A visit to the San Diego Air & Space Museum today, 40 years later, tells an incredible story of community spirit, determination and ultimately triumph at one of the nation’s most-celebrated aero-themed museums.
“The 1978 fire literally and figuratively lit a spark under a remarkable group of volunteers and dedicated men and women who were determined to keep this Museum alive,” said Jim Kidrick, president & CEO of the San Diego Air & Space Museum. “Where this museum stands today is a testament to those men and women who helped rebuild one of the nation’s truly premier Air & Space Museums.”
The museum was originally founded in September 1961 by the Aviation Committee of the San Diego Junior Chamber of Commerce. Operating as a non-profit corporation with tax-exempt status, the new Aerospace Museum formally opened its doors on Feb. 15, 1963 in Balboa Park’s Food and Beverage Building (known today as the Casa del Prado Theatre). Although small in number, the items on display were impressive. They included a reproduction of the Navy’s first seaplane, the Curtiss A-1; a 1929 Fleet Model 7; the original rocket engine from the Bell X-1; and an extensive collection of artifacts relating to John J. Montgomery. As the collection grew, it soon became apparent a larger facility was needed. So, in 1965, the museum moved across the Prado to the larger Electric Building.
On the night of the fire, at about 7:55 p.m., two people were seen running from the building. Witnesses reported seeing them igniting papers and stuffing them into a vent on one of the arcade pillars at the front corner of the building. The fire department received the first alarm at 8:14 p.m. and dispatched three engine and two truck companies, however the fire had already made considerable progress and a second alarm was sent at 8:27 p.m., bringing in three more engine companies, one truck and a rescue company. It appeared the fire would come under control, until it raged up at the back of the building, sounding a third alarm at 9:22 p.m. for three more engine and two truck companies to set up at the rear of the building.
To say the museum has recovered nicely over the past 40 years is a major understatement. In the intervening years, the San Diego Air & Space Museum became the first aero-themed Museum to be accredited by the American Association of Museums in 1981 (now the American Alliance of Museums), and only the 12th institution in California to be awarded Smithsonian Affiliate status. In 2007, the museum was designated by the California State Legislature as the official Air & Space Museum and Education Center in California. The museum continues to be the home to the International Air & Space Hall of Fame, one the most prestigious of its type in the world.
The museum is known for its collection of extraordinary and historically significant aircraft, spacecraft and research materials. More than 120 aircraft and space vehicles are on exhibit at the museum’s three locations. The exhibits include an amazing collection of rare and unique aircraft engines, instruments, models and equipment, as well as aviation-related medals, trophies, art, uniforms and spacesuits. The more than 2 million artifacts in the museum’s collection allow visitors to immerse and engage in a rich array of stories from the lives of the men and women who changed the world through flight.
The museum’s library & archives houses the largest private, nonprofit collection its type in the nation, containing books, periodicals, archival records, films, oral histories and more than four million images. These materials support the museum’s education, exhibition and aircraft restoration projects, as well as providing support to authors, historians and researchers from around the world. A huge portion of the historical archives – the largest collection of its kind in the southwestern United States – has been digitized and placed online for easier access.
Ironically, before the fire, the San Diego Aerospace Museum and the International Hall of Fame had been preparing to move across the park later that year into the Ford Building – in fact, invitations for construction bids for renovation were scheduled to be out before Feb. 28. Its then current home, the two-story, Spanish-Baroque Style Electric building, was built in 1915 as an exhibit hall for the Panama Pacific International Exposition and meant to be a temporary structure just for the duration of the exposition. However, it had undergone many renovations through the years, and because of its original construction, fire insurance had been denied.
The day after the fire, San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson stood in front of the black rubble and ash of the Electric Building and addressed an audience of business and industry leaders, calling for pledges of support for the task ahead. He launched a plan resulting in the formation of a Recovery Fund, known as Aer-Fund, and kicked off the efforts by hosting a luncheon and donation drive.
Donations began to stream in from all over the country as attics and garages, closets and storerooms were emptied of aviation treasures and sent to the renewed Museum. A local doctor donated the first airplane, his Bensen gyrocopter, and more aircraft were obtained through donation, purchase, or loan. Many local companies donated valuable space for the recovery effort. A Safeway store in North Park loaned its basement and the downtown Farmers Bazaar loaned floor space. The San Diego Paper Box Co. donated 1,000 boxes, while another company furnished precious freezer space to dry out wet archival items. The Marine Corps Recruit Depot offered a warehouse for storage of incoming artifacts, plus a building at Camp Elliott to shelter incoming airplanes for the collection.
The tremendous response by volunteers and donors who made the recovery a success is still greatly appreciated, and not enough can be said to thank them all. Local schools, businesses, and organizations rallied together to sponsor raffles, bake sales, arts and crafts sales, and other benefit drives. Local radio station KCBQ hosted a concert at the Sports Arena featuring the legendary rock band, Foreigner. Chula Vista High School senior, Mark Haas, raised $800 by organizing a charity basketball game between the Chula Vista police department and the school’s basketball team. The police beat the students 57-55 in overtime.
Offsite, volunteers were building a replica of the Ryan Spirit of St. Louis in Hangar 60 at the General Dynamics/Convair Division plant on Harbor Drive. Sponsored by the San Diego Chamber of Commerce who had pledged $100,000 for the project, the monoplane under construction was deemed a “genuine” replica because at least two builders of the original Spirit, Ed Morrow and Walt Ballard, were taking part in constructing the replacement. T. Claude Ryan served as honorary general supervisor. Volunteer Tim Cunningham suggested the name Phoenix Flight for the dedicated volunteers and the Board made it official. Even today, some museum volunteers still wear “Phoenix Flight” on their name badges. Six months later, the new Spirit of St. Louis flew on April 28, 1979, the anniversary of Lindbergh’s first flight in San Diego.
In the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 16, 1979, a dedication ceremony led by San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson was held in the restored center courtyard of the Ford Building where 300 community members attended to preview the refurbished Ford Building. Recovery Fund director, Fred Garry, was honored for generating over $3 million in donations. As the sun set, Mayor Wilson formally rechristened the 44-year-old Ford Building as the “San Diego Aerospace Historical Center” and switched on the new outdoor blue building lights, symbolizing the Museum’s rise from the ashes.
On Feb. 22, 1980, on the second anniversary of the devastating fire, the new San Diego Aerospace Museum and International Aerospace Hall of Fame formally opened its doors again. Other aircraft and space exhibits were placed in sequential time eras along the colorful March of Transportation mural. The San Diego Aerospace Museum and International Hall of Fame was back in business.
In 2001, the mystery of who set the fire on that cold night back in February 1978 was solved. Thought to be the work of a serial arsonist, San Diego Fire Battalion Chief Art Robertson discovered it was started by three Chula Vista teenagers who confessed they were trying to stay warm. They were not arrested as the statute of limitations for filing an arson lawsuit had already run out.
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