A Marine’s Favor 25+ Years Earlier Helps Lead to World’s Largest Collection of Marine Aircraft in San Diego Museum
When the collection of 41 historic aircraft at Marine Corps Air Station-El Toro was destined to be widely dispersed or possibly destroyed, a few Marines took notice. Marine Corps aviators and aircrew have great affinity for the aircraft they fly and maintain. They also have a strong commitment to preserving the aircraft and artifacts so important to the 107- year history of Marine Corps aviation.
Their action, and a promise made to repay a favor made more than 25 years previously, led to the creation of the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum in San Diego, home of the world’s largest collection of aircraft flown by U.S. Marines.
From El Toro to San Diego
Most of the historical aircraft in the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum’s collection were originally displayed around the air station at El Toro. A dedicated group of active duty and retired Marines created the El Toro Historical Society to fund the maintenance of the aircraft and preserve and collect other historical artifacts.
Active duty Marines at El Toro — including the current Museum Curator, Steve “Smitty” Smith (USMC-retired) — used their free time to maintain and restore the aircraft. The El Toro Historical Center and Command Museum was born.
When the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) announced that MCAS-El Toro would close in 1999, the museum’s foundation swung into action to save the aircraft. The Miramar wing at El Toro would move to NAS-Miramar in San Diego (the Naval Air Station would be renamed MCAS-Miramar).
The foundation asked for BRAC funds to hire a professional transport company to move the aircraft to a permanent home at MCAS-Miramar.
Forty-one Aircraft down the I-5 Freeway
Now for the real challenge, “How does one move 41 historical aircraft approximately 75 miles down busy California interstates?”
The aircraft were moved in convoys leaving El Toro at 3:00 am on six consecutive Sundays. Some of the landing gear were too wide to fit on trailers, so “saddles” for the trailers had to be built. Although most of the wings could be folded or removed to stay within the highway limitations, some had to be cut off and carried in separate trailers.
A nest of fledgling owls delayed the move of one of the airplanes. Fortunately, there was just one breakdown, which occurred on the interstate (I-5) near Camp Pendleton. Another truck was sent to haul that airplane off the interstate and inside the gates at Camp Pendleton until the airplane could be moved to its new permanent location.
The 25+-Year-Old Favor
In 1971, Marine pilot Major General Bob Butcher (then a major) was assigned to non-flying duty. He had a special favor to ask of Brigadier General Jay Hubbard, the Commanding General of the Fourth Marine Aircraft Wing, “Would General Hubbard make a plane available to him from NAS Willow Grove to fly in his free time?” According to Butcher, he got use of a plane for two years!
More than 25 years later both men had retired from the Marine Corps and General Hubbard was the volunteer chairman of the El Toro Historical Society.
General Hubbard collected on that 25+-year-old favor by asking General Butcher to take over that foundation and oversee the move of the aircraft to MCAS-Miramar. In 1999 the foundation was renamed the Flying Leatherneck Historical Foundation.
Major General Bob Butcher has been its dedicated chairman and fulltime volunteer for the organization ever since.
A New Aircraft Museum in San Diego
In 1999 the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum was established at MCAS-Miramar. The air station provided seven acres for aircraft display, a restoration facility, and a museum building housing artifacts and preserving the legacy of USMC aviation.
Although the aircraft were relocated in 1999, the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum didn’t open to the public until 2000. The grounds and display areas had to be prepped for opening. Employees sowed grass seed and hand-watered all seven acres of the grounds by hand from one water spigot.
Permission was granted to build office space in the restoration facility on base. Trailers were placed to house the indoor exhibits and foundation offices. Memorandums of understanding were developed with MCAS-Miramar and the Flying Leatherneck Historical Foundation.
The grand opening of the museum was held in June 2000. Former San Diego Mayor, Roger Hedgecock, officiated at the grand opening ceremony through an on-site radio broadcast. Former New York Yankee, Marine aviator and Padres radio announcer, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Coleman (USMC-retired) was one of the guests of honor. Legendary Major League Baseball player and Marine aviator, Ted Williams, participated remotely via loudspeaker.
Initially visitors were required to check in at MCAS-Miramar’s main gate to gain access to the museum. As museum visits stabilized at 4,000 to 5,000 per year, two things became apparent. First, the museum would never
be able to draw a larger number of visitors unless it had its own entrance. Second, being so close to the ocean, the salt-laden air in San Diego was corrosive to the planes, and they needed additional protection to effectively preserve them.
To create a museum entrance for the public, the Flying Leatherneck Historical Foundation raised nearly $200,000 to ring the museum with an 8-foot high security fence topped by barbed wire that met all the anti-terrorism requirements.
Following the opening of the Miramar Road Museum Gate in 2006, visits to the museum skyrocketed. The museum now hosts approximately 30,000 visitors per year.
Lady Ace 09, the CH-46 helicopter that evacuated the American ambassador and flag from the U.S. embassy in Saigon, essentially ending U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, was flown in to become part of the collection.
Other notable additions to the collection included a Harrier jet the museum obtained from NASA and a World War II-era SBD-1 “Dauntless” (the only one left in the world) acquired through a series of trades. An MV-22 “Osprey” remains high on the wish list of museum curator Smith.
The Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum Today
Today the museum is thriving. The curatorial staff continues to build the collection that now includes 48 rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, various ground support equipment artifacts, weapons, a research library of 1,500 books and photographs, artwork, patches, uniforms and numerous other artifacts that help tell the story of Marine Corps aviation.
The museum has 31 aircraft from World War II to present day on display along with artwork, photographs, uniforms and other artifacts. The museum is free and open to the public six days per week and manned largely by volunteers who served as military pilots or aircrew. These veterans are quick to share their individual stories and experiences with guests.
During the summer the museum hosts Open Cockpit Days, a big draw for families. It is a popular venue for military ceremonies, school fieldtrips and military reunions. Programs sponsored by the museum and its foundation include the Irene Ferguson Marine Wife Recognition Program, a patriotically-themed essay contest and an art contest for students in San Diego County.
The Flying Leatherneck Historical Foundation has plans to build a 90,000 square foot permanent museum to allow all the aircraft to be protected and displayed indoors. More programs to serve the public, veterans and Marines are being launched, including hands-on training in restoration techniques.
More Than a Museum to Marines and Visitors
For curator Steve Smith, the aircraft are a tie to a time, place and people — some of whom are no longer with us. He mentioned a veteran who walked silently around the drone on display for many minutes. Several weeks later, photos of the drone in Iraq arrived at the museum. Veterans, family members and those whose lives were saved by the actions of Marines regularly visit the aircraft to get in touch with their own histories.
Foundation chair, Major General Butcher, sees an even wider impact. “Youth are no longer being taught to appreciate the country and her history. Without that, we are perhaps in danger of losing our heritage and perhaps our country.’ He is particularly proud of the work done by the museum’s docents to inspire youth who visit for school field trips and Open Cockpit Days. Thank you letters, testimonials and reviews indicate that the museum is having the impact envisioned on America’s future leaders.
Visiting the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum:
The museum is located at 4203 Anderson Ave, San Diego, CA. The museum entrance is on Miramar Road, 1.3 miles west of I-15 or 3.9 miles east of I-805. Look for the planes and the flags! Open Tues-Sun from 9:00 am to 3:30 pm. Admission and parking are free.
Phone: (858) 693-1723