Following on from Adam Estes profile report on the Santa Maria Museum of Flight which we published about two weeks ago, his latest article features another, relatively unknown California aviation museum just a little further down the road which features a rich collection of artifacts well worth visiting…
The Estrella Warbirds Museumby Adam Estes
Most people probably know Paso Robles best for its wineries, but if you turn off Highway 101 onto California 46, and make your way up to the Paso Robles Municipal Airport, you will find a fine vintage collection of another variety at the Estrella Warbirds Museum. Originally established as the Estrella Squadron of the Confederate Air Force (now the Commemorative Air Force) by local pilots Glen Thomson and Gary Corippo, the Estrella Warbirds Museum maintains a diverse array of historic flying machines, military ground vehicles, a multitude of memorabilia and an eclectic collection of unusual civilian vehicles too.
The site has a significant military history too, as the airport owes its existence to WWII. When construction crews broke ground on the facility in September, 1942, their original remit involved a training base for U.S. Marine Corps bomber crews. However, ownership of the project soon transitioned to the U.S. Army Air Forces, who opened the facility as Estrella Army Airfield in April, 1943, although the Marines did maintain a presence on site as well. As with many other military airfields in the USA, once WWII ended, ownership of Estrella Army Airfield transitioned to the local municipal authority, who began operating it as a civilian airport in August, 1947.
The museum established itself as a chartered California charity in 1992, and gained its Federal 501(c)3 accreditation soon after, which allowed them access to artifacts in the museum systems for each branch of the U.S. military. Most of the museum’s aircraft are currently on outside display, as hangar space is at a premium, but California’s arid climate helps mitigate most deterioration issues.
The museum also provides a home to a few airworthy aircraft, such as Douglas C-47B Skytrain 43-48608 which flies as Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber. Built in Oklahoma City, this aircraft served in combat with the 27th Air Transport Group, 302d Transport Wing, of the 9th Air Force. Following WWII, the Belgian Air Force acquired the aircraft, flying it from 1946 until 1952, before its brief return to the US Air Force. The French Air Force then operated the Skytrain from 1953 until 1967, when it moved to the Middle East for service with the Israeli Air Force, who retained the airframe until 1999. Since returning to ‘Stateside’, this C-47 has flown in numerous air shows across the country, and even flew to Europe in 2019 to participate in the 75th anniversary celebrations for the Normandy landings of June, 1944, along with commemorations for the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift.
Those with a penchant for automotive history will also enjoy the museum’s Woodland Auto Display, which features in excess of a hundred classic and racing cars of all categories belonging to winemaker and automotive enthusiast Richard “Dick” Woodland. The collection includes many unusual vehicles, including a working replica of the 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen (the world’s first practical automobile), a beautifully restored REO Speed Wagon Camper, several NASCAR Sprint cars, and a 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Split Window.
Military vehicles, munitions, and communications equipment are located in the Brooks Building, while the Pfauter Building pays tribute to the famed Red Ball Express, the truck convoy system which provided a logistical lifeline to supply the Allied advance from Normandy (from August to November 1944) until the capture of Antwerp, along with repairs to French rail lines and the installation of portable gasoline pipelines.
The Al Schade Restoration Hangar at the south end of the museum often has at least one project in the works, typically divided between aircraft and ground vehicle restorations. As of writing, a Sikorsky H-19 Chickasaw is undergoing refurbishment in the hangar, but another aircraft may yet take the helicopter’s place.
The Estrella Warbird Museum has grown substantially since its founding, but such growth is always accompanied by a pressing need for more space, especially hangars for the long term preservation of their exhibits on external display. On October 15th, 2022, during the Estrella Warbirds Museum’s 30th anniversary celebrations, the organization’s president, John Couch, unveiled expansion plans which included the lease of ten acres beside their present facility for the construction of additional hangars and event venues spaces. Legendary air racing pilot and long time museum benefactor, Sherman Smoot, had originally intended to make these announcements, but sadly, as most readers will know, Smoot lost his life in a flying accident last September. The Estrella Warbird Museum estimates that their expansion efforts will cost roughly US$5 million…
Anyone wishing to help the museum achieve this goal can contribute HERE.
Museum operating hours are from Thursdays through Sundays, 10am-4pm. For more information, please visit Welcome to Estrella Warbirds Museum (ewarbirds.org).