Vintage aircraft under the desert sky: Yeah, it's worth the heat

The Pima Air and Space Museum has one of the most eclectic collections -- including some of the rarest aircraft -- of any museum in the world. Here’s a full tour.

Geoffrey Morrison
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
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Pima Air & Space Museum

The low entrance and single jet only hint at the amazing aircraft residing within the Pima Air & Space museum

For the full story behind this tour, check out A vast oasis of aircraft lies deep in the Arizona desert.

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The tour starts at Mach 3-plus. As soon as you enter the museum itself, you're greeted by one of the most amazing jets in history: the SR-71.

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The unmistakable lines of the fastest jet ever, capable of more than 2,200 mph. And what's that next to it?

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Little buddy

The ultra-rare D-21 supersonic drone, designed to be launched from the back of a specially outfitted SR-71. 

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Not too many aircraft with overhead engine intakes. The Cirrus VisionJet is a modern example, though that's got the whole engine up there (its only one). The F-107A never made it to production, losing out to the F-105. 

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The sole surviving Martin PBM-5A seaplane, a long way from any water to patrol.

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One of my favorite planes, the A-10 is beautiful in its ugliness. Check out that cannon under the nose. 

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Only five of the tiny two-seat HUM-1's were built, and neither the Army nor the Navy could find use for them, so they returned them to the manufacturer.


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One of the more memorable stunts in an otherwise fairly unremarkable Bond movie, "Octopussy," featured a Bede BD-5J like this one flying through a hangar. 

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Buzz buzz

Nine feet long and six wide, the Starr Bumble Bee was the smallest airplane ever flown (at the time).

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Fastest chopper

A modified Westland Lynx has held the record as the fastest helicopter since 1986. 

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A MiG-29! Not everyday you see one of these slick beauties up close. Top speed: Mach 1.94

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This bulbousness is a Sikorsky H-37B, active from the mid-50s to the mid-60s. The windows of all the outdoor aircraft at Pima are coated to help minimize heat and sun damage to the interiors.

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Another famous Soviet/Russian aircraft, the Mi-24 Hind. These are still in service. (Not this one, obviously.) 

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Big chopper

The big Sikorsky MH-53s were built in the late '60s but were in use until 2008. Not a bad run. This is the last model, the MH-53M Pave Low.

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The start of the big planes. This is a WB-66D Destroyer, a rather epic name for a weather and photo reconnaissance aircraft. There was a bomber version, though it wasn't used in that role. 

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Medium bomber

The B-58 Hustler might not look it, but it's a beast. The first supersonic bomber, all the way up to Mach 2. At least one of its speed records still stands today. 

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The legendary B-52, or Big Ugly Fat... let's say Fellow. 

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Ancient and still going

All B-52s were built in the '50s and early '60s, yet most are still in service and will continue to be until the 2040s! Now that is good design. Imagine flying an aircraft your grandfather flew. Great grandfather maybe.

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Six turning, four burning

The mighty B-36. I've always been fascinated by this plane. One of the only ones to have both propellers and jets.

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Big in so many ways

The B-36 is the largest mass-produced piston-powered aircraft, has widest wingspan of any combat aircraft, and has one of the highest engine counts (perhaps the highest?) of any combat aircraft (10). 

This one's from my Instagram.

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Short life

The B-36 was short lived, only 10 years on active duty. Jets were the future, as evidenced by how long it's eventual replacement (the B-52) has been in service. 

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The first jet bomber, the B-47, replaced the B-36. Some were converted to intelligence gathering, like this one.

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Another marine patrol craft very far from anything marine. I took a few more pictures of this type of plane when I visited the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry.

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A Fairey Gannet AEW.3 -- not much of a looker, but highly adaptable. 

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One of the AEW.3's most notable features is the contra-rotating propellers. They're rare because they're complex, but they do have their advantages, like a slight improvement in efficiency. 

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Not a B-29

It wasn't until I was checking the tags that I noticed this wasn't a B-29. It's a KB-50J, the post-war major update to the B-29 design. It has different wings, engines, tail and more. Oh, and I probably should have noticed that in addition to the fuel pods (it's a tanker) are two jet engines. So it's like the B-36, though it served the Air Force for twice as long.

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Speaking of the B-50 and B-29, this is the closely related C-97. They were in service for 31 years, including the Berlin Airlift, and in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

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The lower front of the C-124 opens into a mechanical gaping maw. 

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Hercules Hercules

The legendary C-130. Designed in the 1950s and still being produced today. "Versatile" is an understatement for this amazing aircraft.

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The C-82, possibly the inspiration for Baloo's Conwing L-16?

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Though it looks newer than many of the other aircraft here, in terms of design, the C-141 was designed and built in the '60s, and was in service until 2006.

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Beech's beauty

This is sad to see. The gorgeous Beechcraft Starship. Pusher props, carbon-fiber composites and a canard: they didn't sell well. 

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A-10s in flight

During my tour a pair of A-10s were flying some maneuvers. 

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Yep, that sure is a Boeing 787, on loan. I flew an ANA 787 from Paris to Tokyo, and it was painted like R2-D2. Even the napkins looked like the little droid.

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Given the massive size of the 787's engines, it's always surprising to see how much bigger the fan is compared to the turbine. 

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That's no moon...

Behind that C-121 Constellation is not a hangar, it's a Super Guppy

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Only in service for eight years, the Skyray was the Navy's first supersonic aircraft.

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Catalina adjacent

It looks like a PBY Catalina, but it's technically a Canso (the Royal Canadian Air Force's name for it). 

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Navy-ized B-24

The PB4Y Privateer, the Navy version of the B-24.

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This B-29 served in the Pacific in WW2 and was finally decommissioned in 1959.

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This was one of the more eerie planes, not for any visual reason, but because the wind was slowly turning the fan blades, making them squeak. Just a little, like out of a movie. 

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Speaking of eerie, there's something odd about seeing a plane without its engines. This is a YC-14 STOL transport prototype.

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I love oddball airplanes, and this OV-10 is surely that. I think I had one as a toy as a kid (Micro Machines?).

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The oddly wide TF-10D was a successful night fighter in the '50s and '60s.

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So many jets

I've concentrated on the bombers and rarities at Pima, but there are dozens upon dozens of aircraft that are fairly common air museum staples. Not to say these aren't worthy to feature, but with limited space here, I figured the standouts were better worth the focus.

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Delta Dagger

The F-102A, the Air Force's first delta wing and first supersonic interceptor. Check out that big B-52 looming in the background.

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Fighters and bombers

In the foreground, RF-101C; in the background, a B-52 and a B-36.

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Though seemingly just a simple trainer, the T-38 was the first supersonic training aircraft. It has been in service since the '60s and is still in use today.

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There's an entire hangar devoted to this B-17, which was first registered to Air Force, then served in the Navy, Coast Guard, and with various private owners including as a fire-fighting air tanker. 

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So ends a fantastic day at Pima. Highly recommended for any airplane fanatic, especially those who like big bombers. 

For the full story behind this tour, check out A vast oasis of aircraft lies deep in the Arizona desert..

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