The Wings of War
Santa Teresa museum celebrates
military aviation of 1940s-1950s
By Lisa Kay Tate
Most of the Borderland’s museums are located in city centers, but one major exception is the War Eagles Air Museum in Santa Teresa, miles from the nearest neighborhood but definitely worth the drive.
Founded by prominent El Pasoans and aircraft enthusiasts John and Betty MacGuire, the private non-profit museum is dedicated to “collecting, restoring and displaying historic aircraft of the World War II and the Korean Conflict eras.”
The museum is located in a 64,000 square foot hanger at the Doña Ana County International Jetport (often referred to as the Santa Teresa Airport).
The museum opened with about 14 planes and now has nearly three dozen, most of them in flying condition, as well as more than 50 classic automobiles.
Historic aircraft at the museum include a PT-17 Stearman, P51-D Mustang, P-38 Lightning, P-40 Warhawk, F4U-4 Corsair and P-40E Warhawk, a German observation aircraft, the Fiesler-Storch, and a DC-3. The collection also includes several jets built in the 1950s, including an F-86 Sabre, a T-33 Silver Star and MIG-15s.
Restoration is a major part of the museum’s efforts. Some of their recent efforts have included bringing their A-26 Invader, F-84F Thunderbird, MiG-21, and a TU-2 back to flying condition.
Other highlights of the museum include its automobiles and vintage gas pumps, a salute to Women in Aviation, a display dedicated to El Paso’s World War II flying ace, Bill Crombie; and small nuclear bomb shells — a B57 and B61, and two types of B43’s — which are the types of shells certain planes in the museum would have carried during their missions.
“We are one of three museums in the country allowed to carry and exhibit nuclear bomb (shells),” said the museum’s Executive Director Robert “Bob” Dockendorf, who stressed these bomb shells have to go through intense inspection on a regular basis to ensure they are safe for the public.
The museum also boasts a collection of basic instrument trainers, including a 1940s era Link Trainer, used to teach all phases of instrument flying such as radio navigation, radio range and loop orientation, landing systems, voice procedure and more. Some pilots who trained in these would spend several hours at a time in the small enclosure, just as they would if having to fly an actual plane over long distances.
Dockendorf said seeing the planes and exhibits is one thing, but he encourages people to talk with volunteers in the hangar, and read up on all information about them to get the full feeling of each one’s history.
“All of our airplanes have their own stories,” Dockendorf said.
The DC-3 story
One of his favorite stories is that of the museum’s DC-3, which has been part of the museum since 1989. The plane started life as a military C-47, which flew as part of more than 10,000 planes involved in D-Day.
The museum opened the restored DC-3 to visitors this year on June 6, the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
The DC-3 also provides visitors with an insight into the early days of commercial aviation. American Airlines put the plane into service in 1936, and hundreds were made for the airlines in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
“By 1939, most air traffic in the world was done in DC-3’s,” Dockendorf said. “There are still several countries in Central South American countries today flying this type of airplane as a commercial airline.”
Thousands more versions of the plane were used by the military as C-47 and a later variant, the C-53, which were used as troop and cargo transport and also to tow gliders and drop paratroopers.
“From 1942 to 1945 DC-3’s flew ‘over the hump’ on a supply route from India across the Himalayas and into China,” the museum’s description of the plane reads. “This was basically a military operation. Sometimes they made as many as 5,000 flights and carried as much as 44,000 tons of supplies in one month. At times the DC-3s were taking off at two-minute intervals.”
In 1994, several veterans gathered at the museum to celebrate a 50th anniversary celebration of the event. A group image of those present for the event is displayed in front of the plane.
“It’s hard to believe that was 25 years ago,” Dockendorf said.
Many other classic warbirds and vintage aircraft will stop by the War Eagles Air Museum for a day or two, allowing visitors an up close look at aircraft they might not normally get to see.
Many of these visits are thanks to the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association), which was founded in 1953 by a group of friends interested in building their own planes, but they now promote several types of antique and contemporary aircraft, including warbirds like their B-17 Flying Fortress “Aluminum Overcast” that have visited the museum as recently as 2016. The plane is one of only about a dozen of the 12,732 bombers made by Boeing from 1936 to 1945 during World War II that are still flying today. Its visit to the museum drew a steady amount of people not only wanting to tour the plane, but also a few willing pay around $400 to fly in it.
One recurring visitor from the EAA has been one of Henry Ford’s ventures into aircraft: 1928 Ford Tri-Motors, such as one visiting plane owned by Transcontinental Air Transport that helped to introduce the first coast-to-coast passenger air and rail service to the United States in 1929.
This one has an added appeal to guests, who can take half hour flights for less than $100.
“We get many planes coming through here regularly, like the bombers, but the cost to fly in them isn’t always obtainable to the public,” Dockendorf said. “The Ford Tri-Motor is a good price for more people who want to experience flying in it.”
The War Eagles Museum makes a special effort to reach out to younger visitors, through school field trips, summer camp outings and other youth groups, not only to teach them the history of aircraft and the people behind them, but also to foster an appreciation of aviation in general.
“We get about 5,000 who come through here every year, mostly school groups,” Dockendorf said.
Teachers or group leaders can also request educational packets for students to take home and continue learning about the history of aviation. Kids can use the museum’s website at home to take quizzes on engine sounds and cockpit identification, as well as download coloring pages of WWII era aircraft.
The attendance and response from youth, especially from large groups, helped inspire one of the museum’s most recent additions, the Tyler Francis Children’s Center, a shaded outside picnic area with its own bathrooms separate from the main building where groups can gather before or after their visit.
“We’ve had a lot of groups ask us if there is a place here they can sit and have lunch, so this has been a very good addition to the museum,” he said.
The museum is also a base for the area EAA Young Eagles program, created in 1992 to give youth age 8 to 17 a chance to fly in a general aviation planes. Kids in the program can get to fly with volunteer pilots, and can get their own flight logbook, among other things.
The program itself is headquartered in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and has flown more than 2 million kids throughout the United States. The local chapter is still new in comparison, and got its start during one of the past visits from the Ford Tri-Motor.
“The EAA Chapter 1570, the local chapter, was created about three years ago, and since then around 300 children have been given their first flying experience in small airplanes,” Dockendorf said. “These EAA pilots volunteer their time, their airplanes and the cost of their fuel to help attract young aviators.”
The program has so far awarded more than $30,000 in scholarships to young adults who, through the program, have gained the desire to pursue aviation as a career.
“There are some big career opportunities out there in aviation today,” he said. “There’s a growing need for more people in aviation today.”
Dockendorf said the best way to find out about upcoming Young Eagles opportunities is to check events on the Facebook pages for either EAA or the War Eagles Museum.
Value of volunteers
Keeping a nonprofit museum running means finding people willing to devote their time and talents to maintaining it.
Dockendorf, who has served as executive director for the past eight years, is one of the museum’s few paid employees. He said the museum relies heavily on the dedication and enthusiasm of its volunteers to serve as tour guides and also to work behind the scenes caring for the exhibits.
Most of the cars in the museum have been donated, and outnumber plane exhibits by at least 20. The museum has even extended its name to “War Eagle Air ‘and Auto’ Museum” in tourist brochures and other mailings.
The automobile collection includes motorcars like a 1908 Overland and Oldsmobile, and a 1927 Model T, to classics like a Super 8 Convertible, 1940 Oldsmobile Custom 8 Cruiser, and 1970 Jaguar E-Type Roadster, and is still growing. As recently as last month a Las Cruces museum supporter donated a 1935 Packard that now sits next to the MacGuires’ 1936 Packard 120 Cabriolet.
Anita Murray, a volunteer for ten years, said her favorite exhibit in the collection is a horse and buggy that precedes the motorcar era. “I love this because is it just like the one my own grandmother drove. When cars were becoming more common, she refused to drive one because she wanted to continue using the horse and buggy.”
Murray helps to keep the exhibits clean and polished, so they can help take the visitor back to the time when they were first manufactured.
“Every one of these cars served a purpose for somebody, and each one has a history to them,” she said. “I always think about that when I’m taking care of them.”
Public support, besides volunteers, includes annual and lifetime memberships.
Dockendorf said there are still much more to come in the future, as the museum is “here for the long run,” and encourages people to visit any time of year.
The museum also opens its doors for special occasions after hours.
Dockendorf said the museum is especially inviting at night, and the museum will rent out the main exhibit hanger for private events such as birthdays or receptions. He said they had just recently hosted a bar mitzvah in the hangar, and both the kids and adults had a great time.
He suggests anyone who gets a chance to attend an event at the museum shouldn’t pass up this opportunity.
“The museum is great during the day, but there’s something about it after dark when the moon is shining through the windows,” Dockendorf said. “These planes just feel like they come to life ready to share their stories.”
John & Betty MacGuire
The War Eagles Air Museum was founded by aircraft collectors and pilots John and Betty MacGuire, who started the nonprofit museum in 1989 displaying around 14 planes.
John MacGuire was born in the state of New York, and met Betty, an El Paso native and daughter of Lee and Beulah Moor, while attending the University of Texas in Austin. He worked as a mechanical engineer in different cities before moving to El Paso in 1947. Betty MacGuire is also known for her dedication to the arts in El Paso, and served as Board Chair of the El Paso Community Foundation. Her portrait hangs prominently in the entry hall of the Plaza Theatre, named after her.
The MacGuires owned farm and ranchland throughout the area, and he moved to a Marfa ranch in the 1990s, where they lived until he passed away at age 80 in 2001. The MacGuires were married for 58 years.
Betty MacGuire who still visits the museum on occasion, said in a memorial written about on her husband, John “took up flying his own plane, an Aeronca K, in 1945,” while buying ranch and farm properties, and was still flying just a week before he passed away.
Other private museums
Although the War Eagles Air Museum is one of the more prominent nonprofit museums located outside the city limits, here are three free museums El Pasoans should check out:
• Eduardo Pedregon Veterans Memorial Museum. Commonly called the “San Elizario Veterans Museum,” is located on San Elizario’s Main Street in the Mercantile Building, next the popular Los Portales Museum and Visitor Center. It is operated by the San Elizario Genealogy and Historical Society’s Veterans committee, and features the Memorial Walk out front. Admission is free. Information at 851-0093 or sanelizariogenealogy.com/veterans.
• Boxing Museum Rafael García. The boxing museum founded by Rafael Armendariz, is now at 1335 Geronimo. It’s named for “The Legend” Rafael García as a showcase for his achievements, and also highlights Lucha Libre greats and other exhibits for boxing lovers (including signed gloves from Mike Tyson). Information at 591-2704 or on Facebook.
• El Paso Funeral Museum. One of El Paso’s newest small museums, it occupies a space at Perches Funeral Home on 6111 S. Desert and contains articles, memorabilia, curios and antiques that aim to educate the community and honor “one of man’s oldest cultures, professions,” and rituals and to celebrate the traditions of the funeral service industry. The museum opened on Dia de los Muertos and hosts special events most months, most recently a Hearse Exhibit and Classic Car Show And Shine on Father’s Day weekend, with a celebration of artist Frida Kahlo planned in July. Information at 581-0102 or elpasofuneralmuseum.com.
Copyright 2019 by Cristo Rey Communications