by Adam Estes
After a multi-year effort, Planes of Fame Air Museum recently announced plans to expand their presence into California’s Central Coast region, selecting a site for a new facility which they will construct at Santa Maria Airport, roughly 200 miles northwest of their longtime home in Chino.
The reasons governing this decision are manifold, but the primary consideration centers around the significant increase in real estate development around Chino Airport. As anyone familiar with Chino’s connection to the warbird community will know, the airport was once surrounded by dairy farms and other agricultural concerns. However, with many of these farms now sold off and their land repurposed for warehousing and the bustle of suburban sprawl, it has become much harder for a flying museum to operate safely, especially when considering the issues involved with post-maintenance test flights. Furthermore, an increase in local air traffic (primarily from nearby Ontario International Airport) has further complicated the situation. Ultimately, the museum decided that it made sense to move at least some of their airworthy fleet, along with the bulk of their maintenance operations, to calmer skies further afield. However, finding an appropriate location for such a facility was no easy task. The new site would need a runway of at least 8,000 feet to accommodate museum jets (such as their F-86 Sabre and MiG-15), favorable weather conditions, adequate emergency services, and a significant population base to provide sufficient regular visitors. These conditions shortened the list of viable locations in the western United States considerably, but after considerable effort, the museum settled upon Santa Maria, signing an agreement with local authorities (in December, 2021) to develop 23.89 acres of land at the airport.
While this news may be a surprise to some, readers should not infer that these plans indicate the museum is leaving Chino, but rather that they are establishing a robust support facility to complement present operations. Museum aircraft will fly regularly between the two locations and participate in events at Chino, Santa Maria and other venues throughout southern and central California. This new site will also provide a safer, primary location for aircraft maintenance and test flights. Planes of Fame personnel are already familiar with Santa Maria Airport, as several museum aircraft participated in the Central Coast AirFest, held at the field last October. The airport has a military pedigree; the Army Corps of Engineers constructed its runways and much of the infrastructure as Santa Maria Army Air Field during early 1942; it has remained active ever since. Interestingly, two aircraft in the Planes of Fame collection (P-38J 44-23314 and YP-59A 42-108777) called the base home during WWII.
In developing their Santa Maria facility, Planes of Fame will join another aviation museum already on site, this being the Santa Maria Museum of Flight, a small but delightful organization which both covers Santa Maria’s local aviation history and plays home to several significant items from aviation-related movies. The latter includes a replica Hughes H-1 Racer from Martin Scorsese’s film The Aviator (2004) and a hangar built for Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer (1991). There are a number of genuine aircraft in their collection too, including a 1929 Fleet Model 2 and military types such as Folland Gnat T.1 XP541, Douglas A-4C BuNo.147825 and McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom II BuNo.153868.
Planes of Fame intends to build their new facility in three phases, with the initial step being the construction of a 56,000 square foot, three-bay hangar. The central hangar space will serve as a display area (likely to include memorabilia, uniforms, and documents currently in storage at Chino). One of the outer bays will house maintenance and restoration operations, while the other will provide additional storage. The latter space will also function as an events venue and host an educational auditorium too. The building will also feature a lobby, gift shop, and offices. As of writing, an engineering team is already working on the design for this new hangar, with construction to begin (hopefully) sometime this year. The museum has, so far, remained tightlipped about their plans for Phases Two and Three, but we will endeavor to relay them as soon as we learn more.
If everything runs smoothly, Phase One will open during 2025. Even so, Planes of Fame will continue to host many events at their Chino facility, such as the Hangar Talk and Flying Demonstrations held on the first Saturday of each month, the Kilroy Coffee Klatch held on the first Tuesday of each month, and annual events such as Wheels, Tracks, and Wings and the Taste of Flight Gala.
If you are interested in contributing funds to Planes of Fame’s Santa Maria project or receiving the latest progress
reports, please click HERE.