The National Museum of World War II Aviation is an impressive and well-deserved celebration of American military aviation history.
Off to the east side of Colorado Springs, housed in several large hangars outside of the city’s municipal airport, lies one of the hidden gems of American military history: the National Museum of World War II Aviation. The hangars look no different from other commercial buildings in the area, but they house some of the finest examples of airworthy planes from the first half of the 20th century. Despite its nondescript exterior, the WWII Aviation Museum is a spectacular showcase of American aviation history that should be on any military history fan’s bucket list.
America rightly celebrates its critical role in the victory over fascist tyranny in 1945; WWII is a perennial topic of interest for history buffs, its story is told in classrooms across the nation, and the conflict itself is a massive cultural touchstone. The Second World War has become a byword for American heroism in battle and righteous opposition to authoritarian expansionism. Perhaps the biggest contribution to that fight came via air, where the US military demonstrated its capability for firepower, logistics, and daring in equal measure. Military aviation was a relatively novel force in 1939, but came to dominate the war across Europe and Asia. As with so many other areas of the war, America stood above its rivals in this crucial new domain. Aerial bombing, escorting, reconnaissance, and supply were all hallmarks of American power and allowed us to fight successful wars against peer competitors on two entirely different sides of the earth. The National Museum of WWII Aviation tells that story of victory better than most museums could.
The museum starts before WWII, walking through American aviation in the First World War and the interwar period. There are sections on barnstorming pilots, Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, and more, as well as some beautiful aircraft from the era. The remainder of the museum’s main hangar is dedicated to telling the story of WWII, from the start to the finish. Pearl Harbor is obviously present (with some amazing artifacts from the USS Arizona and some of its survivors), but that is not where the tale of the war begins. American volunteers for the British RAF before 1941 are discussed, as are those brave pilots who joined the Chinese nationalist cause against the Japanese. This theater is often overlooked in American histories of the war, but does not receive short shrift at the Colorado museum.
After Pearl Harbor, the museum walks through every facet of the war in detail. Each major campaign is covered, both with informative displays and a full complement of artifacts. There are scale models, equipment, weapons, and pieces of salvaged airplanes, all meticulously documented. My favorite was the model of the USS Arizona, which was carefully handmade by an English craftsman exactly to scale. The stories of individual pilots are especially interesting, as they humanize the broad overviews which are given about each battle and mission. Several of the pilots mentioned in the museum had actually visited it before their deaths and recorded memoirs of their wartime service. These are wonderful snapshots of military life during WWII, and put living faces to the sepia-toned photos on display. One of the volunteer docents – who are all extremely helpful and many of whom are veterans themselves – told us an amazing story of one particularly impressive pilot visitor. He was being wheeled around the hangar by his granddaughter and stopped by the exhibit on the Doolittle Raid; a docent was explaining the raid to the assembled visitors and the man stayed quiet, until his granddaughter mentioned that he was Doolittle’s co-pilot, Dick Cole. Cole would be the last surviving Doolittle Raider, dying in 2019 at the ripe old age of 103.
The real draw of the museum, however, are the gorgeous airplanes. These are not reproductions; they are working, restored aircraft from World War II. Most have documented combat histories and have flown missions across the world. Not only are they period-accurate in their restorations, they all are capable of flight (you can tell by the engine oil they are constantly leaking – something I learned during my visit!). Every year, the museum has an airshow during which each and every aircraft – from the smallest training plane to the fastest fighters and the biggest bombers – are taken out for a spin by some of the best pilots in the world. Almost every key American aircraft from the war years is present: the P-38 Lightning, the SBD Dauntless, the F3A Corsair, the TBM Avenger, and my childhood favorite, the P47 Thunderbolt. All are stunning to look at and can capture your attention for what seems like forever. Aviation geeks would be in heaven (I was!).
Visitors can either take a self-guided tour or pay a small fee for a guided tour through the whole main museum. Besides the main hangar, there are 3 auxiliary hangars with more modern aircraft, a flight simulator, and support vehicles. The only area which is off-limits for guests on their own is the WestPac hangar, which is a working restoration shop which outfits the museum’s aircraft and brings old wrecks back to life. Thankfully, guided tours of the WestPac facility are free to visitors, and are a must-do. The guides are very knowledgeable and friendly, and the shop itself is extremely cool. Visitors can see planes in various stages of restoration, as well as the shop areas which fabricate the parts needed to keep the museum’s fleet running. The highlight of this hangar, besides the SB2C Helldiver which was in the restoration process, was White 33, the museum’s showpiece P-38F Lightning. White 33 was dug out of a pit in Papua New Guinea and raised from the dead right at the WestPac hangar; its wartime pilot was able to see it fully restored and flying again only 8 weeks before he passed away.
These stories of World War II heroism, sacrifice, and victory are being lost as the generation which lived them passes from the stage. We as a society must not forget them and the lessons and examples they can provide for us in the here and now. We are going to face our own challenges in the coming decades, and we can learn a lot from our forerunners, especially the WWII generation. Thankfully, we have wonderful places like the National Museum of World War II Aviation which are working hard to keep these stories alive, make them feel relevant to modern times, and bring them to a new generation of Americans.