The War Eagles Air Museum Passes the History Buff Test with Flying Colors
Article and Photography by Bud Russo
A visit to the War Eagles Air Museum leaves a lasting impression. At the Doña Ana County Airport in Santa Teresa, 40 miles south of Las Cruces, a 64,000-square-foot hangar houses 30 restored, historic airplanes—the kind that saw service in both World Wars, Korea, and the Cold War. It’s a top flight experience for aviation lovers and military history buffs.
Founded in 1989 by John and Betty MacGuire of El Paso, this privately owned, non-profit museum started with 14 airplanes, including a P-51 Mustang dubbed The Friendly Ghost. Today, the number of airplanes on display has doubled and visitors can see aviation history close up in the form of a P-40 Warhawk with a fierce-looking shark mouth, once flown by General Claire Chennault’s Flying Tiger squadron, and a carrier-based F4U-4 Corsair with an oddly-shaped, inverted gull wing designed to allow clearance for the oversized propeller.
Other highlights include a Fi-156 Fieseler-Storch high-wing airplane, just like the one that rescued Benito Mussolini from a mountaintop near Monte Cassino, Italy, and two jets: an American F-86 Sabre and a Soviet MiG-15, both of which dueled each other over Korea in the 1950s.
In one corner stands a DeHaviland Tiger Moth, a two-seater biplane used in the 1930s as a trainer. Its fabric-covered wing and fuselage seem so fragile; it’s no wonder Robert Redford referred to it as a “kite” in the 1975 film, The Great Waldo Pepper. Among the larger airplanes is an A-26 Invader bomber, an improved version of the A-25 bombers Jimmy Doolittle and his pilots flew off the USS Hornet in 1942 to bomb Japan in retaliation for Pearl Harbor.
The collection includes other fighters, bombers, trainers, and a venerable Douglas C-47 transport, more than 10,000 of which were built beginning in 1935. They were made famous flying “the hump” crossing the Himalayas, albeit without a pressurized or heated cabin. Some of the last ones, built in the early years of World War II, are still being flown nearly 75 years later, including one at Doña Ana County Airport.
The War Eagles Air Museum is much more than just airplanes. Visitors can also see a collection of antique cars and military vehicles, from a 1908 Oldsmobile to a 1970 Jaguar. Other small exhibits are interspersed among the airplanes like the Link Trainer, one of the first flight simulators used to train pilots and the forerunner to the sophisticated, computer-controlled simulators used today. There’s also a display of survival gear for pilots forced to ditch their planes in water or land wheels up on the ground, and a special exhibit dedicated to women who have served. Today, women fly combat missions, but these women mostly ferried airplanes from the factory to front-line airbases.
At each stop along the way, informative displays tell the stories of the men and women who flew and fought in the crafts, serviced them, or patched up pilots after battles. Bob Dockendorf, executive director of the museum, calls attention to one commemorating Eliot Shapleigh, a pilot from El Paso who was shot down over occupied France during World War II. French Resistance fighters scurried him into hiding right across the street from the building housing the Gestapo.
When Shapleigh returned to England, he left his alert whistle with his protectors as a token of thanks. That whistle and some of the medals he won are part of the display. They, and this entire museum, stand as a tribute to the men and women who have served and protected our country from the skies above.
The War Eagles Air Museum is at 8012 Airport Road in Santa Teresa. From I-10 take exit 8. Turn west on Artcraft Road. Turn right on Airport Road just before the railroad overpass. Continue straight to the airport. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am until 4 pm. Admission is $5 for adults and $4 for seniors. Children and students are free.
At the entrance of the War Eagles Air Museum, a yellow stripe extends just over 120 feet into the airplane hangar. It represents the length of Orville Wright’s first flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, which lasted just 12 seconds. Bob Dockendorf, executive director of the museum, explains to agroup of 40 young people ranging in age from eight to 17, that, by comparison, the wingspan of a Boeing 757 jetliner is just two inches short of 125 feet.
This is just the first lesson this group learns through Young Eagles, an outreach program sponsored by the Santa Teresa chapter of the Experimental
Aircraft Association (EAA), designed to get students interested in science and aviation careers. Participants tour the museum and then go up in an airplane to experience the thrill of flight firsthand.
The EAA was founded by Paul Poberezny in 1953 and today boasts an international membership of 180,000 enthusiastsrepresenting the entire spectrum of recreational aviation. The Santa Teresa chapter was established just last June and in November they launched Young Eagles, the first ever program of its kind.
Deborah Rothchild, program coordinator, calls participants “the next generation of aviators.” Among those looking for a ride were children with military parents stationed at Fort Bliss, Boy Scouts from Troop 53 of El Paso, and members of the Children’s Aviation Reading Club.
Before entering the flight line, the young aviators receive a safety talk from Juan Bitro, a retired corporate pilot. He
walks them through a complete safety check of his Cessna airplane, pointing out equipment and parts, like the pitot tube, a device for measuring air speed. He demonstrates how ailerons move in opposite directions to bank the airplane, and explains how the elevator got its name—it causes the airplane to climb up or dive down. Delving into the technical, he points out the engine’s duel spark plugs and explains their necessity. “These checks are important for a safe flight,” he says.
The pilots then take their young charges under their proverbial wing, strap them into an airplane, and fly them around the area for about a half hour. Those in the co-pilot seat get to take the yoke and see how it feels to control the airplane.
Back on the ground, Young Eagle flyer Christopher Pacheco, succinctly sums up the experience in one word: “Awesome.”
The next Young Eagles flight experience is scheduled for the end of March, with plans to hold more events throughout the year. The Santa Teresa EAA chapter is also working on a scholarship to fund a young person’s flight instruction leading to a general aviation license.