Jordan Barnhart (left) and David Ondash, both of Carlsbad, check out the astronaut helmets available at the gift shop at the San Diego Air & Space Museum in Balboa Park. Photo by E’Louise Ondash
Hit the Road

Ready for liftoff: San Diego Air & Space Museum still a hit with all ages

Longtime San Diego County residents will remember the morning in 1978 when they awoke to the news of the deliberately set fire that incinerated the San Diego Air & Space Museum in Balboa Park. But the community quickly rallied to replace the artifacts and then some. It donated money enough to renovate the park’s historic Ford Building which now serves as the new-and-improved museum that opened in 1980.

I had the privilege in 1988 of spending a day in the museum’s basement with my mother, watching and talking to the dedicated volunteers who restore historic planes for display.

My mother felt right at home with the many World War II veterans and pilots because she had served, too. She was one of only 1,074 female pilots chosen to join the Women Air Service Pilots (WASPs) during the war.

Today my husband and I are taking her great-grandchildren, David and Jordan, to the museum for a day.

There aren’t many attractions that adults and two 6-year-old boys find equally interesting, but this museum qualifies.

Visitors must peer through a microscope to see this tiny artwork by Willard Wigan, a micro-miniature sculptor who takes months to complete a single sculpture. He must slow his heartbeat and breathing to a near trance-like state to carve his miniature masterpieces. This is astronaut Buzz Aldrin in the eye of a needle. It is part of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Exhibit which runs until the end of the year. Courtesy photo

Our only frustration is that there is way too much to see and do in one visit.

Once through the doors, the boys are immediately drawn to the Apollo 9 space capsule that sits in the rotunda.

They aren’t quite sure what they are looking at, but they know it’s cool. We explain that the capsule’s mission was one of the crucial steps in putting men on the moon.

The rotunda also harbors a replica of the Spirit of St. Louis, the plane that carried daredevil pilot Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic on his historic 1927 flight to Paris.

The boys are duly impressed that there is no bathroom or GPS on the plane. Also on display are the recently-donated goggles that Lindbergh wore on his historic flight; Lindbergh’s Medal of Honor; a piece of fabric from the original Wright Flyer; and the Red Baron’s medals.

We head into the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! exhibit and the boys hardly know which way to go first.

The exhibit features all sorts of oddball objects and artifacts guaranteed to elicit wows, icks and OMGs.

For instance, there is a shrunken head; a vampire-killing kit; a micro-sculpture of astronaut Buzz Aldrin (in his moon pose with the American flag) situated in the eye of a needle; and videos of men who can turn their heads completely around a la “Exorcist.”

Just for fun are the large model truck constructed of wooden matchsticks and a train made of thousands of bottle caps.

Our boys find the “mystery gate” fun, as well as other interactive exhibits, and they are fascinated by the working scale-model of a roller-coaster.

After having to restrain themselves (“No touching! Just look!”), we take a break outdoors on the lawn underneath the museum’s full-sized Lockheed A-12, an ominous looking reconnaissance aircraft built for the CIA and in operation during the 1960s.

The boys run around, climb a tree, and eat some peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Then it’s back into the museum to check out the dozens of aircraft on display. Planes are grouped by era and category, and were we childless, we’d spend more time on details, but 6-year-old boys don’t stand still for long.

They flit from one plane to the next, delight in climbing into a few cockpits, and like the first 3-D movie in the Zable Theater so well that we stay for a second.

On the way out, we stop at the PSA exhibit, with its mannequins and giant cardboard cutouts of the airline’s “stewardesses” who are decked out in the infamous pink and orange hot pants and mini-skirts.

Last stop: the McKellar Pavilion of Flight in the center of the museum.

Its fountain, suspended planes and helicopter and generous open space make it ideal for staging large events.

It also makes a great place for the boys to run around before our 45-minute drive home.

The museum is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Adults $18; seniors/students/retired military $15; children 3 to 11 $7; under 2 free.


E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at

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