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Marine Corps' aviation history takes flight at Flying Leatherneck museum

From WWII torpedo bombers to Cold War-era helicopters, the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum tells the story of the Marines' exploits in the skies.

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"We fight our country's battles / In the air, on land, and sea...." So says the Marines' Hymn.
Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

When you think of military air power in the United States, your first thought is probably the Air Force. After that, maybe you think of the Navy, no doubt helped by the popularity of the 1986 film Top Gun. But the Marines? Sure they have helicopters, but they also have a long history of fixed-wing aircraft.

North of San Diego, next to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar (the former home of the Navy's Top Gun flight school), is the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum. Aircraft flown by Marines from World War II to the modern day are on display. Sure, there are easily recognizable craft like Hueys and F/A-18 Hornets, but what makes this museum truly special is how many rare early Cold War aircraft are here as well. Have you ever seen a Skyray, Panther or Banshee?

At the Leatherneck Aviation Museum, you can, or at least you could -- I visited before the coronavirus pandemic. Here's a look around.

Skyrays, Skyhawks and Skyknights

It's easy to miss the Leatherneck museum. The entrance is so small, I drove right by it. Maybe they need a bigger sign, even though many of the classic aircraft are visible from the road.

Once you're inside, however, the history is everywhere. I first spotted the bulky body of the WWII era TBM Avenger. It's the only aircraft shielded from the strong San Diego sun. You can get right up close and look inside the rear windows at the tiny compartment where the radioman/bombardier/part-time rear gunner sat.

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Most of the planes at the museum are from a bit later, and most of them are quite rare. Early carrier-based jets like the delta-winged F4D Skyray and F9F Panther sit next to the F2H Banshee and F3D Skyknight. You don't often see these in other museums.

It wouldn't be a museum about aviation in the Marines if there weren't helicopters, and there's a bunch here. These versions are slightly different from their Army and Air Force incarnations, like the SeaCobra instead of the SuperCobra, and the CH-53 Sea Stallion instead of the HH-53 Pave Low.

Then there's a dual-rotor CH-46 Sea Knight with a rather fascinating history. It's the Lady Ace 09. On the 30th of April, 1975, it was flown by Marine then-Capt. Gerry Barry, who as part of Operation Frequent Wind, evacuated Ambassador Graham Martin from the US Embassy during the Fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.

A nearby Bell 214ST tells a very different story. It had been purchased by the Iraqi government in the 1980s and is painted in various shades of beige. On Feb. 27, 1991, US Marines captured it in Kuwait.

Elsewhere at the museum are Harriers, Crusaders, Intruders and more.

Leathernecks

The Flying Leatherneck is the only museum in the world that focuses on the long history of aviation in the Marine Corps. While the collection isn't huge, it has a variety of rare aircraft that are fascinating to see up close.

It has some big plans for the future, as well, including a big building to house many exhibits indoors. Best of all, it's free to visit.

The museum is currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic but is usually open Mondays and some Federal holidays. If San Diego isn't in your near-future plans, check out the gallery above.


As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castles, epic 10,000 mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.

He wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines, along with a sequel. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and his YouTube channel.