Los Angeles has a rich history in aviation and aerospace and Southern California companies play important roles in the development of air and space flight. So it's not surprising that the area is rich with air and space museums and attractions. Here are the best places to see historic and famous airplanes, helicopters, and spacecraft as well as places you can fly planes, helicopters, fighter jets, or simulators.
The air and space exhibits at the California Science Center range from the early history of flight with a 1902 Wright Brothers' Glider to the exploration of space and the planets. A highlight is the NASA Space Shuttle Endeavour.
The Museum of Flying at the Santa Monica Airport has nearly two dozen aircraft on display. There are also interpretive exhibits on the history of flight as well as the role of Southern California companies in the aviation and aerospace industry.
The Western Museum of Flight at Zamperini Field in Torrance has a collection of predominantly military aircraft including restored planes, replicas, prototypes, and models. They host various aviation-related lectures and events throughout the year.
Flight Path Learning Center and Museum in the LAX Imperial Terminal on the south side of LAX houses exhibits of airline memorabilia from uniforms to historic ads and promotional items including now-defunct airlines, a massive collection of model planes, and a fully restored luxury DC-3 that you can board. The museum and parking are free.
Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum (TAM) is a museum in Compton with historic exhibits on the Tuskegee Airmen (the first all-African-American fighter squadron), historic planes, helicopters, and simulators. The public museum is part of a larger aviation program for inner-city youth.
The Southern California Wing of the Commemorative Air Force is an all-volunteer non-profit that focuses on preserving historic combat aircraft from all branches of the U.S. military. They operate the WWII Aviation Museum at Camarillo Airport north of Los Angeles. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, you can also watch volunteers working on the planes at the hangars.
Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) in Pasadena has been at the forefront of space exploration technology from rocket development to the Mars Rover program. JPL offers free tours for the general public once a week on alternating Mondays and Wednesdays with at least three-week advance reservation.
The Columbia Memorial Space Center is a hands-on learning center in Downey, south of Downtown LA, where Rockwell and then Boeing built NASA Orbiters. The Space Center is a tribute to the crew who died in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. It is dedicated to bringing the wonder and excitement of science and innovation to audiences of all ages and backgrounds. Exhibits include the Challenger Center Experience with a space simulator, the Apollo Boiler Plate 12, and the Robotics Lab.
Visitors to the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum in Simi Valley, north of Los Angeles, can go aboard the actual Air Force One plane that transported U.S. presidents from 1973 to 2001. In the Air Force One Pavilion, you can also see the Marine One helicopter that flew President Johnson, and a selection of presidential limousines and motorcade vehicles.
Army One at the Nixon Library was the helicopter used by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. Visitors can climb aboard to see what it was like for the presidents to work out of this flying Oval Office.
Air Tours of Los Angeles
In addition to looking at lots of planes and helicopters at museums and attractions, you can take a helicopter or small plane tour of Los Angeles. Imagine seeing the City of Angels by sunset—it's a perfect anniversary date or gift for aviation enthusiasts.
Proud Bird Restaurant & Museum is located next to one of the runways at LAX and has a collection of historic planes as lawn decorations. You can watch planes flying in and out of LAX from the patio or dining room. The historic restaurant underwent a complete overhaul in 2017 and reopened as a modern upscale, down-home food court and lounge serving BBQ, soul food, fried chicken, gourmet pizza, and a variety of salads. There's a plane suspended from the rafters, an interactive museum pod in the middle, and a more themed exhibit of photos throughout the dining and special event areas. The patio has cozy fire pits, but bring your earplugs; inside has good soundproofing, but the runway action outside is loud!
At Flight Deck Air Combat Center you can test your skills on the same equipment that fighter pilots use to train in an authentic military flight simulation center. It is open to the public, with a minimum age of 11 and a minimum height of 41" tall. The center is also available for group events.
Los Angeles County Air Show
The Los Angeles County Air Show happens every March in Lancaster, CA in north Los Angeles County. It includes jet demonstrations, vintage aircraft, aerobatic stunts, warbirds, and land-based interactive exhibits.
The Burbank Aviation Museum is home to a collection of artifacts on the history of aviation. They have an exhibit open Sundays from noon till 3 p.m. at The Portal of the Folded Wings, a shrine to aviation at the Valhalla Memorial Park just south of Bob Hope Burbank Airport. Twenty-four aviation pioneers are buried at the site.