The history of human flight is one of the most spectacular true-life stories around, extending from Kitty Hawk to the moon in just 66 years. You can explore every step of it, from the Montgolfier balloon to the innovations of today, at the San Diego Air & Space Museum in Balboa Park.
Even from outside it’s a tremendous sight. The 90-foot-tall building has only been home to the museum since 1980, but its connection with aviation goes all the way back to its beginnings, when Henry Ford ordered in built for the 1935 California Pacific International Exhibition. The building’s design was modeled after the shape of a V8 engine, and during WWII it became a training camp for airplane mechanics. Convair actually almost used the place as a factory for B-24 bombers until they realized there wasn’t enough room.
Another, smaller Convair plane—the F2Y Seadart, the only supersonic seaplane ever built—stands outside the museum today, flanking the entrance with the aid of a Lockheed A-12 Blackbird on the opposite side. Inside the rotunda you’ll see a cross-section of aviation history, focusing on San Diego’s own contributions. A replica Curtiss A-1 Triad, the first successful hydroplane, a model of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and the actual Apollo 9 command module are among the highlights.
The permanent exhibits each cover a different era. In the Golden Age of Flight Gallery you’ll find a number of early planes and aircraft engines, and if you step out into the fabric-domed Pavilion of Flight you can encounter larger craft like Duke Cunningham’s F-4S Phantom II, a Vietnam helicopter gunship and a Mercury spacecraft. Galleries focusing on both of the World Wars feature Fokker tri- and monoplanes, the Horton 221 Flying Wing and a model of the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier. The Modern Jet & Space Age Gallery includes the world’s only GPS satellite on public display.
But it’s not all serious history. A large part of the Air & Space Museum is devoted to interactive and kid-focused exhibits. There’s the MaxFlight and F-35 flight simulators, a build-and-test-your-own-parachute experience, an artificial moon surface you can walk on and a full-size F-104 Starfighter cockpit you can climb inside. The 3D/4D multi-sensory theater regularly shows animated films about the experience of flight, as well, no tickets required.
The museum can be found at 2001 Pan American Plaza, San Diego, CA 92101.