5 Must-See Museums and Tours for Aviation Enthusiasts
Part of the charm of airline travel are the airplanes themselves, and nobody loves gawking at airplanes more than AvGeeks. If you want to take your AvGeekery to new heights and happen to be in Atlanta, Seattle, DC, Tucson or LA, check out these temples of aviation.
Southern Charm: The Delta Flight Museum at ATL
The Delta Flight Museum sits amidst the constant stream of airliners landing and departing at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL). It opened in 2014 to the general public and showcases two crown jewels: the first Douglas DC-3 that Delta flew, and a unique Boeing 767, the one that Delta employees helped buy for the airline in 1982.
The Douglas DC-3, known as Ship 41, is the shiny aluminum beauty seen here. It was tracked down in Puerto Rico by Delta employees and enthusiasts where it had been a cargo dog. Once acquired, it was restored to its historic livery, and outfitted with vintage seats. She flew an additional 600 hours post-restoration, before being moved to her permanent home at the museum. This is a gorgeous specimen of the airplane that some call "the greatest of all time."
Once a month, the museum cracks open the DC-3 for guests to tour the cabin and flight deck as it was in the 1940s. We donned protective booties and gloves and climbed aboard. (Watch your head). Our tour was led by a volunteer active Delta A320 pilot, and a retired Delta employee, each of whom loved to share their passion for this plane and the airline.
Love for the airline is apparent also in The Spirit of Delta, a Boeing 767 hanging out in an adjacent hangar to the DC-3. This ship was purchased by then-current and former flight attendants and line crew in 1982 as a thank you gift to the airline. (Yes, really.) She flew until 2006 when she was retired and handed over to the museum. Today, you can climb aboard, and learn more about the Delta employees who sought fit to reward the airline for weathering deregulation and the tough early-1980s economy. The purchase price back then? Only $30 million.
For those interested in modern birds, you can tour the Delta version of the Boeing 747, retired last year and now installed at the museum. Frequent Delta flyers will recognize the business class lie-flat seats; you can venture up to the flight deck, walk out onto the wings, and get a sense for how big the main cabin is, sans economy seating. Finally, there's a full-motion Boeing 737 simulator built by Canada's CAE that you can rent, and practice your instrument approaches.
"If It’s Not Boeing...": The Boeing Production Facility Tour in Everett
The Seattle region is AvGeek country. The home of Boeing Commercial Aircraft, it boasts two outstanding tour options, in the Museum of Flight, and the Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Tour in Everett. (Everett is around 30 minutes north of Seattle, depending on how many of the 30,000 Boeing employees there are on their way to work.) This 90-minute tour of the production line is nothing short of awe-inspiring and a bucket list item for AvGeeks.
From a catwalk above the factory floors, you’ll observe sparkling new 787s coming down the line, as well as 777s and 747s. You can smell and hear aircraft under production. When I last visited, I really just wanted to sit there for a day and watch. Photos and video are not allowed on the guided tour available to the public, but you will see which airlines’ new beauties are about to be delivered. The assembly lines churn out planes 24 hours a day, in three shifts. The production facility is the largest building by volume in the world and covers a whopping 98 acres. Indeed, it’s so large that clouds used to form inside the building.
On the roof deck of the Future of Flight building, I spotted a recently-arrived Dreamlifter, a massive transport airport shuttling pieces of the 787 Dreamliner to Everett for assembly. The massive nose swung open, and out popped composite-material wings freshly baked in Japan and ready for just-in-time assembly.
There's is nothing about the Boeing Tour that is small-bore. In Everett, Boeing isn’t just crafting planes; they are creating brand devotees (complete with a gift shop at the end of the tour; I picked up a t-shirt and model 787.)
The Mothership: The National Air and Space Museum and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
The National Air and Space Museum is another piece of AvGeek heaven, albeit a crowded one. It's the most-visited museum in the US, and you’ve probably been there as a kid. It’s time to return to pay homage now that you can appreciate modern airline travel.
Practically hidden in an alcove of the museum is the original Wright flyer that flew at Kitty Hawk. Yes, the very first heavier-than-air powered airplane with control surfaces. Gaze at it—a wooden kite, covered in canvas—and compare it to where we are today. That first flight was shorter than the tip-to-tail length of a 747.
Elsewhere, you'll find the Spirit of St. Louis hanging from the ceiling. Charles Lindbergh flew this alone from New York to Paris non-stop. This historic aircraft is a bit lost at the museum unfortunately, especially when you consider that Lindbergh relied on dead reckoning to fly to Paris, had no radio— much less radar!—brought only five sandwiches and water, and flew for almost 34 hours in a sleep deprived state.
A less known annex of the Smithsonian is the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The center is named after the man who founded ILFC and Air Lease Corporation, aircraft finance companies that buy and lease some 25% of the world's airliners. There, you can see the Lockheed Constellation—the Connie—designed at the request of TWA, see an Air France Concorde up close, and the Space Shuttle Discovery. Not a bad collection of flying machines at all.
Not Quite A Tour: Hike or Flyover Required
Victorville, California, is some 70 miles east of Los Angeles, and home to the Southern California Logistics Airport. There, hundreds of aircraft are put out to pasture. There’s no way to see them up close and personal, except if you do as TPG’s Zach Honig did, charter a helicopter, and overfly the airport while snapping photos. Other intrepid AvGeeks report that you can get a nice view by driving around the perimeter fence, or hiking around the area. While the Victorville boneyard is a working facility in the desert and not a tourist attraction, we hope someday it will be. Victorville is off the beaten path, but on many an AvGeek's bucket list.
New and Old: The Pima Air & Space Museum
The Pima Air & Space Museum is 80 acres of total AvGeekery. Located in Tucson, Arizona , adjacent to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the museum is both indoor and out. You’re bound to catch a sunny day, where you can get up close to the second prototype Boeing 787 Dreamliner (with ANA livery, seen here). Touch the nacelles and feel the composite material for which the Dreamliner is known. (Yes, it feels like plastic.) At Pima, newer commercial aircraft are mixed in with military relics, including Soviet-built MiG fighters, a vintage Air Force One, and a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. If a visit to the Victorville, California, boneyard is not in the cards, you can try and see the immense rows of stored US military planes at Davis-Monthan AFB with some advanced planning. There are more military planes stored here than most of the world's air forces have in service.
Mike Arnot is the founder of travel brand Boarding Pass NYC, and a private pilot. Delta photos shot by New York photographer Andrew Mitchell.