On the Road: It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Super Air Museum Attractions

For today’s travelers, a trip to the airport can bring as much a sense of anxiety as anticipation. Outdated airline scheduling tools and ugly weather patterns can often mean long delays or cancellations. These days, many would agree that flying is no longer fun.

To restore the joy of aviation, you need only visit the Palm Springs Air Museum. Located behind the California city’s regular commercial airport, the air museum planes look almost as good on land as they do in the sky. The setting is idyllic, with many planes parked outdoors against a backdrop of palm trees and snow-capped mountains. More than 70 planes are tethered here, but don’t expect to see many examples of commercial aircraft. Most of these “birds” have seen action in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and during Desert Storm operations. The gleaming silver aircraft (and a few helicopters) stand in proud tribute to the pilots who flew them, and the crews that serviced them.

The sleek lines of the F-117 Stealth Fighter at the Palm Springs Air Museum. Photo by Anne Siegel.

Be prepared to spend a couple of hours – or even a half day – strolling through 91,000 square feet of indoor exhibit space, not to mention the acres of outdoor space. The museum is divided into hangars, according to the country’s various wars. There’s the Korea/Vietnam hangar, the Pacific hangar, the B-17 hangar and the European hangar.
Before setting out to explore, be sure to start with the hangar housing the museum’s newest “star,” the F-117 Stealth Fighter. The dimly lit environment accentuates the all-black aircraft, which is much larger than one might imagine. Check out the ceramic tile-lined exhaust area that funnels air away from the aircraft (a scale model of the F-117 shows this more easily).

The US military has given only four of these aircraft to air museums, and this is a unique opportunity to see the latest thing in military aviation. The majority of F-117s are still very much in service.

Learn all you want about aircraft from docents who are sure to welcome you to the facility. If you get the urge to salute them, don’t be surprised. Many of these docents are retired military personnel. A few of them have even flown the exact aircraft you see in front of you (except for the Stealth Fighter, probably). They delight in sharing their knowledge with visitors young and old, so don’t be shy about asking questions. And if you get lost (this is easier to do than you think), the docents will steer you in the right direction.

Walt Disney's Gulfstream 1 during its interior restoration at the Palm Springs Air Museum. Photo by Anne Siegel.

California’s Favorite Mouse Is In the House

Another new exhibit here will entertain anyone who appreciates Disney memorabilia. Walt Disney’s private aircraft, a Grumman Gulfstream I, will soon be on display. Disney, who owned two homes in Palm Springs over the years, was an avid horseback rider who loved riding on desert trails. He used the plane extensively in the 1960s. Last September, Disney’s decommissioned plane was transported from Anaheim, Calif., (home of Disneyland), to Palm Springs for permanent display. Currently, the plane’s interior is being restored to replicate its original 1963 design. Disney's plane soon became known as “the Mouse." It seated 15 people and its original furnishings were influenced by Walt Disney and his wife, Lillian. The plane had two bathrooms; one for the guests and the other to give Walt some privacy. “The Mouse” stayed in service for 28 years. Occasionally, it ferried actors to premieres of Disney’s live action and animated films.

Two years before Walt got his own Gulfstream, he used one on loan to search above swampy stretches of Central Florida for the secretive “Project X.” When the Disney company took possession of its own aircraft, Walt made a number of trips to Florida as “Project X,” now known as Walt Disney World, began to take shape.

Immersive exhibits blend original artifacts, still images and newsreel clips, such as in this display. Photo by Anne Siegel.

Over the years, numerous Disney stars took flights on “the Mouse” for promotional tours, including Julie Andrews, Kurt Russell and Annette Funicello. Former US Presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were also among those who flew aboard the plane.

Although the Disney plane remains tucked away at the air museum for now, many of the interior’s unique features and photos are currently on display (near the Bob Hope exhibit). This will only whet a visitor’s appetite for the aircraft’s eventual unveiling.

Yet another new feature at the air museum honors Snoopy the Flying Ace and his creator, Charles M. Schulz. A number of Schulz’s hand-inked comic strips show Snoopy in aerial dogfights with his nemesis, the Red Baron. There’s even a “life-size” Snoopy doghouse nearby that’s perfect for capturing Instagram-able moments.

Local artist paints traditional "good luck" mascot on restored World War II aircraft in 2013. Photo by Anne Siegel.

The many other aircraft on exhibit extend from the days of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk across the spectrum of military aviation. Visitors can tour inside a B-17 and C-47 (depending on availability and time of day). Many of the vintage warbirds are airworthy, and visitors can even arrange a ride on one of them (starting at $125 for a 15-minute flight).

There is much more to explore here, including flight simulators and a movie theater that shows a rotation of aviation-related films.

The museum staff has even got you covered in case you are hungry (or, more likely, thirsty). The Victory Canteen and Café is a visual throwback to yesteryear. The costumed staff serve hamburgers and fries, all sorts of cold drinks, ice cream treats, and a variety of other munchies.

Even toddlers can become a "Top Gun" in this replica pilot jacket, sold at the gift shop. Photo by Anne Siegel.

And the gift shop is definitely a must-see, with its unique selection of aviation-related merchandise. You can find an abundance of items for collectors as well as kids, ranging from light fixtures and airplane models, to balsa wood gliders that used to cost 10 cents at the five and dime.

The museum is located at 745 N. Gene Autry Trail, Palm Springs. It is open daily 10am-5pm, except on major holidays. Tickets are $22 for adults, $20 for seniors age 65 and up, and for students age 13-17. Children 12 and under get in free with a paid adult admission, and a discounted family rate is also available. Service members with an active military ID and their immediate family are admitted free. Since this is Palm Springs, a dog-friendly haven, well-behaved dogs on leashes also are welcome. For more information, go to palmspringsairmuseum.org, or call 760-778-6262

Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene and sometimes beyond? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!

Picture of the author
Anne Siegel

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic; she's a former member of the American Theatre Critics Association, where she served for more than 30 years. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites, including Third Coast Review.