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Witness aviation history at the San Diego Air and Space Museum

With dozens of unique and rare aircraft, the San Diego Air and Space Museum offers a surprisingly comprehensive look at the history and future of aviation.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

It's sunny and warm as I step out of my car into the parking lot of the San Diego Air and Space Museum. Of course, it's San Diego so saying it's "sunny and warm" is a lot like saying "I breathe air." I'm in Balboa Park, a large, mostly green, park-like place roughly in the center of town.

The buildings adjacent to the lot are some stunning late art deco masterpieces leftover from the California Pacific International Exposition of the mid-1930s. Next to one of these examples of nearly-century old architectural design (and that's old for California), is the dagger-like and unmistakable silhouette of an SR-71 Blackbird.

Wait, no, I am mistaken, it's an A-12 Oxcart, which was smaller and somehow even faster. Across is a super-rare Sea Dart, the only seaplane ever to break the sound barrier.

This is the San Diego Air and Space Museum, which houses over 100 years of aviation history, including rare WWI aircraft, unique spacecraft and more. Here's a look inside at some incredible aircraft from the entire history of powered flight.

Fire and rebuild

In 1978 the museum lost a big part of its collection to arson. The building, dating from 1915, lacked sprinklers. Lost was a number of irreplaceable vehicles, including a replica of the "Spirit of St. Louis" by the people who built the original, a Mercury capsule and original aircraft from both World Wars.

The museum has made quite a comeback since then. Interspersed with restored aircraft are meticulous reproductions, many of which are fully capable of flying. This is especially welcome in the large section of the museum dedicated to the WWI and interbellum eras. Most museums skip over this fascinating time in aircraft development.

Housed in the gorgeous Streamline Moderne Ford Building in Balboa Park, the museum has some of the most efficient use of space I've ever seen in an aerospace museum. I've been to plenty of museums with far more raw area, but far fewer aircraft. A lot of this has to do with hanging aircraft from the ceiling, where most museums leave all the planes on the ground. This doesn't place you farther away from the planes as you might think, merely offers a view of a different angle. A more real-world angle, perhaps.

If viewed from above, the round museum takes a counter-clockwise chronological tour through aviation history. Starting with the early WWI aircraft, including a flyable Fokker Dr.I "Red Baron" triplane and an almost completely original Spad S.VII, you walk by several 1930's racers before reaching several WWII-era fighters like a P-51 and Corsair.

Then it's into space, or close to it, with two jets and a host of space memorabilia. This ties in with the actual Apollo IX Command Module that sits in next to the main entrance, which itself is across from another airworthy replica of the "Spirit of St. Louis."

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Annex

While an excellent overall collection, one that's commendable for having many rare aircraft, it's fairly light in one area: jets. There are a handful inside, and the supersonic Sea Dart seaplane and very supersonic A-12 spyplane out front, but not the more museum-typical F-14s, MiG-15s and F-86s that nearly every air museum has.

Personally I find this refreshing, but I've been to a lot of air museums. If you, or the mini-human you're bringing with you, haven't been to as many, fear not. About half-an-hour away by car is the museum's Gillespie Field Annex, which has those aircraft, plus a F-102A Delta Dagger restored by former Convair employees, an Atlas ICBM, one of only two VTOL Ryan X-13 Vertijet prototypes and more. It's the largely missing Cold War-era jets the main museum lacks. The Annex has no entrance fee, but unlike the main museum it's closed Sundays and Tuesdays.

Air San Diego

The San Diego Air and Space Museum is one of the best air museums in Southern California. I can't say best because nearby is the USS Midway, which is probably the best military tour you can take on the west coast. It has lots of aircraft in addition to being the largest aircraft carrier you can tour in the world. In the same parking lot as the SD Air and Space Museum is the San Diego Automotive Museum, which isn't huge but has some cool cars.

If you've got an afternoon free, or you're interested in seeing a bunch of cool old aircraft, the San Diego Air and Space museum is open every day except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. If not, or the year-round perfect weather of San Diego isn't tempting you, check out the gallery above.


As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does these tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castlesairplane graveyards and more. 

You can follow his exploits on TwitterInstagram and on his travel blog BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel