If you’re a resident of (or visitor to) the Coachella Valley who wants to be entertained and educated simultaneously, you’re in luck—because we have the popular Palm Springs Air Museum.

How popular, you ask? Well, the readers of the Independent and viewers of KESQ News Channel 3 picked the PSAM as the valley’s Best Museum in the Best of Coachella Valley 2021-2022 poll.

“We operate in what I would call the ‘edutainment’ space,” said Fred Bell, the managing director of the PSAM, during a recent interview with the Independent. “If we can expose kids and individuals who come to the museum to concepts—ranging from history and the humanities, to technical pieces about how airplanes operate and how they fly—then they’re learning while they’re here without being hit over the head with it.

“We work hard to have a facility that is customer-friendly and easy to manage. We are one of the few ‘flying museums’ of our type that is left in the United States. So, if we can inspire people with our collection and how we operate it, and we do that in such a way that they are excited about learning, then we have accomplished our mission.”

According to Bell, the Air Museum, now in its 26th year of operations, “edutains” roughly 150,000 patrons per year. He said the Air Museum team was excited to learn about the Best Museum selection.

“We appreciate the fact that folks see the value in the facility and understand that we’re part of the fabric of the Coachella Valley,” he said. “I think probably one of the reasons, if not the biggest reason, (that we won) is we are part of the fabric of the valley. We do a lot of local participation. We do a tremendous amount with children on education, science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. … We want to get kids excited about the future of flying and space flight—because that’s where we’re headed, to Mars and beyond. So it’s wonderful that this happened, and we are very appreciative.”

Heather Gage, the Air Museum’s events manager, said the museum team works hard to offer all attendees a great experience.

“We try to be the gold standard,” she said. “There are not a lot of places in the valley like ours. … We have an amazing team of people who work on all of our exhibits and fly our aircraft. We have wonderful volunteers that we love, and we couldn’t do it without them. We’re very lucky to have volunteers who are very passionate about the museum and the planes.”

The museum’s expansive hangar exhibition halls and extensive outdoor tarmac sit right next to the Palm Springs International Airport. These days, as everyone is trying to find their way back to a sense of normalcy despite the lingering presence of COVID-19, the museum’s spacious and open spaces have attracted both visitors wanting to feel safe, and clients looking for a safe venue for large public events.

Palm Springs Air Museum Managing Director Fred Bell.

“We were always a popular venue prior to the challenges of COVID-19,” Bell said. “I think (early Air Museum supporter and visionary) Bob Pond selected this site on the airport, because it is truly spectacular, with the view of the mountains and the open space with the facility. Certainly, today, people have become more aware of their surroundings and their space, and our 100,000 feet on 10 acres, and our ability to open up those (hangar) building doors and essentially be outdoors, has had an impact on people who are sensitive to having the ability to spread out.”

In recent months, the Air Museum has hosted a wide range events, from after-hours Splash House parties to the LGBTQ Community Center of the Desert’s Center Stage gala. On Dec. 10 and 11, it will be the venue for Desert Air, a music and dance festival co-created by Splash House and Coachella producer Goldenvoice.

Unquestionably, one of the largest and most important annual public events held at the PSAM is the Air Museum’s own Annual Gala. The upscale social event—with black-tie clothing or a military uniform required—is slated to take place on Feb. 18, 2022, and will be hosted by actor Joe Mantegna.

“This (year’s event) will be focused on ‘Above and Beyond,’” Bell said. “It will focus on our F-117 stealth fighter, which is coming in soon. We’re in the process of finishing that exhibit space now. Also, we’ll have a group of cutting-edge honorees. Usually, we have eight honorees, and a number of them are going to be test pilots.”

The excitement in Bell’s voice was evident as he described the impending arrival of the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. About 60 of them were built as part of a top-secret program, and they played a role in the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

“They were officially retired in the early 2000s,” Bell said. “But that airplane was about the most cutting-edge technology for its time. It’s going to be an airplane that really inspires people, and a lot of folks have tremendous interest in that stealth technology. The particular airframe—the tail number is 833—has the second-highest (amount of) combat time in the stealth-fighter fleet, as far as the number of combat missions it flew. We picked it up at the Tonopah (Test) Range, which is up in what people talk about as Area 51 and Dreamland (in Nevada, about 140 miles northwest of Las Vegas). We’ve been working on it now for about year getting it ready, and we’re just in the process of finishing the hangar for it. The James R. Houston Pavilion will be where that aircraft is housed in its own exhibit hangar.”

P-63, P-51 and C-47 planes fly in formation.

Although the museum offers visitors the opportunity to actually fly on several of its planes for a fee, Bell broke into laughter when asked if the public would be able to purchase a stealth flight experience.

“No, the military would not be happy with me if we did that right here,” Bell said.

The Air Museum even offers edutainment to people who can’t physically make it to the venue: The 24/7, 365 “PSAM Cam” offers camera perspectives on both the PSAM tarmac areas and the neighboring Palm Springs International Airport, accompanied by live audio transmissions between the airport’s control tower and pilots.

“I remember as a kid, I went to a restaurant called the Proud Bird over in Los Angeles,” Bell said. “You could go there to have lunch, and they had little headphones, and you could listen to the control tower while you watched the airplanes take off. I never really forgot that. So, we thought, ‘Why don’t we let people look in?’ One camera view is right on our ramp, so you can see people moving around, and the airplanes. Then there’s another feed that’s right on the terminal, and you can see the jets leaving to take off, and you can hear (pilots and air traffic controllers) talking. There are a lot of aviation folks who really enjoy that, and I know a number of people who actually use that as their screensaver at home. They put it up, and they just let it run all day long. It’s quite popular.”

For more information, visit palmspringsairmuseum.org.

Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...

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