At first I didn’t believe it. The largely forgotten stealth aircraft that competed with, and lost to, the YF-22 to become our next fighter was sitting on an apron just a few miles south of LAX. The YF-23, arguably far more futuristic looking than the F-22, never made it to production, but the two prototypes still exist, and one of them is in Torrance at the Western Museum of Flight. Practically my backyard.
That’s not all this museum has, either. Next to the YF-23 is another rare prototype: a YF-17. This lost out to the aircraft that would become the F-16. It was reborn a short time later as the F/A-18 Hornet that still serves the Navy today.
You’ll see a Harrier Jump Jet trainer, an F-5 you can actually sit in and more at this lovely little museum. Here’s a full tour.
The WMOF currently occupies two parts of two hangars at Zamperini Field in Torrance, California, about halfway between LAX and Long Beach. They squeeze a lot into the small spaces, though. Upon arriving I was greeted by several docents, all of whom were exceptionally friendly and welcoming.
One of the most impressive things there is the huge collection of more than 300 model aircraft, including many design studies from the pre-computer days. They range in size from scale models familiar to any hobbyist to large recreations used in wind-tunnel testing. Using their space effectively, many of these hang from the ceiling, or sit beneath the wings of other aircraft.
The plane closest to the entrance gate is an immaculate F-86 Saber that was the last in service with the JASDF (Japanese Air Self Defense Force). Next to that is an F-5 that served with the Norwegian air force, which you can sit in. I did, of course. There are also several famous engines and a tiny Bede BD-5.
In the hangar opposite is a gorgeously restored and maintained Harrier Jump Jet. It looked a little off when I first looked at it. Too long. I asked one of the docents and he pointed out the second seat I’d missed. It was one of the trainer versions. The addition of a second seat upset the weight balance so the tail had to be made longer to compensate.
Several of the larger aircraft are at the other end of the field. Docent Neil offered to drive my friend and I over, and on the way telling us all about the airport, the museum and Robinson Helicopter which has its entire operation there.
In a fenced off area at the corner of the airport sit the other legends. The F-14, F-5 and A-4 are always cool, but those are fairly common sights at air museums. The other two aircraft here are most definitely not.
Right as you enter is the YF-17, a plane that a casual glance would appear to be an F/A-18. It’s got all the same lines, though subtle differences with the production aircraft.
The YF-23 (above) is even more amazing in person than in pictures. Though it’s nearly 30 years old, most people would assume it was a prop from a sci-fi movie. It’s got angles and curves in all the right places. Sadly there’s no easy way to get a look at its trapezoidal wings. Neil pointed out the engine’s S-ducts, which I hadn’t noticed before in other photos. The air intakes are under the wings, obviously, but they’re also further outboard than the tucked in engines. All in the name of stealth.
Even taking your time, I doubt it’d take you more than two hours to check out everything at the museum in detail. However, it’s also only a $5 donation. Something to do on a Saturday after lunch perhaps – they close at 3 p.m. every day and all-day Monday. On the third Saturday of every month, they have a guest lecture for $10. Last month was a long-time Northrop engineer. In November there’ll be a visit from the new Goodyear Blimp. A great little museum.
If LA isn’t in your plans, or if the South Bay is a bit too far because the 405 gives you nightmares, check out the gallery above.
In his alternate life as a travel writer, Geoff does tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarines, medieval castles, iconic music studios and more. You can follow his exploits on Twitter, Instagram and on his travel blog BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel.