COVID-19 update: California is rolling out a slow and steady reopening plan that currently includes museums and other indoor activities. Its guidelines for mask wearing follow the CDC's, with loosened rules for fully vaccinated individuals, but face coverings are still required inside the museum for all visitors 3 and older. Social distancing (you're asked to stay at least 6 feet from other parties) is strongly encouraged. Visitors are also encouraged to buy tickets online in advance. Check the museum's website for its most recent guidelines.
The San Diego Air & Space Museum (SDASM), a Smithsonian Institution affiliate, is a nesting doll of history. The artifacts are housed within a landmark building that’s part of Balboa Park, an international architectural jewel that was turned into barracks, then turned back into a world-class 1,200-acre public space in the heart of the city.
You’ll find dozens of historically significant buildings in the park, which was the site of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and became a makeshift military city during World Wars I and II for the Navy, Army and Marines. They transformed buildings still standing today into barracks, hospital extensions and training grounds — SDASM’s home among them.
Constructed in 1935 by famed machinist Henry Ford, the Ford Building (where the SDASM resides) has fulfilled many lives: an industrial and automotive exposition hall, military storage facility for antiaircraft guns shipped off to Hawaii in the 1940s, a technical school for the 251st Coast Artillery, a training site for men and women aircraft workers during World War II — and based on how the underground beams are marked, a suspected bomb shelter.
Entering the museum
The art deco structure is flanked by one of only three of the Navy's experimental Convair YF2Y-1 Sea Darts ever flown and a retired CIA Lockheed A-12, foreshadowing the wealth of military history inside. Just beyond the doors, a rotunda introduces you to the beginnings of flight and its trailblazers, including American aviator Charles Lindbergh (for whom the city's international airport is named) and physicist and glider hobbyist turned aviation pioneer John J. Montgomery, whose early experiments and investigations informed the Wright Brothers’ patent.
Flight's early years
You'll learn that for all their contributions and fame, the Wright Brothers stymied innovation, and in effect, wartime efforts. While European nations were producing sophisticated aircraft by the dawn of World War I, the U.S. — limited by the brothers’ 1906-filed patent — had nothing remotely war-worthy to offer the sky.
As a result, America's first airborne service craft wasn't American made at all: Suspended from the ceiling as you enter the area for World War I-era of flight, an original 1918 red-nosed Nieuport 28C-1 (N.28) lightweight biplane fighter showcases French craftsmanship and simplicity. Made of canvas, wood and cables, the N.28 was essentially a motorized kite, but with impeccable maneuverability. And so the American Expeditionary Force bought 297 of them in March 1918. By April, the 94th “Hat in the Ring” Aero Squadron had shot down two German planes with the N.28's single synchronized Vickers 7.7 mm machine gun — the first enemy aircraft to be bested by American airmen.
It's an invigorating story, one that speaks to the inherent truths of resilience among those in the service and that begins the evolution of higher altitude warfare that unfolds across the eight fighter planes in the expansive gallery, each its own star in the collective World War I sky where history was written.
You'll see an Albatros D.Va replica, the plane made famous by the Red Baron and the 40 hard-earned kills he won in its cockpit; the Fokker E.III Eindecker reproduction, equipped with a machine gun that could time its shooting around the propeller, freeing both the pilot's hands for navigation; and the V-8 engine SPAD VII, favored over the Nieuport by the French and known to be one of the hero fighters of World War I.
They are all soaring above war memorabilia and donated artifacts (caps, flight indicators, goggles, guns and more) on display in glass cases, illustrated and framed propaganda posters on the walls, and a 1917 boxy Ford ambulance replica that puttered along as the Wright Brothers’ patent lifted and America was catapulted into the golden age of flight.
Where World War I saw pilots as honored huntsmen, the decades that followed brought out the joy of flight, with excitement, play and the promise of endless new records to be set — evident in the exhibits that fill the next gallery. Here, you're on eye level with World War I veteran and daredevil Clyde Pangborn as he steps from a speeding Lozier automobile onto a rope ladder dangling from the single-engine Curtiss JN-4D biplane (affectionately nicknamed the “Jenny,” and flown by the Army to deliver air mail) passing low overhead, its 43-foot wingspan barely out of reach.
Pangborn was just one of many jobless aviators at the end of the Great War who turned to air stunts to make a living. Known as barnstormers, these fearless (and reckless) men and women walked the wings of planes midair, performing acrobatics and giving the public a taste for the awe of being airborne, before the birth of commercial flights.
Speeding into World War II
A new age of daredevils take to the sky as you enter World War II, greeted by an explosion of technology and aviation sophistication that far outstripped the motorized kites of the early century, thanks in part to the four global factions trying to outdo each other.
The competition created far-from-perfect results, as evidenced by the engine of a German plane on display — which was 100 mph faster than anything the U.S. could produce but could only withstand a few hours of flight before burning up. The Allies retaliated with two classical fighters: the North American P-51D Mustang and the Supermarine Spitfire Mk.XVI. Already one of the war's great crafts with a full suite of speed, firepower and maneuverability, the Mustang hit new performance levels when a Rolls Royce Merlin engine (also on display) replaced the original Allison V-1710 engine, transforming the plane into a superior supercharged weapon that could provide full fighter coverage to bombers, turning the tables for the Allies.
The Jet Age and beyond
From there, the Jet Age awaits in the final gallery. Here, a squadron of MaxFlight simulators doubles down on the sense that you're stepping into the future. As you climb into an open cockpit and assume gunner or pilot (or both!) position to navigate training exercises, carrier landings and full aerial rolls, the gallery's aircraft feel neatly at home around you. The blue bullet of an F/A-18 A Hornet Blue Angel 1 at the rear, and the Douglas A-4B Skyhawk, Vietnam's primary attack bomber, fully equipped to refuel other craft in-flight and the first to carry nuclear weapons, close by.
Even the partially exposed Pratt & Whitney J58 single-spool turbojet engine on display feels as though it might take flight, dropped into the Lockheed A-12 Blackbird out in front of the museum and powering it from Los Angeles to D.C. in one hour, four minutes, at Mach 3-plus speed, with you in the pilot seat. As you gently pull back on the yoke and climb higher, muscle memory kicks in — today, you're just another bird in the sky.
Director's tip: Don't miss the Chance Vought F4U Corsair in the World War II Gallery. It's painted in honor of marine aviator, professional baseball player and Hall of Fame broadcaster Jerry Coleman, often known as “The Colonel.” He's the only Major League Baseball player to have served in aerial combat in two different wars: World War II and the Korean War.
Plan your trip
Location: 2001 Pan American Plaza
Getting there: The museum is in the heart of Balboa Park, only a few minutes from downtown and the international airport. There's plenty of parking at the park and in a designated lot directly in front of the museum with ample accessible parking.
Visit: Daily, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day)
Admission: Adults, $22; adults 65-plus, $18; MaxFlight simulators, $8 per person
Best time to visit: Monday, typically the museum's least visited day of the week
Accessibility: The entire museum, including the pavilion, is wheelchair accessible. Wheelchairs are available at no charge (first come, first served).
Also in Balboa Park
You'll find 17 museums and cultural institutions in the park. For more military history, be sure to visit the Veterans Museum (Thursday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) in the former naval hospital chapel. The museum, which honors each branch of service and veterans from all conflicts, features exhibits spanning the Civil War to present day and includes rare artifacts, artwork and memorabilia, all brought to life by docents on a living history tour. Also worth a visit, the park's Japanese Friendship Garden (10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, last admission at 5 p.m.), which celebrates the international union between San Diego and its sister city, Yokohama, Japan. Wander 12 acres of meticulously curated landscape design that applies ancient Japanese horticulture techniques to San Diego's unique climate.
A 10-minute drive southeast of the park, the San Diego Harbor is a living museum, bustling with working ships and stationary artifacts alike. Step aboard the USS Midway, a floating museum (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, last admission at 4 p.m.) built in just 17 months and commissioned one week shy of World War II's ending in September 1945. The longest-serving aircraft carrier in the last century, the Midway now holds more than 60 exhibits across the hangar and armored flight decks, as well as below deck, where you can explore the restored engine room or pretend to be the chef in the chow line. So large that it could hold 120 planes, the Midway today features 30 masterfully restored aircraft and helicopters that span the Korean and Vietnam wars to present day.
Where to stay
Splurge: The Pendry San Diego is a swank 317-room hotel in the city's Gaslamp Quarter at the center of downtown (just a couple miles from both the airport and Balboa Park), offering multiple on-site dining options and a twinkling cityscape view from the rooftop pool. Rooms from $295
Save: The 34-room Pacific Hotel sits 3 miles west of SDASM in the city's Little Italy neighborhood, overlooking picturesque Waterfront Park and the harbor. Rooms from $100
Where to dine
Splurge: Mister A's specializes in French-focused fare (think roasted rack of lamb and Maine lobster with creamy French butter) and the view from the 12th floor of a commercial building in Banker's Hill, immediately west of Balboa Park.
Save: Reserve a patio table overlooking the harbor at the Fish Market. Try the wild Pacific yellowfin tuna, cooked to perfection over high heat and seasoned lightly.