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A New Place to Land

Aviation: The Museum of Flying plans to pack up its planes and leave the Santa Monica Airport for another Southland location because of rising costs.

July 23, 2002|CHRISTINA L. ESPARZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From a 1919 Curtiss JN-4 Jenny that soared the sky in World War I to a flight simulator that can turn a 12-year-old into a fighter pilot, the Santa Monica Museum of Flying has captured history through its aircraft displays.

But the museum will shut its hangar doors Sunday, pack up and venture to another location.

Because of the rising cost of insurance since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the museum's policy limits have been reduced by more than 90%, said Dan Ryan, executive director of the museum. A policy that used to pay about $50 million in case of an accident will now pay only about $2 million.

"We had to ground our entire fleet," Ryan said.

Moving the museum to a more "rural location" in Southern California will allow the running war birds to fly once again because the densely populated area surrounding the Santa Monica Airport has caused insurance premiums to rise. Although negotiations for a new location are being finalized, Ryan would not comment on where the museum will reopen.

"It's a tragic loss for the city of Santa Monica and pilots and non-pilots alike throughout the Southland," said Alan Ehrlich, president of the El Monte-based flying club Aero Assn. of Caltech.

The museum opened in 1989 in the same spot where, for 46 years, the Donald Douglas Aircraft Co. manufactured and tested military and commercial aircraft. It is home to about 35 fighter planes, including one of two existing Douglas World Cruisers, the first aircraft to fly around the world.

Other relics at the museum include a running P-51 Mustang, arguably the best fighter plane during World War II, and a bell that was rung on the battleship Arizona when it was attacked by Japanese bombers in Pearl Harbor.

The nonprofit organization, which is run by a board of directors, 10 paid employees and a few volunteers, is on the north side of the Santa Monica Airport. Small planes still use its runway, but flying the fighter planes is out of the question--insurance is higher for them because they are old and are more likely to have mechanical failures, Ryan said.

The Museum of Flying is one of about 900 aviation museums throughout the country, but Ehrlich, who visits the museum at least twice a year, said his favorite attractions--a Japanese Zero and a Russian Yak--are a rarity elsewhere.

"There are a number of museums where you could see American war birds, but there's not much opportunity to see" foreign fighter planes, he said.

Although the vintage planes and delicate artifacts, such as Donald Douglas' drafting table and airplane models, still attract a sizable audience, Ryan said fear of travel and having to do away with air shows and flights have contributed to a decline in attendance.

At its peak, the museum would get about 50,000 visitors a year, but Ryan said he sees about half of that number now. The museum, which used to be open seven days a week, had to scale back to weekends only.

For an organization that depends on donations, gift store revenue, membership fees and dues received for renting out its space for special events, it is impossible to run the museum from its current location, and that has been a major blow to faithful museum-goers such as Santa Monica resident Patrick Foley.

The 72-year-old native New Yorker flew in the Korean and Vietnam wars and often visits the Museum of Flying. He remembers when it was "just a small shack."

"I hate to see it move," Foley said, looking up at the planes hanging from the ceiling. "I don't think it should move because everything here relates to what Donald Douglas" did at the Santa Monica Airport.

"You can move some of the airplanes, but you can't move history," the veteran said while choking back tears. "It's sad. It's going to be gone, all gone."

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