clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


You really know the Cold War is over when you can walk within feet of a dagger-like SR-71 Blackbird, a once top-secret spy plane that could be the fastest ever made.

It sits by itself under special shelter at the Pima Air and Space Museum near Tucson, with only a rope separating it from hushed visitors. From the front, it's a giant, faceless, stingray.There are about 200 aircraft at the museum but none is sleeker, blacker or more dramatic than the one they nicknamed the Blackbird, a threatening, minimalist sculpture as long as a football field.

It ruled the air for about 30 years, until it was retired in 1990 because the Air Force decided orbital satellites could spy as well, for less money.

You probably never saw the plane because it flew so fast and high, probably at 80,000 feet or higher. But you might have heard its thunderous sonic booms.

It could zip across the country in about an hour and anywhere in the world in several. It went so fast it had to be built out of titanium to withstand friction heat of up to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. And it needed special fuel because regular fuel would have boiled.

Its two-man crew wore pressure suits like astronauts. The plane carried cameras that could photograph license plates from 15 miles, or so the literature says. A lot of information is still secret, so it's hard to separate fact from legend.

I wanted to caress this thing that had whizzed three times the speed of sound. But signs on the rope forbid touching, and the Air Force brat in me was raised to obey.

The air museum southeast of Tucson has grown steadily since it opened in 1976 with 75 aircraft. Now it has five air-conditioned hangars and draws about 200,000 visitors a year. One hangar is a memorial to the Air Force's 390th Bomb Group that bombed parts of Europe in World War II and the 390th Strategic Missile Wing that operated Titan missile sites, including those that used to surround Tucson.

In fact, you can see one of these huge underground Titan missiles at the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley. It is operated by the Pima Air and Space Museum. The Titan is the only one remaining of 54, including 18 that were in Arizona.

The Pima museum is one of the largest air museums in the world with commercial and mostly military aircraft, an assortment of bombers, fighters, cargo planes, helicopters, trainers and attack planes.

The most popular plane is a DC-6 used by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Its brown and Formica "VIP interior" looks tacky today. It's open for guided tours and usually has people lined up to see it.

Other historical aircraft include the "Columbine" Dwight D. Eisenhower flew after World War II and a full-size model of the 1903 Wright Flyer that Orville and Wilbur Wright flew. It's a flimsy thing made of spruce, ash and fabric. Upon seeing it, one woman exclaimed, "That would be terrifying."

Most of the airplane interiors are off-limits because tourists tend to be too rough on them. But then the insides of most military airplanes are rather dreary.

There are about 65 years of aircraft represented, including the better known B-17, B-52, A-4, A-10, F-4 and F-15s. And because it has aircraft from World War II to the Persian Gulf War, the museum is poignant.

"I've seen older guys stand in front of planes and actually cry," said our guide Bob Johnson, who retired in 1976 after 28 years in the Air Force.

At Hangar No. 1, attached to the entrance and gift shop, is packed with displays on women and African-Americans in aviation, homemade planes, a Learjet and much more. My favorite is an exhibit on the Convair car and other combination airplane cars made until the 1950s.

In my four hours at the museum, I got numb at all the numbers but fascinated with the aesthetics and sizes of these airplanes.