I knew that Chino Airport had two aircraft museums—both of which were on my list to visit—but I wasn't there for them that day. I needed something to eat, and Flo's Airport Cafe was beckoning me, as most airport cafes and diners do.
But when I pulled in on Colonel Scott Drive—a road that's no longer listed on any current maps—I realized I'd stumbled upon something much bigger than a rinky-dink airport that served breakfast all day.
It turns out that today's Chino Airport is located on the grounds of the former Cal-Aero Academy, one of the first civilian flight schools in the U.S.—and while most certainly not the last, it was the largest in the U.S. at the time.
Such flight training became commonplace after World War II started—and, in the case of Cal-Aero, it had become contracted by the U.S. Army Air Forces from 1942 to 1944.
Not to be confused with the present-day Cal Aero Preserve Academy school for grades K through 12, this is where young guys who aspired to be fighter pilots used to learn how to fly B-44s, B-17s, B-24s, and Stearman PT-17s.
Many of the buildings on the western end of the present-day airport are vacant, but a main hall is currently being used as an active U.S. Postal Service office.
Back in the 1940s during the war, Army Air Cadets would go through 10 weeks of primary training and 10 weeks of basic pilot training—both of which included flight instruction and ground school.
Unlike at other military bases and academies, these cadets didn't sleep in barracks—but, rather, motel-style rooms.
Because it started out as a private facility, it was practically like a country club, compared to other defense units.
The Academy could accommodate up to 500 men—but once they're training was done, they would move on to more advanced training at another base farther up north.
In total, more than 12,000 fighter and bomber pilots trained here during the war effort.
But it's been a long time since some of these buildings have been used.
Now owned by the County of San Bernardino, Chino Airport actually does have a relatively thriving business, despite appearances.
In addition to its two plane museums (and cafe), it leases space to various fixed-base operators...
...so civilians can continue to learn to fly here.
There's also a banquet hall directly adjacent to one of the runways, providing a uniquely vintage setting for weddings and other such events.
It's hard to shake the shadow of decorated war hero Colonel Robert Lee Scott Jr., who had been training a total of 110 young pilots at Cal-Aero when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor—and who always wanted to be a fighter pilot himself.
Colonel Scott eventually did make it into combat, being called a "one-man air force" by Life magazine (and authoring God Is My Co-Pilot).
Though he ultimately wound up in the "Far East"—and passed away in 2006 at age 97—his presence is still strongly felt in Chino.
The Cal-Aero airfield continued to play an important role even after WWII ended...
...and that was as a "boneyard" for surplus military aircraft.
For some, it was a waystation until they could be sold off.
For others, it was the coroners' office—where they'd be picked apart and their parts melted down.
At one point, the field surrounding the runways were so full of parked warbirds—nearly 2000 of them in total—that there wasn't much of a buffer zone for take-off or landing.
By 1960, ownership of the airfield reverted to the Count of San Bernardino and Chino Airport was officially born.
In the 1970s, Chino Airport shifted its focus from merely storing retired warbirds to actually restoring them—hence the two air museums, Planes of Fame and Yanks Air Museum.
But restoring veteran planes like these is not only time-consuming but also expensive.
It's also a bit of a sham.
When you get to see them with their signs of aging reversed, returned to "like-new" conditions, it erases the visual cues of having actually been flown in combat.
But when you see them in their junkyard state...
...you get a much better sense of what they've been through.
I would much prefer to see them stabilized and preserved but left unrestored.
Sure, they'll never fly agin without their wings.
But they can teach us something that a rebuilt one—or a replica—never could.
This isn't just the wear and tear of time...
...or of being exposed to the elements.
These are bona fide battle scars.
And while none of us can truly comprehend the experience without being up there and shot at ourselves...
...it's a much more realistic depiction of the firefight than you can find in most historic warbird collections.
Why gloss it over?
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