Warbirds in Texas

The immense state of Texas is in the foreground of the panorama of historical aviation, thanks especially to the CAF – the Commemorative Air Force (website here) – which maintains and operates some of the Nation’s finest airworthy warbirds. This privately financed, non-profit organization feeds the programs of many airshows everywhere in the US, and carries out an invaluable function in preserving the legacy of many aircraft designers, manufacturers and military servicemen especially from WWII and early Cold War years.

The birth of the CAF in Texas is not just by chance. The Lone Star State bolsters an extremely long and rich tradition in aviation. Training airfields were established in Texas earlier and in a number greater than any other State during WWI. Fort Worth was the birthplace of one of todays few surviving major airlines in the US – American Airlines – back in the early 1930s.

Aircraft manufacturers associated with Texas include Consolidated – most of the iconic WWII B-24 Liberator bombers  were manufactured in Fort Worth – and North American. Consolidated later merged into Convair, owned by General Dynamics since the Fifties. Many aircraft of the Cold War era were actually manufactured in Fort Worth, including the record-breaking B-36 Peacemaker and B-58 Hustler, or the highly successful F-16 Fighting Falcon, still in service today in many air forces of the world, as well as a good deal of other types. As of today, Lockheed Martin and Bell Helicopters are both headquartered in Fort Worth.

Needless to recall, Houston has been one of the major focal points of world astronautics since the beginning of the space age.

In such a cultural setting, and considering the general financial wealth and the abundance of oil typical of Texas, it is not surprising that warbirds, even though fuel-thirsty and expensive to maintain, are present here in an exceptional concentration. Where possible, they are maintained in airworthy conditions, otherwise they are kept in great consideration in world-class air museums.

This post covers only four rich collections out of the many you can find in Texas. Two of them are ‘airworthy collections’, whereas in the other two warbirds are preserved for static display. Considered together, these four sites are probably already a good reason for an aviation-themed trip to Texas!

Photographs are from an extremely hot August 2018.

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Cavanaugh Flight Museum, Addison, TX

This renowned collection just west of downtown Dallas is split between a big group of exceptionally well-kept and airworthy prop-driven aircraft, and a number of warbirds on static display, some of them jet-powered. Website here.

The museum occupies a few hangars on a very busy general aviation airport (Addison Airport), where executive jets, helicopters and smaller propeller-driven aircraft operate all around the clock. 

The collection is hosted in four hangars and on an external apron where you can walk around freely. Not all aircraft are around here at any time, some having been flown out to some airshow, or for maintenance. In the first hangar you can find a handful of perfect airworthy replicas of WWI fighters from both sides of the front line.

Just besides are a North American B-25J-NC Mitchell, a ground strafing version of the famous medium-range bomber, and a veteran of WWII.

There are also a Vultee SNV-2 Valiant, a De Havilland Tiger Moth, a Ryan PT-22, all training planes from the Forties. In a corner you can see also a Piper L-4J, the military version of the J-3 Cub, and a Stinson L-5E, similar to the former in shape and mission type.

A Pitts Special aerobatic biplane is hanging from the ceiling in an inverted attitude.

The second hangar hosts a Fairchild PT-19 Cornell, an ubiquitous US military trainer from the Forties, in a distinctive light blue colorway with a yellow fin. Together with a yellow Stearman N2S-4 Kaydet biplane and a North American T-6 Texan, both good old trainers, they share the scene with a handful of stunningly preserved icons from WWII.

These include a Grumman F-4 Wildcat and a massive Grumman TBF Avenger – both in the dark blue colorway of the US Navy. 

Just besides are a licensed version of the Messerschmitt Bf-109G of Nazi Germany built by Hispano Aircraft in Spain, and a nice replica of a Soviet Yakovlev Yak-3M.

Cross the apron, you can find some more great classics from the Forties. There are an immaculate Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, and two North American T-28 Trojan trainers in the colors of the Navy. In the background you can spot a sizable Heinkel He-111 twin, a licensed version manufactured by CASA in Spain.

The last hangar shelters an aggressive Douglas A-1H Skyraider in the colors of the USAF. This version of the massive single-prop features a single seat and is especially reinforced for increased bomb load to carry on ground attack missions.

This is surrounded by a series of pretty famous jet attack aircraft, including a McDonnell-Douglas F-4C Phantom II, a North American F-86 Sabre and a Grumman F-9F-2B Panther with foldable wings and the distinctive blue and red colors of the Navy. 

There are also two classic fighters from WWII, a Supermarine Spitfire Mk.VIII and a North American P-51D Mustang. The latter is so polished that you can clearly see your image reflected in its skin panels!

On the outside apron you can see parked three Soviet-made jets from WWII – a MiG-15 UTI and a MiG-17 in the colors of the Red Army, and a more recent MiG-21 in the colors of the North Vietnamese Air Force. Close by, a PZL Iskra trainer, once ubiquitous in the former Soviet bloc.

There are also a Lockheed F-104A Starfighter, a Grumman S-2F-1 Tracker patrol aircraft of the Navy with folded wings, a Republic F-105 Thunderchief awaiting restoration, and a Vought A-7 Corsair II.

Scattered around the museum are also a few helicopters, and even a Sherman tank.

During my visit I could see two movements of aircraft taxiing out for take-off. The first was a Cessna O-2 Skymaster, a model extensively used in Vietnam for FAC missions. This has been refurbished with fake underwing rockets. You can see it in the vid below.

The second was a Douglas EA-1E Skyraider in gray Navy colors. This is the early warning version, designed for a crew of three and originally mounting a dedicated radar platform. You can watch (and hear!) the difficult startup of the huge Wright radial engine – it was around 100°F outside! –  and the aircraft taxiing with folded wings. Unfolding starts only seconds before the aircraft gets out of sight.

Forth Worth Aviation Museum, Fort Worth, TX

This museum hosts a little but highly valuable collection of US aircraft on static display. The museum is totally volunteer-run. These folks are doing an exceptional job preserving their aircraft. As you can see from the pictures, there are many exemplars being actively refurbished in a hangar to the back. The museum is located on the southeast corner of Fort Worth Meacham general aviation airport. Website here.

All aircraft are preserved outside, but you get access to the museum grounds through a lounge, stacked with wonderful memorabilia, technical specimens, paintings and rare pictures.

A showcase is devoted to the Convair B-58 Hustler, a record-setting Mach 2 bomber from the Fifties, produced in slightly more than 100 exemplars, which were all manufactured in Fort Worth. This iconic delta wing, four-engined jet was exceptional for the number of ‘firsts’. Among them, it was the first aircraft with a computerized flight control system and an integrated navigation platform. You can spot part of this analog computer, a bulky stack of black metal parts.

There are scale models of the Cessna O-2 Skymaster, and based on the themes of the merchandise in the museum shop there is actually a predilection for that aircraft and the Rockwell OV-10 Bronco, which had a similar mission, i.e. observation, reconnaissance and forward air controller (FAC).

Actually, among the first aircraft you meet outside there is a Cessna Skymaster. I was so lucky to visit on August 19th, the National Aviation Day, when the museum recruited many veterans to stay besides their respective aircraft and tell their story. I spent a little time with Doc Lambert, Nail 66, one of the pilots of FAC missions over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, who allowed me to have a long look inside his Skymaster. Among the testimonies of his war operations, he told me some anecdotes. Most FAC missions were performed with only the pilot on board, which caused a pretty high workload. Furthermore, the aircraft was not equipped to counteract any weapon shooting up from the ground. This meant that a typical flight was an uninterrupted sequence of strong turns to avoid being hit from ground fire, something that also helped in searching for grounded crews, or enemies hiding in the jungle. As a result, you had to be accustomed to such way of flying, or a strong sense of nausea would come to disturb you pretty soon. This regularly happened with visiting high-ranking USAF staff on demonstration flights…

The museum owns another Skymaster, which was undergoing refurbishment in a black livery at the time of my visit, similarly to an operational USMC version of the OV-10 Bronco.

Best preserved aircraft on the front row, which are clearly visible from the public road ahead of the museum, include a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star training aircraft, and a Northrop F-5 Tiger II in a fake Soviet camouflage once used by aggressors in flight academies.

On the same row you can spot a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, a type in service since the early Sixties, and shown here painted in the colors of the Navy. The beautifully restored Vought A-7B Corsair II nearby was deployed to Vietnam three times with VA-25 on board USS Ticonderoga and USS Ranger.

Next is a massive Republic F-105D Thunderchief, a very nice example of this Mach 2 fighter-bomber from the early Sixties. This very aircraft was stationed in Europe, tasked with carrying tactical nuclear ordnance. The roomy bomb bay designed for the scope can be observed from inside. After more than ten years in the USAF, this aircraft went on to serve with the Air National Guard in the Seventies, and was finally disposed of in 1983.

Right besides the F-105 you find a McDonnell-Douglas F-4C Phantom II in the colors of the USMC Aviation. This very aircraft is a Vietnam veteran, and it was later converted into a target drone, but luckily never used in this role. The collection features another F-4, again a Vietnam veteran.

Cutting edge technology from the late Seventies is represented by a Grumman F-14D Tomcat. This plane is a war veteran, it flew missions during Desert Storm and over Afghanistan, and it was often used on FAC missions and for training at home. It was retired in 2007.

The Tomcat is sitting next to an imposing Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter. This too is a Vietnam veteran, and suffered also some damage on combat duty. The avionics of this big helicopter are totally analog. Next to it you can find a Convair TF-102 Delta Dagger interceptor built for combat and training. This very aircraft was flown by President George W. Bush.

Other training aircraft on display from different ages include a Vultee BT-13 Valiant single-prop, a Cessna T-37B Tweet and a Douglas TA-4 Skyhawk. The latter was used extensively for training purposes on board USS Lexington.

Two totally authentic Navy veterans are a Vought F-8 Crusader and a McDonnell-Douglas F/A 18 Hornet. The first spent its early career on board USS Lexington and USS Ranger in multiple cruises in the Western Pacific during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, being later assigned to several Naval Air Stations along its more than 20 years long career. The Hornet was deployed operationally from the late Eighties on board USS Midway and later on USS Independence, and spent its final years in the Blue Angels – of which you see the vivid livery today – being finally retired in 2009.

A special feature of this museum is the only existing mock-up of the McDonnell-Douglas/General Dynamics A-12 Avenger II. Development of this attack aircraft was carried on in the Eighties and finally canceled by the Government. The flying wing configuration and the widespread adoption of composite materials made this platform unique, but also ahead of its times. This design was penalized by subsequent mass increases which caused its cancellation, but it represented a first chance to investigate concepts and technologies later adopted for operational aircraft flying today. The mock-up used to reside in the Fort Worth plant of General Dynamics, from where it made its way to the museum.

Other Cold War planes include a General Dynamics F-111E Aardvark, built in Fort Worth and assigned to Japan and Europe along its long operational career spanning the years 1969-90, and a Rockwell OV-10 Bronco formerly in service with the USAF.

Lone Star Flight Museum, Houston, TX

This stunning museum is located on the premises of the Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base. The installation is centered on a collection of mainly airworthy warbirds and classic planes.. It is really top quality, surely among the best displays of the kind in the Nation. Besides that, they offer a well-designed, recently-made, fresh presentation of the history of aviation in Texas, as well as didactic labs explaining the principles of flight through experiments and simulators. You can find their website here.

There are also meeting rooms and galleries for art exhibitions. Really a place to be for enthusiasts of ‘flying oldies’!

The collection is not huge, but it boasts a good number of notable aircraft still flying today. In the first hangar you can find many iconic designs from the Thirties and Forties. There are a North American T-6 Texan and two beautiful Stearman PT-17 Kaydet trainers. 

A centerpiece of the collection is an extraordinary Republic P-47 Thunderbolt – the fastest propeller driven aircraft ever – in a majestic colorway from WWII years.

At the center of the hangar, much room is taken by an airworthy example of the mighty Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. Together with a few other models, this formed the backbone of the US bombing capacity during WWII. Stunningly restored, this aircraft can be booked for pleasure flights!

Further aircraft on display in this hangar are a Piper L-4H, its civil counterpart, the J-3 Cub, and a similarly looking Stinson OY-1 Sentinel in military colors. 

A true rarity is a stylish Beechcraft D-17 ‘Staggerwing’. This aircraft was conceived in the Thirties as one of the first ‘executive aircraft’, with good handling capabilities, and nice interiors to provide good comfort on board. Despite all efforts, visibility from the front windscreen is probably not very good…

A Grumman F-6F Hellcat, an authentic warbird from WWII, painted in the colors of the Navy, a Fairchild trainer and an ubiquitous general aviation Beechcraft Baron complete the exhibition in the first hangar.

The second hangar hosts both prop-driven and jet-driven aircraft, most of them airworthy or otherwise being restored. The most classic designs in this room are a North American B-25 Mitchell medium-range bomber, a Douglas DC-3, a Douglas SBD Dauntless and a Grumman TBM Avenger.

Interestingly, the Mitchell is the only in the world painted in the colors of the Doolittle Raiders. This very aircraft did not see action during WWII, but later being flown by the CIA on covert missions, it was involved in JFK’s failed attempt to invade Cuba, overflying the Bay of Pigs in the days of operations.

The DC-3 flew extensively with American Airlines and later TransTexas Airways – later to be ingested by Continental, hence the livery – and is still airworthy today. Both the SBD and TBM on display are from WWII days, and are still flying today after restoration work.

While possibly disappearing in front of its illustrious colleagues in this hangar, an honest Cessna T-41 Mescalero represents here the training branch of the armed forces. This is basically the military version of the C-172, probably the aircraft manufactured in the highest numbers in history, and a platform where pilots of all sorts spend part of their training still today. The colors are very nice, and this aircraft is the cheapest you can rent for a ride at the Lone Star Flight Museum.

In the same hangar you can find also (slightly) more modern aircraft. There are three jet-powered aircraft from the early Cold War period. One is a Lockheed T-33A trainer, a very successful aircraft sold in high numbers in the late Forties. More impressing is an authentic Soviet MiG-15, which spent its years in service with the Chinese Air Force and saw action in Korea, opposing the F-86A in the first jet vs. jet campaign in history.

A Polish-built MiG-17 in an incredible ‘Red Banner’ celebration colorway completes the trio.

Close to the exit you can find a beautifully restored Douglas A-1D Skyraider. This aircraft is airworthy, and is an authentic veteran of both the Korean and Vietnam war, where it reportedly sustained extensive damage but was not shot down.

There are also a Sikorsky helicopter used for commuting to oil platforms off the coast of Texas, and a Cobra attack helicopter.

Outside, as a gate guardian on one of the access roads leading to the base, you can spot a NASA Boeing 707 used for zero-gravity flights on behalf of Johnson Space Center.

USS Lexington, Corpus Christi, TX

‘Lady Lex’ – as it was affectionately called by its crews along its illustrious career – is an Essex class WWII aircraft carrier, and with 40 years of active service is by far the one that enjoyed the longest service life. Since the late Sixties it operated as a training platform, where many pilots of the Navy learned how to perform a carrier landing. 

Today this majestic vessel is permanently moored on the bay of Corpus Christi, where it is home to a fascinating history museum covering her long operational history. The corresponding website is here.

Highlights of the visit are first of all the ship’s bridge, from where you can also profit from a vantage view of the flight deck and of the bay – and of the thunderstorms afflicting the area in mid-August, of course.

Similarly interesting are the lower deck where aircraft used to be stored. This is huge, and some historic aircraft can be found here as part of a number of small exhibitions.

The forward compartments recall the attack of Pearl Harbor in 1941, and display also some artifacts from the time, including pieces of the ill-fated battleship Arizona, and a banner belonging to the older CV-2 Lexington – CV-16 being the number of this vessel in Navy inventory.

An unusual topic is movies – some great scenes of ‘Pearl Harbor’ Hollywood drama starring Ben Affleck and Alec Baldwin were shot on USS Lexington, including an apparently genuine take-off of a B-25 from the flight deck! Other motion pictures partly shot on board Lexington are ‘Midway’ and the series ‘War and remembrance’.

Part of the quarters of high-ranking staff can be visited, including a canteen. These were typically used only when the ship was moored. 

Interestingly, it is possible to walk along the side decks of the ship, where anti-aircraft guns can be found and closely inspected.

Finally, the flight deck hosts a number of aircraft, representing many types in service with the Navy, most of which found their way on the modernized flight deck of this old carrier, during combat assignment or on duty as a training vessel. Being exposed to a salty atmosphere and to the intense sun of the Texan coast, these aircraft have been somewhat coated, which gives them a ‘mock-up appearance’, but this is just an impression, for these aircraft are real and on loan from the National Museum of Naval Aviation.