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No Dumbo, but This Place Knows Flying


Santa Monica's Museum of Flying doesn't draw the nearly 13 million visitors a year that Disneyland does, but its director hopes that the museum someday will at least be mentioned in the same breath as other big Southern California attractions.

The museum, which celebrates its first anniversary this month, doesn't have flying Dumbos or imaginary flights to the moon, but it does have one of the famed Douglas World Cruisers that took off from Santa Monica to circle the globe in 1924.

There are no electrical parades or fireworks displays. But on most weekends, visitors can get a whiff of jet fuel and watch some of the World War II planes on display start up, taxi, fly and return to the adjacent runway.

"We want this to be a destination place just like Universal Studios and Disneyland," said Donald E. Madonna, a former test pilot who has been director of the museum since September.

The museum, located in the northwestern corner of Santa Monica Municipal Airport, is a long way from being a major tourist attraction. In its first year, it attracted about 50,000 visitors.

Still, for aviation buffs--and even just the curious--the museum offers a dynamic collection of vintage planes and aviation memorabilia and provides a peek at aircraft restoration. The museum is open Thursdays through Sundays, but will be open six days a week during the summer.

Santa Monica Airport Director Jeff Mathieu calls the museum a smaller version of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington. "It's an outstanding resource for the community to convey the importance of aviation," Mathieu said. "It provides a wonderful history and future view of aviation."

Jack and Phyllis Schleicher of Pacific Palisades recently brought their 9-year-old granddaughter, Allison Oppenheimer, to the museum. They said they don't have a particular interest in aviation, but thought the museum would make a nice visit.

"It's a nice way to spend a day," said Phyllis Schleicher.

In addition to the World Cruiser, the museum displays a DC-3, a P-51 Mustang, a Spitfire Mark IX, a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk and a P-38 Lightning. There are more than 120 wood and metal production models of Douglas concept planes. Visitors can watch and talk to model-makers as they assemble 1/32-scale replicas of the planes.

Video kiosks show dramatic footage of historic planes in action, and a theater has regular showings of 35-millimeter films, such as "The Great Air Race of 1924," Blue Angels," and flight footage of the B-2 Stealth bomber.

Volunteer docents, many of whom flew or helped build the planes on display, are available for tours to share their experiences.

Through May, the museum also has on display a computerized exhibit on loan from Northrup Corp. that lets visitors design their own fighter planes. Using six large screens, the exhibit displays, in a simplified way, some of the computer technology used in designing military aircraft.

Guided by voice and on-screen instructions, participants activate their selections by touching the screen. Designers select their aircraft's mission, then select from more than 200 design options. When the design is completed, a three-dimensional graphic image of the plane is shown on the screen.

The museum, which is located virtually on the same spot where Douglas Aircraft Co. was founded in 1922, is part of a contemporary 53,000-square-foot structure of steel and glass bordering the airport Tarmac. The museum, which occupies about 15,000 square feet, shares the building with the tony DC-3 restaurant and Supermarine, a company that services private aircraft.

Real estate and golf course developer David Price built the $12-million complex on city-owned land in 1989 after Donald Douglas Jr. expressed interest in finding a larger facility for his father's personal effects. The Donald Douglas Museum and Library is now an integral part of the museum.

But while the displays and exhibits in the museum are taking shape, the museum is still struggling financially. Its annual budget of about $700,000 supports a staff of 16. Revenue, mostly from private donations, memberships and admission fees, is not enough to cover expenses, Madonna said, though he declined to say how large the deficit was.

Aside from its subsidized rent (it pays the city $1 a year), the museum receives no government support.

Madonna is hoping to raise additional funds during an auction on May 19 and 20 of vintage aircraft, including a Lockheed P-38 Lightning valued at between $1.1 and $1.9 million. The P-38 Lightning, the most recognizable of America's World War II fighter planes with its 52-foot wing span, was bought by the museum from a private owner in Florida and restored by the museum's staff.

Some of the money raised at the auction will also be used to provide scholarships for students interested in pursuing careers in aviation, Madonna said.

The Museum of Flying is at 2772 Donald Douglas Loop North, Santa Monica (to get there, turn south on 28th Street from Ocean Park Boulevard). It is open Thursday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and will be open every day but Monday from Memorial Day until Labor Day. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors, $2 for students and $1 for children. Parking is free. For additional information, call (213) 392-8822.

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