now over our heads in the hangar.

A knowledgeable docent named Jim drifted over to point out the flexible wings and actuating surfaces that had allowed Orville and Wilbur to control their flight as no other had before.

“You sound like a pilot,” Uncle Jack said, and indeed he was. Jim went on to describe manning 45 different types of aircraft in his life and eventually retiring from commercial airline work.

“I never had a real job,” Jim joked. For him, flying was a joy, and his enthusiasm is still soaring high.

“I was a radio operator and never piloted a plane, but I know what you mean,” said Uncle Jack. “It’s just you and the sky up there. Everything is on you, but your mind is clear and focused—it's a sense of freedom.”

“Did you ever want to be a pilot, Uncle Jack?” my son asked.

“Well, I enlisted about two years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, because I wanted to do my part. The Air Force decided I’d make a good radioman, so that’s what I did. It wasn’t really about what I wanted. It was about how I could help my country. Heck, I’d never been more than 90 miles from home before I enlisted!”

“Where were you deployed?” Paul asked next.

I had the distinct feeling that something special was happening as Paul’s interest grew with every question he posed to Uncle Jack. In fact, as we explored and examined (and touched!) just about every wing, bolt and exterior part of the planes on floor display in the Main Hangar, both of us became wrapped up in Uncle Jack’s stories and anecdotes.

Perfect landing

Uncle Jack and his tales led us inside Hangar 3, where he immediately zeroed in on the B-24—his plane. Jack took us over to the aircraft and ran his hand over it as he showed us where he had sat as a B-24 radio operator/gunner.

“It was my job to monitor radio contact with the base and take turns with the engineer manning the turret guns when enemy fighters appeared,” he said as he walked around the plane. “Boy, my heart raced every single time I got into firing position. I also checked the bomb bay and made sure all the bombs were dropped during a bomb run.” His eyes welled as he held back tears. He stopped speaking, and Paul and I could tell that Jack was struggling with his emotions as we followed him over to the back of the plane where the bomb bay was open.

Taking a deep breath he continued, “I’m just glad I was too tall to be a ball turret gunner. Now those guys had the worst of it.”

I can only imagine how difficult it was for those gunners. The ball turret is a spherical housing mounted on the undercarriage of the plane, and it held the gunner, two machine guns, ammunition, and sights.

“It’s like a cramped hamster ball with guns,” Jack remarked.

“They certainly did have the worst of it,” a docent chimed in as he came over to us in his wheelchair. He was also a WWII vet, and upon introducing himself, Uncle Jack immediately feel into shop talk with him about everything Air Force. To them, it was 1940-something. As they reminisced, we intently listened.

When the two vets fell into a quiet moment, Paul said, with admiration in his voice, “Thanks for your service.” Paul held out his hand but Uncle Jack grabbed him into a big bear hug instead. I could see a new appreciation in Paul’s young eyes—for his uncle and the sacrifices he, and other men and women like him, made in the name of freedom.

Uncle Jack looked away from the clean, riveted lines of the B-24 and gazed around the collection of planes carefully curated in the large room. He was looking at museum pieces, but his gaze went well beyond the hangar walls to places we would never know.

He eventually broke the silence with, “The B-24 was a workhorse and we trusted her with our lives. Now let’s get over to Hangar 4. I really want to see that B-29 Superfortress.”

As we passed by the outdoor exhibit of 100+ aircraft on our way to Hangar 4, I realized the Pima Air & Space Museum exemplifies the spirit of reaching new heights while honoring the conflicts over freedom. The only thing larger than the open-air exhibits of flying monoliths was Uncle Jack’s personality—both when he was somber and silly—and the stories behind every aircraft. As if proving my point, Uncle Jack says, “Oh wait! I almost forgot about the Vomit Comet. It's the Boeing KC-135 over there.”

Notes on Tours at Pima Air & Space Museum: 

Two types of Boneyard Tours are offered - either private or regularly scheduled.  For private tours the fully narrated tour will be conducted on the group’s coach bus.  The Museum does not have a bus to offer for private Boneyard Tours.  Reservations for private Boneyard Tours must be done at least 45 days in advance of the tour date.  Tours are offered Mondays through Fridays (excluding Federal Holidays) and will be set up at a time to be determined by the group.  Regularly scheduled Boneyard Tours are held Monday through Friday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.  Beginning Nov. 1, 2017, reservations must be requested by email or phone (520-618-4805).  Reservations can be requested up to 90 days in advance of the tour and must be made 10 days in advance of the tour. 

Length:  1 and a half to 1 hour and 45 minutes typically.  Traffic backlog at the Swan Gate at Davis Monthan AFB may affect tour time.  It is not recommended that groups or individuals on a tight schedule take the tour as tour length time cannot be guaranteed.

Contact: Patty Collins – 520-574-0462/pcollins@pimaair.org