During World War II, the Sonoran desert that makes up the southern two thirds of Arizona played host to a number of training bases. Luke, Gila Bend, Yuma and a score of satellite bases contained thousands of aviation cadets earning their wings in Stearmans, Vultees and Ryans. Once through primary, the nuggets progressed to the AT-6 or AT-11. Fighters or bombers were next. Those that came to Arizona got used to the sun, the parched landscape and the perfect flying weather. When the war was over, the concrete runways, wooden barracks and hangars remained. The men who fought the war went home, the military shrank, and peace broke out across America.
Remnants were left behind, though. The barracks... The runways... The hangars... They remind us. So does Doug Champlin's Fighter Museum, located at Falcon Field in Mesa, Arizona.
A short drive from any part of the Phoenix area, the Fighter Museum contains one of the most comprehensive collections of fighter aircraft anywhere in the world. From World War I up to the Vietnam era, real examples of fighter aircraft, or exacting replicas, adorn two WWII hangars on the southern part of the airport. In all, there are 33 flyable aircraft. Stepping inside the hangars, one forgets the urban sprawl of Phoenix and the world outside, and if you try hard enough, you could imagine it is WWII all over again.
Champlin is known for his acquisition abilities, and his collection is proof. Walking into the WWII hangar, visitors are greeted by a Me-109E, Fw-190D-9, F2G Corsair, and a P-40N Warhawk. Further back, a P-38, P-51D, P-47 and Yak-3 keep company. A Japanese George fighter, restored by the Smithsonian, is the only example people can observe. Each of the fighters are restored and are in flying condition, although they are not flown for obvious reasons.
Walking through the display gives the visitor a very real sense of history, as displays along the walls of the WWII era hangars give color and detail to the aircraft. Champlin is also a keen collector of militaria and guns; a large number of these items are on display. The hall that provides the museum's connecting point between the hangars contains a gift shop and an aviation art room. Once home to the Fighter Aces Association, the facility is now home to numerous original paintings depicting aerial combat during WWI and WWII.
Walking from the WWII hangar, visitors pass through a center hangar that contains the early jet fighters. A North American F-86 in the marking's of "Boots" Blesse sits toe to toe with a MiG-15, its early cold war nemesis. Kitty corner to the duo is the later MiG-17, a relatively crude fighter that gave our F-4's and F-8's fits over Vietnam.
These jets offer an area where one can compare the different design philosophies and production standards between east and west. The MiG's are built like tough farm tractors, rugged and not very pretty; metal cut with a ploughshare. On the other hand, the F-86 and F-4 Phantom on display showcase American precision; all scalpels and detail. Two different worlds, two different fighter philosophies - one kill ratio.
Once through the jet hangar, visitors enter the WWI hangar. These were the world's first fighter aircraft, and aviation historians will be enchanted with the diverse collection of real and replica biplanes. French, German and English fighters populate the hangar; a SPAD, Neiuport, Camel, Sopwith Triplane and a Bristol represent the allied aerial forces over World War I Europe.
The strong point of the WWI fighters is the German collection. No matter who you are, you know what a Fokker Dr. I is. Made famous by Manfred von Richtofen - The Red Baron - the triplane fighter could turn on a dime and give you seven cents back. A strong climber and turning aircraft, the triplane suffered from difficult handling characteristics and poor visibility. To top it off, the aircraft suffered a lackluster top speed. But the legend lives on, and Champlin's replica sheds light on the wide-ranging German fighter design philosophy.
Other German fighters include a Fokker D. VIII, Fokker D. VII and the inline-powered Albatross. The single-wing Eindecker is also on display, showcasing the quick advance of fighter design that continues through today's Lockheed F-22 Raptor.
While aviation enthusiasts and historians will undoubtedly learn about the aircraft and their part in world history, they will also see the craftsmanship (or lack of it) in the aircraft. For the most part, each aircraft is in outstanding condition, but they are authentic examples and show their blemishes. Authenticity does not suffer at the Champlin Fighter Museum.
Several other interesting items are on display at Champlin, including an authentic 1800's era Gatling gun, a WWII Willy jeep with a .50 cal machine gun, and several large scale models. In the center area, a complete series of flying helmets and a collection of miniature aircraft and automotive engines are displayed in glass cases. Displays on the WASPs and Tuskegee Airmen educate visitors to their contributions to world history and American freedom.
Overall, the Champlin Fighter Museum rates high on the must-see list. The greater Phoenix area offers outstanding accommodations and plenty of other attractions to fill several days. Admission to the museum is $6.50 for adults and $3.00 for children. Kids under 5 get in free. The facility is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. For more information, the museum can be reached at 480-830-4540.
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Story and Photos by Scott Germain / Warbird Aero Press. Copyright 2001. All Rights Reserved.