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Pontifications: Off the beaten path museums – Leeham News and Analysis

By Scott Hamilton

Aug. 15, 2023, © Leeham News: If you’re in the Puget Sound area (the greater Seattle-Tacoma region) and want to see some well-preserved airplanes that are off the beaten path, take a run down to the McChord Air Force Base south of Tacoma.

McChord was created before World War II. Through the decades, it’s been a fighter, bomber, transport, tactical and strategic base. Today, it’s home to only the Boeing C-17 cargo transport. Refueling tankers are inland at Fairchild AFB near Spokane (WA). Fighters are no longer at McChord; they are stationed at an air base near Portland (OR). (This is why I think McChord should be “BRACed” (declared surplus) and turned over for civilian use as a commercial airport, but this is another topic.)

Douglas C-124 on display at McChord Air Force Base, Tacoma (WA). Credit: Leeham News.

I visited McChord last week to see its museum and its aircraft static displays. The museum is a small building with artifacts, models, photographs and history. As museums go, I’ve seen better, but there’s interesting information here that serves as a good introduction to the air park (called Heritage Hill) where 16 aircraft are located.

Types of aircraft

Douglas B-23 bomber on display at the McChord Air Force Base. Credit: Leeham News.

The aircraft include World War II’s Consolidated Aircraft PBY Catalina, one of the most iconic aircraft of the War. The latest aircraft is a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter. In between, there are jet fighters, pre- and early WW II bombers created by the Douglas Aircraft Co. based on the DC-2 and DC-3. The ubiquitous Douglas C-47 (DC-3) is displayed.

So are some oddball USAF cargo airplanes, like the Fairchild C-119 and the Douglas C-124. The C-119 is the type of airplane that was the star of movie, Flight of the Phoenix starring Jimmy Stewart. The C-124 made a cameo appearance in John Wayne’s movie, Hellfighters. All 16 aircraft types at one time were based at McChord, including some of the specific examples on display.

The aircraft are well cared for, and the exteriors are in excellent condition. (None is open, so the shape of the interiors is unknown.) This is in sharp contrast to the open-air displays of the Lewis Museum at neighboring Ft. Lewis, the Army base where hundreds of thousands of soldiers went through basic training over the decades.

The Lewis Museum building is a converted base Salvation Army hotel. Only the first floor of the multi-story building has been turned into a museum. This is much larger and has many more displays than McChord’s museum. But the open air displays of various army vehicles, tanks, guns (the howitzer type) and some missiles is more like strolling through an auto junk yard. The equipment is weather-worn, seats in jeeps and trucks in tatters and some vehicles are rusting through. Tires on some vehicles or guns are flat and rotting. All-in-all, the open air Lewis Museum stuff was a disappointment.


Douglas B-18 bomber, based on the pre-World War II DC-2, on display at McChord Air Force Base. Credit: Leeham News.

Being an aviation buff, I found the McChord visit more interesting. McChord’s plus is the quality of the air park vs the tattered look and feel of Lewis’ open-air displays. But the Lewis Museum has much more space and much more is done with it than can be done with the McChord Museum.

Each is free and open to the public. The Lewis Museum is easier to get into, though the procedure is somewhat odd and confusing. The directions take you to a gravel parking lot outside a perimeter fence. From there, you’ll see a road that leads to a parking lot next to the museum but wonder why you’re not there. It’s because that’s on base and where you are directed to park is not. You have to call the desk for a soldier to come get you and lead you in (and to exit). Detailed directions are here.

Be precise in asking Maps

To get into the McChord Museum, be sure to go to the main gate’s visitor center. (Google Maps took me to a closed gate when asked to go to the Museum. Ask Google for the main gate visitors center.) There, you must go into the visitor center to check in. You need an enhanced drivers license (like used by the TSA) or a passport. Adults need this. I don’t know what may be required of underage children. The driver of the car must have the driver’s license, vehicle registration and an insurance card, since you’ll be driving on the base. The museum and the air park are in opposite locations to each other.

As I write this, the McChord Museum website is off line; here’s a poor substitute. This site says masks are still required at both museums, but they are not.

If you have time for only one, go to McChord. But try to make time for both. Getting to Joint Base Lewis McChord from Seattle is a real pain in the ass and it’s a long way that takes a long time. So doing both is your preferred choice.


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