San Diego has one of the richest aviation heritages of any city in the country. Convair, home of such famous aircraft as the B-24 Liberator and the PBY Catalina, was founded here. Ryan Aeronautical, home of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, was located here, and North Island Naval Air Station is the home of naval aviation. Much of that knowledge is captured and conveyed through the San Diego Air & Space Museum, a major institution unique to the region and one of the preeminent aviation museums in the nation.
Many local residents, including Preston M. “Sandy” Fleet, son of the founder of Consolidated Aircraft, and Captain Norvel R. Richardson, USN, believed the love affair with flight that began for San Diego in 1910 should be shared with the world. They took their ideas and enthusiasm to a group of prominent San Diego businessmen, including T. Claude Ryan and Joseph Jessop.
The San Diego Aerospace Museum was established on October 12, 1961, when the articles of incorporation submitted by the non-profit Citizen’s Committee were approved by the State of California. When the idea was presented to then-Mayor Charles Dail, he recommended the vacant Food and Beverage Building in Balboa Park as an ideal location, and the City Council approved the recommendation.
Charles Brown was selected as the Museum’s first executive director and worked untiringly to make the dream a reality. On February 15, 1963, the San Diego Aerospace Museum opened its doors for the first time. Although small in number, the items on display on that opening day were impressive. They included a reproduction of the Navy’s first seaplane, the Curtiss A-1; a 1929 Fleet Model 7; the original rocket engine from the Bell X-1; and an extensive collection of artifacts relating to John J. Montgomery.
The Museum was an immediate success. In the first sixteen months of operation, almost a half million visitors entered the Museum. On March 15, 1964, the International Aerospace Hall of Fame (IAHF) was established to honor aviation and aerospace pioneers.
The Museum’s collection grew at an incredible rate, and additional space was needed. By the summer of 1965, the Museum had moved to the larger Electric Building nearby. In addition to increased display area, the new Museum boasted of a library and archives. During the Electric Building period, the Museum acquired many notable aircraft, including a flying replica of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. It quickly became clear, however, that the Electrical Building would soon be too small to house the growing collection, however, and the Museum set its sights on further expansion.
Throughout the 1970s, the Museum negotiated with the city to move into the historic Ford Building, which had been put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The Ford Building had an illustrious past but had fallen into disrepair. The City Council believed that the building could be returned to its past glory with some work and a new paint job. When a federal grant for $2.64 million was granted in 1977, the city approved the Museum’s move. Before the move could take place, however, the Electric Building and most of its contents were destroyed by a devastating fire on February 22, 1978. More than fifty aircraft, the IAHF, and the Museum’s extensive artifact and archival collections were consumed in a matter of minutes.
The citizens of San Diego were touched by the loss, and the Museum immediately began rebuilding. An Aerospace Museum Recovery Fund was formed by then-Mayor Pete Wilson to raise funds for the effort. The Board, staff, volunteer corps, and members, with strong support from the community, worked to reconstitute the Museum’s collection in the Ford Building. The new museum, which opened on February 22, 1980, held twenty-five aircraft, including a replica of the Spirit of St. Louis. A large aircraft restoration facility was opened in the facility’s basement; and, with the help of the public, the library & archives collection was reconstituted. In April 1993, the International Aerospace Hall of Fame merged with the Museum.
As the Museum has grown in membership and attendance each year, its holdings, exhibits, and other programs have also increased. A new Education Department was established to expand the Museum’s educational and outreach programs. The Education Department now offers lectures, School-in-the-Park, family days, ground school, a new classroom, and a wide variety of special activities. The Museum’s Library & Archives houses one of the most extensive collections of aerospace-related books and archival materials in the country. Included in the collection are tens of thousands of books, aircraft and equipment manuals, personal and organizational papers, and more than 2 million images and videos of importance to aviation history.
As the Museum continued to grow in the 1980s, an annex was opened at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, CA, to house additional and larger aircraft and to provide additional collections storage space. In addition to some restoration efforts there, aircraft are on display for air shows and tours. In 2006 the Museum acquired the Low Speed Wind Tunnel near Lindbergh Field, where companies and individuals test their equipment and students can study aerodynamics. Also in 2006 the Museum’s name changed to San Diego Air & Space Museum to better reflect its mission and collection. In 1986 the Museum became the first aero-themed museum to be accredited by the American Association of Museums, and it is now a Smithsonian affiliate. The California Legislature voted to declare the Museum “California’s official Air and Space Museum and Education Center. Because of San Diego’s contributions to aviation and aerospace history and technology, it is only fitting that the Museum is now recognized as one of the country’s premier aerospace museums.