If you ever find yourself in Amarillo (Hey, it could happen), you owe it to yourself to visit the Texas Air & Space Museum. Don’t let the name fool you; this is not a branch of the giant Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. In fact, Texas A&S might have the dubious distinction of being the smallest airplane museum in the nation. Certainly, it’s the smallest I’ve ever visited. The day I was there they had exactly seven airplanes to look at.
A waste of time, you say?
Hardly. You can’t judge a museum by the size of its collection. Instead, variety, condition, display, and access separates the men from the boys for me. Nothing irritates me more than a museum where all the planes sit behind ropes with signs saying, do not touch.
At Texas A&S, even though it’s guided tour-based, access is tremendous. I was free to climb on the wing of an Ercoupe, sit in the pilot’s seat of a space shuttle trainer (a modified Gulfstream jet that has space shuttle controls on the left side of the cockpit and standard airplane controls on the right side), and try my hand on the ceiling mounted throttle of a Viet Nam era Caribou.
I had a blast!
The wee museum’s collection includes a bailing wire and duct tape ultra-light that looks like it fell right out of one of Leonardo da Vinci’s note books, a wood-rotor “M*A*S*H” chopper, and a home built miniature stagger-wing biplane that covered itself in glory at the Reno Air Races in the late 60s and early 70s.
Speaking of Reno, one fascinating plane at the museum is a highly modified Soviet Yak-11 that was built to kick butt at the famous annual race. The plane’s original empennage was replaced the tail feathers of a Lockheed T-33 jet fighter, the wings were shortened to mere stubs, and the cockpit was moved faaaaaaaaar aft in the style of the race planes of the 1930s. On the business end of the monster, the builders placed an 18-cylinder Wright Cyclone engine capable of churning out 4,000-horse power. Yes. That would be the engine from a DC-7 airliner. On a single-seat race plane.
The plane, modestly named “Mr. Awesome” qualified, flying the course more than 400 mph, but unfortunately at her top speeds proved unstable. Instead of kicking butt at Reno, it had a tendency to kick its pilot’s butts instead. Mr. Awesome crashed and was rebuilt several times before being donated to the museum.
Texas A&S also has a lovely DC-3, but not just any DC-3. They have the only airplane that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and one of the few movable objects on the list, along with the cable cars in San Francisco.
In addition to the seven airplanes, they have several interesting engines, cones from space rockets, and an impressive inventory of aviation memorabilia, including an extensive collection of wonderful airplane models, many of them hand-made out of paper.
The Texas Air & Space Museum is small today, but they dream big in Texas. The Museum’s board has acquired a sprawling complex of abandoned industrial buildings just south of the international airport for their future home.
There’s no fee to tour the museum, but they ask for donations. I like people who dream big so I gave them fifty bucks.
They all nearly fainted.