In the new National Geographic film “Living in the Age of Airplanes,” narrator Harrison Ford says that aviation has changed our world permanently.
With respect to the creators of this wonderful film, may I offer some moderation: perhaps aviation has not changed our world. It has, however, changed our species and the way we relate to our world.
More than perhaps any other single factor, the perspective afforded by aviation and its offspring, space exploration, have made us aware of how tiny, how fragile, how isolated, and how precious this planet is for all of us.
Like no other place in the world – whether Kitty Hawk, Seattle, or Toulouse – California is the cradle of aviation and aerospace. True, most of the great, cavernous airplane factories and their satellite subcontractors no longer punctuate the California landscape the way they used to. But flight runs deep in the bones of this state, and if you know where to look, you can still see how aviation formed California, how California formed aviation, and how the quest for the sky and the stars is a core part of our future.
To understand how, though, we must begin by exploring the past. In the coming weeks, we will be posting a series of pieces examining California and aerospace.
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:
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.)
Of all of the capital ships that fought World War II, the cruisers have been all but forgotten. We remember the roles of the aircraft carriers, the battleships, the destroyers and the frigates that escorted convoys, and the Liberty ships that got the supplies through. But what about the cruisers?
Novato businessman and scholar Steven George Bustin takes an important step toward filling in this blank spot in popular history with his “Humble Heroes.” An entertaining and informative if sometimes trying read (his inconsistent handling of names and ranks will grate on specialists and confuse the layman), in focusing on his father’s ship, the USS Nashville (CL-43), the author demonstrates how these multi-mission workhorses actually did some of the most interesting and essential work of the war.
Nashville did a little of everything: convoy escort in the North Atlantic; transporting a secret load of British gold from London to New York; escorting the carriers that launched the Doolittle raid; serving as a flagship for Douglas MacArthur; taking the Japanese surrender in Shanghai; and finally bringing thousands of troops home from the war. If there was a naval mission to be assigned in World War II, Nashville probably accomplished it.
Built on a mix of oral history and naval documents for the core of his account, Bustin stretches his material as far as possible, and perhaps a bit further. What comes out of this account for the serious historian is that there is a larger story to be told here about the role cruisers played in World War II. Nashville was useful because she combined powerful, multi-purpose armament with endurance and survivability. Expensive to build (she cost as much as a much larger heavy cruiser when built), in the end, she and her fellow Brooklyn-class light cruisers wound up being a great bargain for the country.
Today the U.S. Navy and other maritime forces around the world grapple with tradeoffs as they design and build ships. Do we make this ship great at one thing (anti-submarine, anti-air, anti-surface, amphibious, etc), the admirals ask themselves, or try to make it adequate at a lot of things? While Nashville makes an argument for the latter, it is also a reminder that such capabilities do not come cheaply.
For the California historian, there are tidbits to enjoy throughout the book. Despite the Nashville’s East Coast origins, she was a Pacific ship from before the beginning of the war. The crew saw as much of San Diego, Mare Island, Oakland, and San Francisco more often than Pearl Harbor, and Bustin, who has taught at universities in the Bay Area, spices his account with local California color often enough to make the reader feel that the Nashville was a California ship.
In all, the book is a fun read, and appealing especially to those of us for whom World War II is – or is becoming – relevant.
If the history of California proves anything, there is nothing with greater potential to amaze and titillate than a fringe group with a lump of cash and a real estate broker.
A group of Silvershirts, aided by a German agent and with the complicity of mining heiress Jessie Murphy, purchased a 55-acre ranch in the Santa Monica mountains and proceeded to invest today’s equivalent of US$66 million fitting it out as Kehlsteinhaus West.
The ruin is about to be put to the bulldozer to make the area a park, but I hope they at least put a plaque in place, if nothing else to serve as a marker for the high-water point in Nazi ambition.