Guest Blogger: The World’s Best Aviation Museums

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Wright Brothers flight path. Photo: nps.gov
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By Angie Picardo,
Airplanista Guest Blogger

Few things beat the experience of flying, but aviation museums could come close as they let you explore the origins of aviation, live air shows, and even wartime history. The next time you’re planning a trip, consider a destination near one of these great museums.

Hiller Aviation Museum – San Carlos, California, USA
In San Carlos, California (Silicon Valley), the Hiller Aviation Museum is located right in the seat of America’s innovation. It was founded in 1998 by helicopter pioneer Stanley Hiller. Covering aviation history as far back as 1869, it includes over 40 actual aircraft, as well as many model aircraft.

With great educational programs for children, and a Flight Simulation Zone open in the evenings and on weekends, Hiller is a great place for both aviation enthusiasts and for family outings. Open 10am to 5pm, 7 days a week; tickets are $12 for adults, $8 for seniors/youths, and free for children under 4. For more information about Hiller, go here.

Wright Brothers National Memorial – Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, USA
This memorial and its visitor center are must-sees for a one-of-a-kind, full-scale reproduction of the original Wright Brothers flying machines. Though commonly referred to as the Kitty Hawk Memorial, the Wright brothers actually conducted test flights four miles south of Kitty Hawk, on the sands of the Kill Devil Hills. This is the location of the world’s first passenger flight, which occurred on May 14, 1908, flown by Wilbur Wright, with mechanic Charles Furnas as passenger.

The visitor center houses a full-scale reproduction of the brothers’ 1902 glider and their 1903 flying machine, a reproduction of their first wind tunnel, and an engine block from their original 1903 flyer. While visiting the memorial, you can also climb Big Kill Devil Hill, where you’ll find the 60-foot pylon from which the brothers conducted their experiments. The most exciting way to explore this memorial is to visit the park via plane and land at the First Flight Airstrip.

The visitor center and centennial pavilion are open 9am to 5pm daily, 7 days a week, year round. But be sure to make the most of your visit by planning ahead. Go here for detailed information about the memorial and its exhibits.

Flying Tigers Memorial – Kunming, Yunnan, China
“Flying Tigers” is the nickname for the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Airforce. The 1st AVG was composed of U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots. Recruited under presidential authority and commanded by Claire Lee Chennault, their mission was to defend China against Japanese forces during World War II. The Flying Tigers had three fighter squadrons of twenty aircraft each, with highly recognizable shark-faced fighters. Some would consider the Flying Tigers to be a private military contractor, since they were technically mercenaries and earned more money than they would have as U.S. forces. The Flying Tigers achieved innovative tactical victories between 1941 and 1942. They were replaced in 1942 by the U.S. Army’s 23rd Fighter Group, which retained the group’s nickname and their aircraft’s nose art. They initially trained in Burma, and flew over and around the Burma Hump, located near Yunnan, China.

In Yunnan’s capital city of Kunming, you’ll find an exhibit called the Flying Tigers Memorial within the Kunming City Museum. Recently opened in December 2012, it has over 2,000 historical relics and photos on display to help tell this little-known story of cooperation and assistance between the Chinese and the Americans.

If you are in China, take a trip to the Kunming City Museum and check out this unique exhibit! It is open year-round from 10am to 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday. Tickets are 5 RMB per person. To learn more about the Flying Tigers Memorial, go here.

Imperial War Museum (IWM)
Duxford – Duxford, U.K.
Located on the grounds of the former First and Second World War Airfields, the IWM Duxford is home to over 200 iconic aircraft, as well as tanks, military vehicles, and boats. With multiple exhibits on different topics and the space to wander under and around all kinds of planes, this museum is an aviation lover’s dream. One exhibit, called “Flying Aircraft,” gives visitors a peek into how privately owned aircraft are maintained and prepared for flight.

As the museum is also an active airfield, you’ll get a close-up view of its inner workings. This exhibit also includes the iconic flying fortress Sally B from the movie Memphis Belle. Then there’s “Airspace,” an exhibit that profiles the history of aviation in Britain and its Commonwealth, and houses over thirty aircraft, including the Concorde and the Spitfire. A third exhibit is properly called the American Air Museum, because it is just that big: it’s home to the largest collection of American ‘warbirds’ on display outside of the United States, and is dedicated to American airmen who have given their lives in wars since World War II.

Finally, the can’t-miss features at Duxford are its amazing air shows, which are usually held in the afternoon. Upcoming shows include “Flying Legends,” which displays historic aircraft, the “Duxford Air Show,” which includes a mix of contemporary and historic aircraft, and finally the “Autumn Airshow,” which features historic planes operated by flying partners who are based at the museum. Discover more about Duxford by going here.

National Air and Space Museum
– Washington, DC, USA
With the largest collection of historic air and spacecraft in the world, the National Air and Space Museum is a must-see. With two display facilities at different locations, it houses many treasures of American aviation. If you’re especially interested in the Wright Brothers, check out The Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age exhibit at the main location in the National Mall building, and see their original 1903 flyer.

Or if you want to see an amazing collection of planes, make the trip to the lesser-known Udvar-Hazy Center, near Dulles Airport. This larger facility has the space to house three different hangars full of planes on the ground floor, as well as suspended from the ceiling and walls. Though the space shuttle Discovery is probably Udvar-Hazy’s most famous attraction, there’s a lot more to see. There is even a special observation tower from which you can watch Dulles’ air traffic live.

The National Air and Space Museum has multiple locations, so go here to find more detailed info.

Angie Picardo is a 2012 graduate of UC Berkeley, where she studied English Literature. A museum enthusiast, she loves flying and aspires to get her pilot license. She currently works as staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance site dedicated to helping people make informed decisions and achieve their financial goals.

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