November 12, 2010 | 9:00am
Ever climbed up onto a World War II bomber plane and played with the machine guns? No? Well, you can, and you won't have to worry about coming under enemy fire.
The Commemorative Air Force Arizona Wing Aviation Museum in Mesa has a fully restored B-17 plane called "Sentimental Journey" that served in the Pacific during WWII. Museum visitors can climb up a ladder and into this massive bird to see how soldiers defended our freedom from the skies more than half a century ago.
But wandering the cramped confines of a B-17 is just one of the highlights of a visit to the Arizona Wing Aviation Museum. This massive east Mesa museum, located near Falcon Field, also features dozens of military medals and uniforms, aircraft engines, bombs and missiles, helicopters, and fighter and transport planes dating back to World War I.
Actress Betty Grable greets visitors to the "Sentimental Journey" B-17 bomber.
The entrance room of the museum includes, among other things, a display of German military memorabilia from World War II. But the truly awe-inspiring pieces of history are in the main hangar, which houses a variety of flyable aircraft, including a B-25 Mitchell Bomber and an L-16 Grasshopper. ("Sentimental Journey" is parked on the runway outside, and she's one of only seven WWII-era B-17s in the world that still flies.)
The cockpit of "Sentimental Journey"
Exhibits in the main hangar feature photos and other items privately donated. There's a large exhibit of memorabilia donated by late Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, along with exhibits on the history of the Tuskegee Airmen (a unit of African-American fighter pilots), Women in Flight, and the "Chow Hound," a B-17 bomber shot down in 1944 over France. The front pages of newspapers from the 1940s are on display, chronicling the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the ultimate surrender by the Nazis (one of our favorite display items was a bomb painted with the words, "Merry X-Mas Hitler").
There's a second hangar located next to the main hangar, where aircraft are being restored. We visited on Veteran's Day, just in time for the arrival of "Charlie Chopper," a Vietnam-era OH-6A Cayune helicopter. We suspect the chopper will be part of the museum's ''Gathering of Legends
," taking place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, November 13.
The event will feature military veterans including Tuskegee Airmen, Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS), and fighter and bomber crews from WWII through the present.
"Charlie Chopper," a 1969 Hughes OH-6A Cayuse helicopter
Outside the hangars is the runway, where "Sentimental Journey," painted with the iconic image of actress Betty Grable, awaits visitors and flights. There are several other aircraft outside, as well, including half a massive plane crudely painted with the words "African Queen."
It takes close to 90 minutes to walk the whole aviation museum and read the displays, but it's well worth the time -- and definitely worth the price of admission.
The Commemorative Air Force Arizona Wing Aviation Museum is located at 2017 N. Greenfield Road in Mesa. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Admission costs $10 per adult. Call 480-924-1940 or visit www.azcaf.org for more information.