Pontifications: Off the beaten path museums

By Scott Hamilton

Aug. 15, 2023, © Leeham News: If you’re in the Puget Sound area (the greater Seattle-Tacoma region) and want to see some well-preserved airplanes that are off the beaten path, take a run down to the McChord Air Force Base south of Tacoma.

McChord was created before World War II. Through the decades, it’s been a fighter, bomber, transport, tactical and strategic base. Today, it’s home to only the Boeing C-17 cargo transport. Refueling tankers are inland at Fairchild AFB near Spokane (WA). Fighters are no longer at McChord; they are stationed at an air base near Portland (OR). (This is why I think McChord should be “BRACed” (declared surplus) and turned over for civilian use as a commercial airport, but this is another topic.)

Douglas C-124 on display at McChord Air Force Base, Tacoma (WA). Credit: Leeham News.

I visited McChord last week to see its museum and its aircraft static displays. The museum is a small building with artifacts, models, photographs and history. As museums go, I’ve seen better, but there’s interesting information here that serves as a good introduction to the air park (called Heritage Hill) where 16 aircraft are located.

Types of aircraft

Douglas B-23 bomber on display at the McChord Air Force Base. Credit: Leeham News.

The aircraft include World War II’s Consolidated Aircraft PBY Catalina, one of the most iconic aircraft of the War. The latest aircraft is a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter. In between, there are jet fighters, pre- and early WW II bombers created by the Douglas Aircraft Co. based on the DC-2 and DC-3. The ubiquitous Douglas C-47 (DC-3) is displayed.

So are some oddball USAF cargo airplanes, like the Fairchild C-119 and the Douglas C-124. The C-119 is the type of airplane that was the star of movie, Flight of the Phoenix starring Jimmy Stewart. The C-124 made a cameo appearance in John Wayne’s movie, Hellfighters. All 16 aircraft types at one time were based at McChord, including some of the specific examples on display.

The aircraft are well cared for, and the exteriors are in excellent condition. (None is open, so the shape of the interiors is unknown.) This is in sharp contrast to the open-air displays of the Lewis Museum at neighboring Ft. Lewis, the Army base where hundreds of thousands of soldiers went through basic training over the decades.

The Lewis Museum building is a converted base Salvation Army hotel. Only the first floor of the multi-story building has been turned into a museum. This is much larger and has many more displays than McChord’s museum. But the open air displays of various army vehicles, tanks, guns (the howitzer type) and some missiles is more like strolling through an auto junk yard. The equipment is weather-worn, seats in jeeps and trucks in tatters and some vehicles are rusting through. Tires on some vehicles or guns are flat and rotting. All-in-all, the open air Lewis Museum stuff was a disappointment.


Douglas B-18 bomber, based on the pre-World War II DC-2, on display at McChord Air Force Base. Credit: Leeham News.

Being an aviation buff, I found the McChord visit more interesting. McChord’s plus is the quality of the air park vs the tattered look and feel of Lewis’ open-air displays. But the Lewis Museum has much more space and much more is done with it than can be done with the McChord Museum.

Each is free and open to the public. The Lewis Museum is easier to get into, though the procedure is somewhat odd and confusing. The directions take you to a gravel parking lot outside a perimeter fence. From there, you’ll see a road that leads to a parking lot next to the museum but wonder why you’re not there. It’s because that’s on base and where you are directed to park is not. You have to call the desk for a soldier to come get you and lead you in (and to exit). Detailed directions are here.

Be precise in asking Maps

To get into the McChord Museum, be sure to go to the main gate’s visitor center. (Google Maps took me to a closed gate when asked to go to the Museum. Ask Google for the main gate visitors center.) There, you must go into the visitor center to check in. You need an enhanced drivers license (like used by the TSA) or a passport. Adults need this. I don’t know what may be required of underage children. The driver of the car must have the driver’s license, vehicle registration and an insurance card, since you’ll be driving on the base. The museum and the air park are in opposite locations to each other.

As I write this, the McChord Museum website is off line; here’s a poor substitute. This site says masks are still required at both museums, but they are not.

If you have time for only one, go to McChord. But try to make time for both. Getting to Joint Base Lewis McChord from Seattle is a real pain in the ass and it’s a long way that takes a long time. So doing both is your preferred choice.

20 Comments on “Pontifications: Off the beaten path museums

  1. As a non-American, it’s worth pointing out that McChord (don’t know about Lewis) is not open to non-US citizens without the sponsorship of someone on-base.

    For an individual, it’s almost impossible to get someone to sponsor your visit. It may be more likely if you were part of a tour group, but it’s clear (understandably, but disappointing nonetheless) that they don’t want to have to deal with individuals.

    This is in contrast to the excellent museum at Travis AFB where civilian volunteers who work at the museum will collect you from the gate and escort you to/from the museum. Approval of a visit prior to arrival is very strongly advised.

  2. if you are ever in the Finger Lakes region of upstate NY, stop by the Curtiss Air Museum in Hammondsport.

    small museum with a lot of Glen Curtiss’ early aircraft and motorcycles as well as an eclectic collection of other vintage aircraft, cars and motorcycles. some very cool stuff.

    they also have a temporary display area where they have had everything from historical military small arms (revolutionary through WWII) to quilts.

    fun place, cheap visit… (then go to the corning glass museum about an hour south… amazing stuff)

  3. One small quibble on The Flight of the Phoenix movie aircraft. It was supposed to be a predecessor C82A Packet, not a C119 Flying Boxcar. The flying, and many other, film shots in the movie were of the Packet. It’s a “fun flick” for aviation and Jimmy Stewart fans!

    • Great movie. What a cast, what a story. I have the DVD. Remake was also good, but not on par with Jimmy Stewart as a reluctant anti-hero. All you scientists can argue over if the rebuilt plane could fly, too…

  4. I went to the museum at McChord about 20 years ago. Presuming it has not changed much, I agree that it is worth going to if you are in the area. The small museum at the Olympia airport is also good. Went to both.
    Yes, the hoops to jump through to get to the ‘on base’ museum is kind of a pain, but not too daunting. Just remember you are dealing with government bureaucracy at times and be patient.
    One of these days, I’ll have to go back.

    FYI – Paul Allen’s old outfit at PAE is now open again (under new ownership). I have to get back to see how that one is also. Lots of interesting aviation museums in the greater Seattle area besides the Museum of Flight. Worth a look by aviation enthusiasts….

  5. Thanks for that, Scott.

    If anyone is ever in Oregon, I can’t recommend enough the Evergreen Aviation Museum. They have the Spruce Goose there and it is absolutely huge. When I was there, they had an SR-71 tucked under one wing of the H-4 and a DC-3 parked under the other.

    It’s a bucket list item.

    • Frank,

      Agreed. I thoroughly enjoyed this museum too. It helped that I went with a high school friend of mine who was able to get me on a special tour inside the museum’s B-17. How vulnerable those airmen must’ve felt with nothing but that thin aluminum skin to hide behind.

      • I was able to visit the Evergreen Museum 4 years back. Worth every bit of it and made up for having to bypass it on one other trip due to the person I was traveling with (you don’t argue with your mother). Definitely bucket list and then some.

        I was able to correct them on a small crawler display (or they said they would). It was listed as a Cletrac MG-1 Crawler Service Tractor (air compressor, generator, towing) and was in fact a Clark CA-1 airborne dozer (yea only a equipment geek would notice – see my next main comment)

  6. Scott,
    I would highly recommend the New England Air Museum just outside the grounds of the Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, CT. Their B-29 display is excellent, including examples of the automatic gun turret fire control “computers”. So, if you’re ever in CT… Although, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve already visited this place during you many travels.

  7. If one is visiting Atlanta, I can vouch for the excellent Delta Airlines Museum north of the airport. Especially being up close to the Spirt of Delta 767 on display. I remember when the employees bought the plane for the company.

  8. Thanks to everyone for the museum suggestion list. There are so many sense of places that get passed over/by for one reason or another, though no fault of the actual museum itself.

  9. Erickson Flight Museum in Madras Oregon, a true Gem, I would say it rivals the Paul Allen in both quality and supersedes it in Quantity (that is where I confirmed the Clark Dozer bs the Cletrac Service Crawler as they had the Cletrac there)

    It is far off the beaten patch on the East Slope of the mountains but man is it worth a trip. I was in hog heaven and you could get close like in crawl under aircraft and touch them. All inside and all restored to the 9s, sans the B-17 that was being worked on.

  10. Is the Tillamook Air Mueseum still open? I recall they had mostly warbirds. The truly interesting part is the amazing giant wooden blimp hanger from WWII. Used to be two.

    • I reviewed my photos and mostly WWII but a Post WWII aircraft called the Mauler as well as an L-39. One biplane cropduster but failed to take a picture of the listing details.

  11. Tom:

    If I tracked it right, the Erickson Museum is the one that was at Tilamook (sp?) and moved to Madras due to the issues with corrosion on the coast.

    I think the collection was housed in that Blimp Hangar but was owned by Erickson (and there is some link into the Skycrane Helicopter company by the same name and also fascinating story)

    Pretty much restored WWII aircraft but I think there was a couple post WWII, will look at my pictures.

    I missed one museum in Hood River (Oregon?) but not sure how good that one was, only read about it after I got home, sigh

  12. I should have done a little research before my post. Indeed, the Tillamook Air Museum is still in operation. They’re even having a 80th Anniversary of Hangar “B” event this coming Saturday night, 8/19/23. Details at https://www.tillamookair.com/events

    The remaining aircraft listed in their collection appears broad, with a little of everything.

    • I don’t see that was wrong, we tend to go by what we think we know. I certainly have been wrong enough times doing that.

      My guess filling in details was that Tilamook filled in with other aircraft post the Erickson move to Madras.

      When I was in that area it was way too hot (around 10 deg) and I opted to head for the mountains so I had a cool night to camp in.

      I had just picked up a new Ural cT model and spent 6 or 7 days working my way East then North to Bellingham.

      I don’t know the details of who supplies their hangar and I suspect they restore and sell aircraft, maybe some are kept permanent.

      They work in full view as the B-17 was in full restore mode. Amazing access to the aircraft. First time I had seen a P-38 in person as well as various ME-109, Nakjima fighter etc.

  13. Gentlemen.
    A little known but fabulous Air Museum is the Heritage Flight Museum at Skagit Regional Airport on Hwy20 North of Mount Vernon Wa.
    The museums primary patron is Maj Gen Bill Anders, Commander of the Apollo 8 mission. There’s an F89 Scorpion at the front door and a lot other neat stuff. They have the oldest Pearl Harbor veteran aircraft in flying condition in the collection. They have fly days and have a new display on the history of 1968 combining the civil rights story, Apollo program news, Viet Nam history all on a timeline walk. Its an outstanding privately funded museum in an out of the way place. Well worth a visit….


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