Hawaii’s Military Aviation Heritage on Display

The Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor is located aboard Ford Island, at Pearl Harbor.  Within its’ pair of hangars and ramp area, a wide-ranging collection of aircraft and artifacts presents aviation heritage with a mainly military, decidedly Hawaiian flavor stretching from the beginning of  World War II through to today.  The Museum is set inside two historic Navy buildings, known as Hangar 37 and Hangar 79.  They sit alongside the abandoned runway that was once called the Army’s Luke Field, and later became a Naval Air Station when the Army moved to Hickam Field.  Ford Island Naval Air Station was one of the major bases which were attacked on December 7, 1941.  Hangar 37 was home to Navy Utility Squadron 1 (VJ-1), whose PBY amphibians were destroyed in the attack.  Hangar 79 still bears the scars of World War II; windows with bullet holes from the attack, never repaired, are visible as you walk into the hangar.

Due to its strategic location in the Pacific, Hawaii has been and still is home to major bases of all of the military branches.  Although there are a few civilian and foreign military planes present, the museum’s aircraft collection focuses on Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marine aircraft.  Inside Hangar 37, displays of World War II aircraft and equipment include a Japanese A6M2 Zero, F4F-3 Wildcat, B-25B Mitchell, SBD Dauntless, and P-40E.  An orange Aeronca 65TC hangs from the ceiling, similar to the one that was caught in the air during the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.  The yellow N2S-3 Stearman displayed is one that former president George H.W. Bush soloed in during his Naval Aviator training.  Another display contains the wreckage of a second A6M Zero that was shot down during the Pearl Harbor attack.  The Japanese pilot survived the crash landing on a remote Hawaiian island, and evaded capture for some time until a shootout fatefully occurred. The display shows the wreckage as it was found decades later by a recovery team.  Various artifacts are placed around the aircraft in this hangar, and mannequins are dressed in authentic clothing.  Hangar 37 is home to most of the World War II portion of the museum, as well as the gift store, café, and 200-seat movie theatre.

A short walk outside brings one along a group of aircraft parked in the open, including an F-86L interceptor version of the Sabre jet, an F-4C Phantom, a highly modified A-3 Skywarrior, and recently retired CH-53D Sea Stallion and SH-60B Seahawk helicopters.  Next, one enters Hangar 79, which contains aircraft from the Korean War up through the Millennium.  Hawaii has had a stable of jet interceptors based in the islands throughout the years since World War II, and an F-102A joins an F-15A Eagle in the hangar.  There’s a T-6/SNJ and another Curtiss P-40, plus a pair of venerable Bell helicopters previously flown by the Hawaii Army National Guard; a UH-1 and AH-1.  The collection contains a pair of Soviet-designed fighters… a MiG-15 and a MiG-21.  Additionally, there’s a Navy UH-3 helicopter formerly based at nearby Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands, and an F-14D Tomcat which was one of the final airframes to fly before the type retired in 2006.    The rear of the hangar contains the restoration shop, which was home to a Stinson L-5E and DC-3 in late 2012.   The L-5 was based in Hawaii at the end of World War II, but never went to the front lines before the war ended.

There’s a startling amount of history to see around the Pearl Harbor area.  Ford Island is a National Historic Landmark, and walking through the museum’s hangars that were attacked more than 7 decades ago was as much a humbling experience as it was interesting.  The U.S. National Park Service’s World War II Valor in the Pacific Museum, with its’ access to the U.S.S. Arizona memorial, is your first stop to get to the air museum.  Ford Island is still an active Navy base, and in order to get to the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor one has to board a shuttle bus that runs from the Valor in the Pacific museum onto the base.  The shuttle also stops at the battleship USS Missouri museum along the way. The U.S.S. Bowfin submarine museum is near the shuttle bus terminal too.

Once inside the air museum, one can wander along at your own pace, or purchase the Aviator’s Tour option, which allows one to follow a docent through the museum as he/she shares fascinating stories and historic facts about the aircraft, Pearl Harbor, and the Museum.  While exploring the 50th State’s extensive military history, the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor is one box that must be checked if you’re near the Honolulu/Pearl Harbor area.

Ken Kula

March, 2013

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