Albeit being a rich and fine collection of military aircraft, possibly among the best in California, the Aerospace Museum of California, located a few miles north-east of downtown Sacramento along interstate 80, is still a somewhat unusual place – at least, it’s not so famous as other attractions in town, like the State Capitol, the Railroad Museum, Sutter’s Fort and the area of the former river port.
The museum is located on the eastern side of the area of McClellan airport. McClellan used to work as a support Air Force base and a station of the Coast Guard. The latter is still operating from this airport today with Lockheed C-130 Hercules, but the Air Force left in 2001.
The following photographs were taken during a visit to the museum in August 2014, and portrait some highlights of this interesting and often overlooked collection.
The museum is made of a relatively small hangar, where you pay and can also find some nice books. The hangar hosts a few more delicate aircraft, like a refurbished example of the ubiquitous Boeing Stearman training biplane, as well as a nice collection of piston, jet and liquid fuel rocket engines from various ages of aviation.
Also preserved inside is an escape unit of a General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark, which was unique in the sense that it was a totally detachable part of the aircraft. Instead of having jettisonable seats, the pilots would trigger separation of the whole cockpit unit, leaving the canopy intact. This section of the aircraft then descended gently with a parachute. The canopy is open, so you can have a look to the cockpit.
You can board a Dassault Falcon 50 of the Coast Guard, and inspect a North American F-86 Sabre.
The collection outside is hosted on a relatively small fenced apron – good if you don’t want to walk – differently from the USAF museum at Wright-Patterson in Ohio… – but not so good for taking pictures of single aircraft. Among the most unusual sights here, you immediately come across a FedEx Boeing 727 freighter, which can be boarded on some days.
More usual aircraft on display include a North American F-100 Super Sabre, Fairchild A-10 Warthog, Lockheed F-104 Starfighter – a NASA aircraft -, Grumman F-14 Tomcat, McDonnell F-101 Voodoo, Republic F-105 Thunderchief, Sikorsky Jolly Green Giant helo and others.
More unusual types here include two Soviet MiGs, a MiG-17 whose history is not clear – it was acquired reportedly by the Air Force – and a former Czechoslovakian MiG-21, purchased at the end of the Cold War by a private businessman.
Other interesting American aircraft include a Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star of the USAF. The day I visited it could be boarded. The housing for the early warning radar equipment of this four-propeller aircraft, highly modified from the Constellation liner, is a very distinctive feature of its shape. Inside it is still possible to have a look to the radar and transmission equipment from the early stages of the Cold War, as well as taking the pilot’s seat in the cockpit.
There is a Douglas C-47 – this exemplar is a veteran of WWII and served in the European theatre of war in the brave, perilous operations of 1944. Also this can be boarded, allowing to take a look at the very simple cockpit and the rugged structural construction of this great workhorse.
A more unusual piece on display that unfortunately couldn’t be boarded was a Douglas C-54 Skymaster, the front product of Douglas at the end of WWII and in the first years of the Cold War. The exemplar of the museum spent much of its operative life with the Navy in various parts of the world, until falling into private hands as a cargo plane. It is painted in the colors of the Air Force at the time of the Berlin Airlift, to which the Skymaster contributed substantially.
Finally, I had the chance to board for the first time one of the most iconic – and eye-catching – aircraft of the Coast Guard, a Grumman HU-16 Albatross. This beautiful amphibious aircraft was active for about 30 years until the end of the Seventies as a rescue aircraft. Boarding from the back you pass through a small passenger area, a medical/communication area, and finally you reach the cockpit. The layout is different from many similarly sized aircraft, in having a passage between the pilot and co-pilot seats leading to the front hatch. Part of the control gear, mounted on a moving arm, can be lifted to allow reaching the front hatch. The engine control levers are placed on an overhead panel.
While leaving, I assisted to some operations of the Coast Guard, including a takeoff and landing of a C-130. The doors of the hangar of the Air Station have a particular shape, possibly to cope with the fuselage and tail of the Hercules.
All in all, this collection has an average size, so it’s good also for curious but not aviation-minded people, and has something also for more experienced aviation enthusiasts. I recommend visiting if you are in the area!