When you scan the landscape of California’s museums, the giants cast a wide, deep shadow. To the north, the de Young, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, and the stunning new California Academy of Sciences. To the south, the Getty, LACMA, the California Science Center, and the dozen museums that line El Prado in Balboa Park. For any state this list alone would constitute an embarrassment of riches.
Yet these titans all too often (and unfairly) overshadow the hundreds of more modest but equally enticing jewels in the crown, the small, private, and specialty museums supported by die-hard donors and volunteer docents that shed loving light on often-overlooked aspects of the arts, science, history, and culture and industry.
Starting this summer, it will become a significant focus of this blog to catalog those gems, but for now let us begin with a modest treasure: the World War II Aviation Museum in Camarillo.
The Commemorative Air Force (formerly known as the Confederate Air Force) is a national group of aviation veterans and enthusiasts who spend their time rebuilding, maintaining, flying and teaching about the men, women, and planes that helped win World War II from the air. The Southern California Wing of the CAF makes its home at Camarillo Airpot, a former Air Force base that formed a part of California’s early Cold War defenses. With a runway designed to handle jet fighters and hangars made to military specifications, the place is made-to order for a the impressive squadron of operational, beautifully maintained planes of historic significance.
One hangar is set up as The World War II Aviation Museum, with interpretive exhibits, a gift shop, docents, and, of course, planes. Next door is where the real work happens, where the CAF’s volunteers continue to fight the ravages of time and physics to keep the birds together and keep them flying. The collection is small, but what it lacks in size it makes up in sheer quality. Not only are these planes complete, they still fly 68 years after the end of the war. The squadron includes:
- “China Doll,” a U.S. Army Air Corps Curtis C-46 Commando transport that supplied China from India over the “Hump” in south Asia;
- A U.S. Navy Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat fighter;
- A Navy Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat fighter;
- A Navy North American SNJ-5 Texan trainer;
- A Royal Air Force Supermarine Mark XIV Spitfire fighter;
- An Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi A6M3 “Zero” fighter, one of only three remaining flyable examples of the type in the world; and
- A North American PBJ-1J Mitchell bomber.
If it were just a bunch of pretty planes parked on a ramp, the museum would be worth the stop off of US 101 on your way into or out of the Los Angeles area. What really makes it worthwhile, however, are the docents, several of whom have masters’ degrees in related topics, who are able to adjust their presentation to the level of knowledge and enthusiasm of the audience. It is this small corps of aviator-scholars that make this place a worthy visit, whether you are just a casual observer (like my wife) or an unabashed plane-geek (like my son and I).
Those coming through town in mid-August will get an extra treat: the Wings over Camarillo Air Show. In addition to the 90-odd aircraft filling the ramp of the airport, many of the vintage aircraft offer rides. Be aware, the rides aren’t cheap: they’ll set you back the equivalent of a cross-country airfare. But you’re not paying for transportation – you are paying for an experience that cannot be duplicated anywhere else: the chance to feel what it was like to go to war in the air with the Greatest Generation.
The World War II Aviation Museum is not the National Air and Space Museum, and it doesn’t try to be, even in miniature. What it offers, though, is something the NASM cannot: a highly personalized, unhurried, hands-on experience with magnificent machines that made history, all in a setting that is both beautiful and realistic.
One final word; if you get hungry while you’re there, the place to recharge is The Waypoint Cafe just a few hundred feet east of the museum along the flight line. A well-kept secret among flyers and locals, Yelp gives it 4 stars out of 5, and we make it a point to stop in for eats whenever we get the chance. Make sure you get there early: it’s breakfast and lunch only, and lunch gets busy (although we like their breakfasts best.)