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History of the Pima Air and Space Museum

by James Stemm


The concept for the Pima Air & Space Museum began in 1966 during the celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the creation of the United States Air Force. Earlier the commanders of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and the Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center (MASDC) the forerunner to today’s 309th Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Group (309 AMARG) recognized that the historic World War II and 1950s era aircraft stored on the base were rapidly disappearing into smelters and that the flames were consuming not just metal, but the aviation heritage of the country. On their own initiative, base officials began to set aside examples of the many types of aircraft stored in MASDC’s yards. These planes were placed along the base’s fence line so that the public could see them through the fence. The display quickly became very popular with the local community but viewing the aircraft through the fence was somewhat unsatisfying.

The Foundation

In 1966, Colonel I. R. Perkin, the commander of MASDC joined with members of the Tucson chapter of the Air Force Association to found the Tucson Air Museum Foundation of Pima County whose goal was to create a publicly accessible museum based around the aircraft already collected on the base. The Foundation received the enthusiastic backing of the Pima County Board of Supervisors and the County Department of Parks and Recreation. With the backing of the County government the search for a site for the museum soon settled on a 320-acre plot of Federal Bureau of Land Management land just south of Davis-Monthan AFB. The Foundation raised the purchase price of $800 and donated the money to the county for the purchase. On September 11, 1968, United States Representative Morris K. Udall presented the land to Pima County on behalf of the BLM. Before the aircraft set aside for the museum could be moved to the new site the area had to be prepared to meet the requirements of the United States Air Force Museum. The county authorized the fencing and lighting of approximately 30 acres of the new park for the initial museum site. For the next several years the Foundation set about raising the money needed to make the site ready.

1st Major Acquisition – The B-24

It was during 1969, that the Foundation made its first major acquisition from outside of Tucson. That year the government of the Republic of India retired the last operational Consolidated B-24 Liberators in the world. One of the Foundation’s leaders, Lt. Colonel Rhodes Arnold wrote to the Chief of the Indian Air Staff in New Delhi, asking that one of the rare bombers be donated to the museum. Much to everyone’s surprise the Indian government agreed, as long as the Foundation paid all the costs of delivery. On March 22, 1969 after several months of gathering sponsors and fund raising, a volunteer U.S. Air Force crew arrived in India to pick up the Liberator. After stops in the Middle East, Europe, Canada, and back at the factory in Fort Worth, Texas where it had been built, the B-24 arrived in Tucson on April 27, 1969, thirty-one days and 11,000 miles after leaving India. Dignitaries from the U.S. Air Force, the Indian government and Pima County, led by aviation pioneer General Jimmy Doolittle were on hand to greet the plane and congratulate the crew on their achievement.

India crews stand ready before the B-24 Liberator

The B-24 Liberator in Pune (or Poona), India

Flying over Spain

Forestville, Quebec

DM Arrival Ceremony

The Collection Grows

Meanwhile, preparations for the move to the new museum site continued, but it was not until 1973 that the museum was ready for inspection and certification by the Air Force Museum. The first thirty-five aircraft began moving to the new museum from MASDC in August 1973. Around this time the Foundation acquired the last of the World War II barracks buildings at Davis-Monthan and transported it to the museum to house small displays. Over the next two years more planes joined the collection and by 1975 approximately 50 aircraft, helicopters, and missiles had been gathered. It was decided to open the museum in 1976 as a part of the celebration of the United States Bicentennial, and on May 8, 1976 the museum’s gates opened to the public.