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Flying Leathernecks Museum At MCAS Miramar Closing April 1

"Lady Ace 09" - the helicopter that lifted the American ambassador out of Saigon on April 29, 1975 is shown at the Flying Leathernecks Museum on March 18, 2021.
John Carroll
"Lady Ace 09" - the helicopter that lifted the American ambassador out of Saigon on April 29, 1975 is shown at the Flying Leathernecks Museum on March 18, 2021.

You could drive right by the Flying Leathernecks Museum next to Miramar Road and not even notice it. But there is so much here to notice; it's the only museum of its kind in the country.

“This is the only Marine museum dedicated to Marine Corps aviation, so it’s a collection of around 46 iconic Marine Corps aircraft,” said Retired Brigadier General Michael Aguilar, who runs the Flying Leatherneck Historical Foundation, the group that oversees operation of the place.

Flying Leathernecks Museum At MCAS Miramar Closing April 1
Listen to this story by John Carroll.

The museum is named after 1951’s "Flying Leathernecks" movie starring John Wayne. It detailed the fight for Guadalcanal in World War II. In the movie, Wayne and his comrades are seen flying Grumman Hellcats.

There’s a Hellcat and a Wildcat plane here, and so many others that hearken to Marine Corps aviation over the years.

But the museum, which sits on MCAS Miramar land, is about to fly off into the sunset, unless efforts to save it succeed.

"For the past 15 years, we’ve been trying to partner with the Marine Corps to come to a partnership with them that would allow us to take over the financial burden the Marine Corps has with running this museum,” Aguilar said.

That burden amounts to about $460,000 a year. But saving this place is about more than just operating costs. While the Foundation runs the museum, it's still owned by the Marine Corps. For the Foundation to take over the place, they’d have to pay current fair market value for the land. For a multi-acre piece fronting on Miramar Road, it would be well into the six figures.

But Aguilar said there are other roads to avoid closure, and they have support. Local congressmen Scott Peters and Darrell Issa are lobbying the Pentagon to save it.

Video: Flying Leathernecks Museum At MCAS Miramar Closing April 1

And one of San Diego’s leading museums has also stepped up to help.

That help is coming from a kindred spirit when it comes to museums, the Air and Space Museum in Balboa Park where management says losing the Leathernecks Museum is unthinkable. So, they’re trying to help save it.

“It’s complicated,” said Air and Space Museum President and CEO Jim Kidrick. But Kidrick said the museum he leads is doing everything it can to save its companion museum.

“Right now, I’d like to give it a 50/50 and 50/50 is probably better than where we were three weeks ago or four weeks ago, so I think the meetings have been very, very productive," said Kidrick.

But if nothing can be worked out, some iconic, historic aircraft will have to go elsewhere, like one old chopper called Lady Ace ‘09.

Aguilar pointed out its significance.

“This is the actual aircraft that flew the American ambassador, Ambassador Martin and the American flag out of Vietnam when we pulled out of Vietnam,” he said.

A statement from MCAS Miramar Commanding Officer Col. Michael Dockery said:

"Some of our collection will undoubtedly stay in the San Diego area while other items will go to museums where the Marine aviation story isn’t currently told. Marines take great pride and reverence in our stories and legends, and we feel this is an opportunity to share that legacy with others dedicated to history.”

Inside, the closure process is well underway. Artifacts are being put in storage or sent elsewhere for display.

A final decision now rests at the Pentagon, with the Commandant of the Corps.

Meantime, the museum, which is free, is open this weekend, perhaps one of the last times San Diegans will be able to visit the Flying Leathernecks Aviation Museum.