If you’re fascinated by history, the Greatest Generation, World War II, and aviation, there’s a good chance you’re already aware of the Lyon Air Museum. If you don’t know or haven’t yet visited the Lyon Air Museum, add it to your to-do list immediately.
Nestled away in a Santa Ana industrial park, directly on the tarmac of John Wayne Airport, the Lyon Air Museum features airworthy craft documenting many facets of World War II. Not only an aircraft the museum, Lyon also showcases various ground vehicles as well – including a parade vehicle that was once ridden by Adolf Hitler.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the Lyon Air Museum is that members of the Greatest Generation themselves – World War II veterans – volunteer as docents, bringing this truly incredible venue to life nearly every day.
Click play to listen below as Mark Foster, Lyon Air Museum CEO, shares more fascinating details in this iDSC podcast. And be sure to check out the amazing photo gallery too.
Recorded July 31, 2018 in Santa Ana, CA
Mark Foster: We’re the Greatest Generation in aviation museum, so we focus primarily on the World War II veterans and aviation. We’ve got the famous airplanes, the rare flyable World War II type airplanes. We’ve got the military vehicles, motorcycles… we even have a very historical car that was originally owned by the evil dictator, Adolph Hitler.
Tom Smith: Welcome to iDriveSoCal, the podcast all about mobility, from the automotive capital of the United States, Southern California. Tom Smith here, and I am in … Where are we technically? Costa Mesa, right?
Mark Foster: We’re Santa Ana, which is really Newport Beach, Irvine, Costa Mesa. It’s all kind of around the corner, and it’s at John Wayne Airport. That’s the thing, we’re not near John Wayne, we’re at John Wayne Airport.
Tom Smith: That is Mark Foster, who is the, what’s your exact title?
Mark Foster: Whatever you want to call me, but President, CEO.
Tom Smith: Okay. President, CEO of the Lyon Air Museum.
Mark Foster: Correct.
Tom Smith: Right down here, literally, I’m looking at Alaska Airlines getting ready, it’s taxiing down the runway right now. Mark, thank you very much for having me and the iDriveSoCal podcast. Again, all about mobility, from the automotive capital of the United States. A big piece of mobility is air travel.
You have a couple of things going on in the museum currently, but I recently learned about you guys. I guess you’ve been around since ’09, and I recently learned about you guys on KTLA. Saw a quick piece and said, “Hey, I really want to go down there and have a chat,” because you guys do some really, really cool stuff down here.
So, with that strange, kind of totally non-traditional introduction, Mark Foster of the Lyon’s Air Museum, literally right on John Wayne Airport watching planes taxi as we do this interview. Thank you for joining me.
Mark Foster: Oh, it’s great to have you. Thanks, Tom.
Tom Smith: So, high-level. What do you guys do here?
Mark Foster: Well, we’re an aviation museum, and we’re the Greatest Generation in aviation museum, so we focus primarily on the World War II veterans and aviation.
Tom Smith: Okay. For those that don’t, and I think there’s a whole lot of people that aren’t aware of the opportunity to come and check out what you guys have here, but your museum, again, you’re right on the John Wayne Airport tarmac, you can come and see what?
Mark Foster: Yeah. Well, we’ve got the World War II airplanes. We really start with pre-World War II aviation history. We’ve got pre-World War II, like a DC-3 American Airlines type aircraft that’s kind of a late ’30s design, and then we go all the way up through aircraft that would have been used in the Vietnam air war. We don’t have a lot of airplanes, but we have quality. The airplanes that are in the hangar here, all of them are airworthy, and we fly kind of rotationally, but we fly a few of them at any given time.
Tom Smith: That’s the thing. So you know, podcast listener, thank you for listening, the museum is literally a hangar, and right now we’re doing this podcast in July, late July, and the hangar’s quite hot.
Mark Foster: Yeah.
Tom Smith: But all of the aircraft are, as Mark pointed out, airworthy. They have their fluids in them, and I’m sure there’s plenty of planning that needs to go into it before they head out to take a flight, but that’s entire possible that the hangar doors can open and away you go. Right?
Mark Foster: Yes, correct. Any given time there’s maintenance going on. We have one of them that the propellers are off, and the propellers are in a propeller shop for a regular inspection they have to have, but there’s a couple airplanes down there that we could, literally, just end the interview, walk down there and open the doors and roll them out, they’re ready to go.
Tom Smith: A lot of these aircraft are, as you point out, Greatest Generation World War II, so if you watched the HBO series Band of Brothers, a lot of the aircraft that you see there are represented right down here, and airworthy and beautiful and well maintained.
Tom Smith: Mark, please tell me about how the Lyon Museum came about.
Mark Foster: Well, General William Lyon, our founder, saw a need to share these stories with the local community, and particular the school kids. He had a big passion for aviation, with his background dating all the way back to World War II, and he was now flying vintage airplanes in modern times and thought, “I need to really share these with people,” so he was able to secure a lease for space here at John Wayne Airport and build a hangar and establish the Lyon Air Museum.
Tom Smith: So it was really his passion for preserving the story of the Greatest Generation?
Mark Foster: That’s exactly, the best I’ve heard. You said that so well, Tom.
Tom Smith: Thank you.
Mark Foster: I think that’s actually our slogan.
Tom Smith: If not, work on that.
Mark Foster: Yeah, there you go.
Tom Smith: Well, it is a very cool place, and as we were discussing off mic, General Lyon entered the military before the Air Force was, and it was the Army Air Corps. That was pre-World War II?
Mark Foster: No. Well, it was during the war.
Tom Smith: It was during the war? Okay.
Mark Foster: Yeah, and he started off as a civilian flight instructor training military pilots.
Tom Smith: So he was a pilot himself before he started-
Mark Foster: Exactly.
Tom Smith: … in the military.
Mark Foster: And then he started doing some work with the Ferry Command. They were delivering airplanes for the military all over the country and all over the world.
Tom Smith: So, literally, he was a pilot that was bringing aircraft that would be used in the war …
Mark Foster: Correct.
Tom Smith: … in combat. He was bringing those planes from wherever they were being manufactured in the States to where they needed to be.
Mark Foster: Yeah. That’s how he got into the Army, basically, just becoming a Service Pilot, they called them back then. It wasn’t really a commissioned officer, it was a Service Pilot, which is something that really bothered him for many years until he got his actual Air Force wings post-World War II.
Tom Smith: Okay. The museum didn’t become until … Your first year in operation was ’09. Right?
Mark Foster: Yeah. We opened officially in ’09.
Tom Smith: So, General Lyon, once he got out of the military, he was in the homebuilding business.
Mark Foster: Correct, yeah.
Tom Smith: So some of us in Southern California would recognize the name of some of the neighborhoods that he developed. Yes?
Mark Foster: Yeah. William Lyon Homes, yeah.
Tom Smith: Okay. Now, you mentioned what the museum has to do with the local schools. Let’s talk a little bit about that.
Mark Foster: Lyon Air Museum is part of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District sixth grade curriculum, so we have about 60-something classes coming through the museum each year. We get new students every year. It’s great. And we have World War II veterans and some other of our docents who work with the students. They’re basically broken up into four sectors throughout the museum, and the students go from sector to sector, and they get to hear the stories of the Greatest Generation from the people who lived it.
Tom Smith: From the veterans themselves.
Mark Foster: Yeah. It’s just a fabulous program. The teachers love it. The school administration, the district loves it. I think we’re in our about eighth year now doing it, so it’s been [crosstalk 00:07:40].
Tom Smith: Do the kids understand it at that age?
Mark Foster: You know, they do, and I wasn’t sure about that at first. I thought, “Boy, you know, sixth grade, is that really the right time?” That’s what the school had suggested, and we thought maybe it should have been later. We weren’t sure. We had these little history, these little, we call them hero cards. They’re like baseball cards, but they’re for some of the veterans that we have, and we get them, they’re Lyon Air Museum. They’re like collector cards.
Mark Foster: Some of them were passing those out to the students the first time, the first year we were doing this. The students have a free period, after they’ve gone to all four sectors they get this 20 minute roaming period, and I figured all the kids would go huddle in a corner somewhere and just hang out with each other. Well, the kids came back and they stood in line for the veteran who had given them their card to get their autographs on the cards.
Tom Smith: That’s cool.
Mark Foster: When they were walking out they were looking down at the cards, like, “Wow. I’ve got something that’s a treasure in my hand,” as they were walking out to get back on the bus. I witnessed that, and I go, “No, we’ve got something here.” It is impactful. It does make a difference.
Tom Smith: Now, tell me a little bit about what you guys have out here, because for really anybody, if you’re a history buff, it’s an awesome museum. If you’re an aviation buff, it’s an awesome museum. If you’re a World War II buff, it’s an awesome museum. Or if you just like to go see things that fly. What do you guys have out here consistently? And then, I know you have a exhibit that’s temporary.
Mark Foster: Yeah. Well, we definitely check all those boxes that you mentioned, everything from we have the little kids standing up on these platforms we have out there so they can look out the window. Our hangar doors are big glass windows, and there’s like 260 windows, I think, and they look out onto the taxiway and the runway, so they can see the airliners taking off and landing. Some kids just like to do that. That’s always happening here, every day, which is really neat to see airports [crosstalk 00:09:36].
Tom Smith: So they just come to get a great view of John Wayne …
Mark Foster: It’s the activity. Best seat in the house. And then we’ve got the famous airplanes, the rare flyable World War II type airplanes. We’ve got the military vehicles, motorcycles and so forth. We even have a very historical car that was originally owned by the evil dictator, Adolph Hitler, and it’s an authentic World War II Mercedes parade car that’s on display here.
Tom Smith: Just to jump in real quick, podcast listeners, if you’re not listening from iDriveSoCal, you might want to go to iDriveSoCal and actually listen to the podcast from there because, like so many other of our pieces, we’re going to have pictures of all of these aircraft as well as the parade car that Hitler drove in, which when I first saw that I had goosebumps, and then when I heard the story that he actually rode in it, that’s wow.
Mark Foster: Yeah, that’s an amazing [crosstalk 00:10:33].
Tom Smith: Sorry to cut you off. I just wanted to let everybody know that they’re going to be able to see that.
Mark Foster: Yeah, so we’ve got that, and then you had mentioned just people who like airplanes, just the technology. That’s what originally attracted me to airplanes. It wasn’t the history initially, it was just the high performance. These airplanes were really high performing airplanes for back then, and that’s what drew me to it. And then, once I learned about the history, that’s where really my passion went.
Tom Smith: A little bit about the models. For those that know, let’s just breeze over some of the models that you have out here.
Mark Foster: Well, we start off with the pre-World War II, the famous DC-3 airliner. We have an American Airlines DC-3 in here, which coincidentally was converted from a cargo airplane after World War II, and it’s a D-Day veteran airplane, so it’s actually a pretty famous airplane. And then, we got the cargo-
Tom Smith: It actually flew troops on D-Day.
Mark Foster: Yes. On D-Day. Yep.
Tom Smith: Men jumped out of-
Mark Foster: On June 6th.
Tom Smith: Greatest Generation men jumped out of that plane …
Mark Foster: June 6, 1944.
Tom Smith: … on D-Day.
Mark Foster: Yeah.
Tom Smith: That is a significant piece of history.
Mark Foster: Yeah. It was with the 440th Troop Carrier Group. They were based out of Exeter in England and took off on the evening of D-Day, so it was actually about 11:00 at night on June 5th, flew across the English Channel, and they were dropping 101st Airborne troops into drop zone Delta in France in the early morning of June 6, 1944, out of that airplane.
Tom Smith: And 101st is, literally, the Band of Brothers, all about the 101st. Right?
Mark Foster: Yeah, there you go. And you mentioned Band of Brothers because we also have the sister ship to that airplane, which is configured as a C-47. It’s a B model, and it was built in 1944, and it’s got the invasion stripes. I mean, it’s painted up just like it would have been back then. That airplane we use and fly out to the local airshows. We’ll be at the Huntington Beach Air Show now, which I think is called the Great Pacific Air Show this year. It’ll be one of the star attractions during that airshow. Hundreds of thousands of people see that flying as it goes up and down the beach there, and over the pier and all that. So these airplanes, they don’t just sit in the hangar. They get out and do some flying as well.
Tom Smith: Yeah, yeah. That’s the crazy thing.
Mark Foster: And then, some of the other model we have, probably the most significant or famous would be the B-17 Flying Fortress, which is a four-engine World War II bomber, and that’s what they were using to do the daylight bombing missions over Germany. There’s only about a dozen of those left flying in the world-
Tom Smith: Wow.
Mark Foster: … and this is one of them. We don’t fly it very often right now, but it’s considered an airworthy B-17 and, like I said, there’s only about 12 of them left flying.
Tom Smith: In the world.
Mark Foster: Yeah, so that’s pretty significant. Then we’ve got a B-25 Mitchell bomber. That was a famous airplane that was the type of airplane used in the Dolittle raids, if you ever heard of the Dolittle Raiders. That’s where the 16 B-25s took off of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and flew to Japan and bombed Tokyo when the Japanese never thought that we could ever get to them.
Tom Smith: Right.
Mark Foster: Jimmy Dolittle led that raid. It was kind of a one-way mission type of raid. There’s been movies about it and so forth. 30 Seconds Over Tokyo was a famous movie a long time ago, and then as of lately, Disney did one in the early 2000s that was like a Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett-
Tom Smith: Oh, sure.
Mark Foster: It was a thing called Pearl Harbor. There was a section of that where Alec Baldwin plays Jimmy Dolittle, and they fly the B-25s on that mission as part of the storyline. So you get to see that type of airplane in person here.
Mark Foster: Then, we’ve got some other … We’ve got a forward air controller airplane that represents the Vietnam air war. They used them during the Korean and Vietnam air war. We’ve got the A-26 Invader, which is a really neat airplane because that’s the type of airplane that flew in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, so they take it across three generations of flyers, basically.
Mark Foster: And it happens to be the most powerful of the airplanes in the hangar, if you go by per-engine horsepower. It had 2,000 horsepower per engine, and it’s got two engines on it, so it’s a pretty amazing high-speed type airplane. So, the stuff’s not old. It still competes. It won’t compete with a modern jet, but it’ll definitely compete with the modern prop planes. They’re pretty amazing airplanes, given the time.
Tom Smith: You mentioned the Hitler parade car that he literally stood in and waved to people. What are some of the other World War II era vehicles that you have that don’t fly?
Mark Foster: Yeah, and the vehicles don’t fly. Not far, anyway. But yeah, we’ve got the Army Jeeps, which are classics. Right?
Tom Smith: Right.
Mark Foster: We have the old Willys Jeep and all that. We’ve got two of those out there, and we’ve got a big Dodge command truck out there. We’ve got motorcycles. We have some interesting motorcycles. We have a real rare, it was kind of the, I might mispronounce it, but a Rikuo, which is a Japanese motorcycle that was basically modeled after the Harley Davidson.
Mark Foster: Kind of an interesting story where Harley Davidson had worked out a deal with the Japanese prior to World War II, and they were building Harleys over there under license, basically, the Japanese were, with Harley. And then, obviously, as tensions began to build, they left, and the Japanese continued to build these motorcycles and the Rikuo, which I think means like road king in Japanese or something. So we have one of those out there. Some of the motorcycles are functional as well.
Tom Smith: Now, let’s talk a little bit about the exhibit that you have right now, the Dan Gurney cars.
Mark Foster: Yes. We have, it’s Vintage Motor Racing, and we’re doing a special tribute to Dan Gurney. This is the year that we lost Dan Gurney, in January, and it was a big, big loss for everybody, and we wanted to, through the Vintage Motor Racing, show a little bit, pay homage to Dan Gurney.
Mark Foster: We have on display here nine vintage motor racing cars, three of which are Dan Gurney-related. We have two Dan Gurney Eagles here, the Gurney Eagle, and then we have his Sebring Cobra, which is not the original Sebring Cobra that he raced in 1963, but it’s a highly accurate replication of the one, and it was his personal car until his passing.
Tom Smith: How long is that exhibit here for?
Mark Foster: It’s going to run through Labor Day, so through September, what is that? September 3rd. So you want to get here and see it. You know, the neat thing about our display, to see the cars among the airplanes is really a neat, just, it’s great for photo ops and so forth. And the car exhibit is included with the admission of coming to see the air museum, so if you’re going to come see the air museum, you might as well come while the cars are here.
Tom Smith: That’s where I was getting to next. If you want to come to the Lyon Air Museum, obviously, head down towards John Wayne Airport, which we are right on there, but you definitely want to hit the navigation because you’re not going to stumble across it unless you intend to arrive here.
Mark Foster: Yeah. It’s easy to find if you know where we are. Basically, on Baker Street, if you’re heading east toward John Wayne Airport, Baker Street dead-ends into our parking lot. It turns into another street called Ike Jones Road, but if you just keep going straight and follow the windy road, it ultimately ends up dead-end into our parking lot. It’s pretty hard to miss as long as you get on Baker and head east and keep going.
Tom Smith: You guys are pretty accommodating in that you’re open most days of the year. Right?
Mark Foster: We’re open seven days a week, every day except for Christmas and Thanksgiving Day, and occasionally a special event if we have to close down, but that’s very seldom. We’re open 10:00 to 4:00 daily.
Tom Smith: Okay. And admission’s reasonable. What’s admission, real quick?
Mark Foster: Yeah. I think basic admission is $12, and we’ve got some discounts for veterans and seniors, and that takes it down to $9, and we’ve got some group discounts, 10 or more people show up, I think it’s a dollar off per admission. Then kids are $6 and under five’s free.
Tom Smith: Okay. Do you want to drop the website in?
Mark Foster: Yeah. It’s just LyonAirMuseum.org.
Tom Smith: LyonAirMuseum.org.
Mark Foster: And all those people who follow on Instagram and Facebook and all that, it’s also it’s just Lyon Air Museum, and Lyon is L-Y-O-N Air Museum, and there’s no S.
Tom Smith: No S.
Mark Foster: Yeah.
Tom Smith: I think I might have dropped an S in there a few times.
Mark Foster: Yeah, just once, but that happens.
Tom Smith: All right.
Mark Foster: Yeah. It became a possessive S instead of the basic name, so it’s okay.
Tom Smith: Not that you noticed.
Mark Foster: Yeah, no. I did. It’s kind of like those fingernails on the chalkboard, and we’re always like, “No, it’s no Lyons,” because so many people say Lyons Air Museum. But no, it’s Lyon. Our founder’s name is General William Lyon, which is interesting because there’s a big guy with Jaguar, which is, it’s a vintage car that we’ve displayed before, and the designer of the XK120 was a William Lyons, so that was really confusing while we had the Jags on display here.
Tom Smith: All right. All kinds of fingers on the chalkboard for you.
Mark Foster: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
Tom Smith: All right. Well, Mark Foster, President, General Manager, CEO of the Lyon Air Museum, thank you so much for having me, and for iDriveSoCal, I’m Tom Smith. Thanks very much, as always, for listening.