Hiller Musuem of Northern California Aviation — San Carlos, California

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A little-known but quite fascinating aviation museum opened in 1997 at San Carlos Airport, just eight miles southeast of San Francisco International. Not just for helicopter buffs, the museum features the giant record-setting Condor pilotless spy plane, major portions of Boeing's ill-fated 1970 SST project, Hiller's flying platforms, and all manner of interesting airplanes, rotorcraft, and other aviation memorabilia. Here's a word-and-photo tour of this must-see Bay Area aviation attraction.

Most people wouldn't think of Northern California as a place with much of an aviation history, and probably wouldn't envision Palo Alto home of Stanford University and the birthplace of Silicon Valley as a likely place for an aircraft manufacturer to have been based.

But in fact, Northern California has a notable history in aviation, and one of the major contributors was the Hiller Aircraft Company, a Palo Alto-based manufacturer of helicopters and other aviation components. While Hiller isn't a familiar name among today's aviation enthusiasts, the company managed to amass a large collection of aviation artifacts and aircraft over the years, which remained unavailable to the public. In 1997, the firm opened the Hiller Musuem of Northern California Aviation, anchoring the northwest corner of San Carlos Airport.

The Airport and Environs

San Carlos AirportSan Carlos Airport is a compelling fly-in location, and not only because of the museum. It is one of the closest general aviation airports to San Francisco, and a convenient gateway to Silicon Valley. Facilities are limited when compared to airports that regularly serve corporate jets, but rental cars are available on the field from Thrifty, and fuel prices are reasonable for a major urban area. San Carlos has also received a GPS approach recently, which significantly increases airport usability during the overcast weather that occurs frequently in winter months.

Arrival at San Carlos should be planned with care. The airport is located at the edge of the San Francisco Bay and is surrounded by controlled airspace, adverse terrain and noise sensitive areas. To the north, is the San Francisco International Airport, with Class B airspace overlying San Carlos at an altitude of 1,500' over the northeast pattern, 4,000' to the southwest and down to the surface just three miles due north. The approaches to San Francisco's runway 28 are just a few miles away, and should be carefully avoided.

SFO TACTo the southeast is the Palo Alto airport, then the Moffett Federal Airfield with Class D airspaces, and beyond that the San Jose Class C. Northeast of San Carlos, is the Hayward Class D, and the Oakland International Class C.

As if that weren't enough, the terrain west of the airport rises to 2,500' along the spine of the San Francisco Peninsula, making approaches from the west somewhat challenging. There are also noise-sensitive communities southwest and north of the airport.

Pilots arriving at San Carlos should review the San Francisco Terminal Area chart with care. The airspaces overlap and may be difficult to identify if careful study is not done in advance. In my experience, most GPS and other moving map systems do not capture the full complexity of this area.

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View across the departure end of San Carlos runway 30 from the museum, looking at the terminal building.

Fortunately, most of the local control facilities are quite comfortable guiding pilots through the area. Arrivals from the north will most likely use a Bayshore Transition though the San Francisco Bravo airspace, often right over the top of the airport runway complex. This transition should be requested from Bay Approach well in advance. Arrivals from the east can avoid all airspaces and fly across the bay directly to San Carlos at low altitude, but it is advisable to be in contact with Bay Approach, as this route crosses below heavy jets arriving at San Francisco. Arriving from the South, it is possible to skirt around all airspaces, or transitions can be arranged with Bay Approach, Moffett Tower and Palo Alto tower. Bay Approach can also be helpful with arrivals through the Oakland Class C airspace.

The terminal building and transient parking is at the north corner of the airport, directly across from the museum. This building also houses the Sky Kitchen restaurant which serves breakfast and lunch seven days a week. The museum is directly across the runway from the terminal building, approximately a 15 minutes walk away.

The Museum

Every scientific or engineering pursuit tends to produce a lot of junk. When examined with 20/20 hindsight, we can often marvel at the brilliance of a lot of that "junk" and recognize how important a contribution it made to the world we know today.

The Hiller Museum is a wonderful collection of just that kind of "junk." The museum's main exhibit space is arranged to provide a historical walkthrough of aviation in Northern California, including a few aircraft which were extremely successful in their time, and some whose time never came at all but still made contributions to the art and science of avaition. Several of the exhibits display products that were produced by or with the assistance of Hiller Aircraft, mostly in Bay Area factories.

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An early California glider.

History buffs will learn that the first controlled flights in a glider were made in California as early as 1883, and that the inventor was on the verge of providing his gliders with engine power when he was killed in a crash near San Jose.

You can also examine a replica of the first wind tunnel in the world, constructed by the U.S. Government at Stanford University in 1915. This tunnel did the first exhaustive studies of propeller shapes, pitches and contours, resulting in many of the advancements of the post-World War I era. Much of the original equipment and propeller designs tested are on display.

Boeing SST
Boeing SST front section and droop nose.

At the center of the Museum are two major artifacts, one hanging from the ceiling and the other resting on the floor. On the floor is the entire front section and "droop nose" from Boeing's ill-fated second-generation SST project. The structure is interesting to examine, especially when viewed in light of the obvious material and commercial advances since the project was cancelled in 1971. There are no composites and no obviously exotic metals. As the commercial failure of the Concorde clearly attests, this aircraft is clearly one of the ideas whose time still has not come.

Condor pilotless aircraft
Condor robotic aircraft hangs from the ceiling of the Hiller Museum.

High above, hanging from the ceiling, is an oddly shaped aircraft, with a huge wingspan and a boxy, landing-gear fuselage with no landing gear. Museum documents explain that this is the Condor, America's first robotic aircraft. Originally designed as a pilotless spy plane, the Condor's major achievements were in proving cutting edge technologies. It was the first aircraft to fly a fully automatic flight from takeoff to landing and the first to include automated multifunction redundancy management, including the ability to recover from engine or rudder failure in flight. The Condor also proved the usefulness of composites in aircraft construction in order to provide the lowest possible weight and high stiffness.

Ultimately, the Condor set several records, including those for the highest piston-engined flight (67,028 feet), and for the longest unmanned, unrefueled flight (51 hours at 55,000 feet).

Hiller Hornet
Hiller Hornet helicopter, featuring rotor-tip jets.

Many of the museum's artifacts focus on helicopters and other vertical flight machines, which was the focus of the Hiller Aircraft company. Several displays show the progress of helicopter development and different ideas for powering the rotors. Hiller spent significant energy on the idea of spinning the rotors with tip-mounted jets of various types. Several production helicopters with this design are on display, including the tiny "Hiller Hornet" which achieved moderate commercial success. Ultimately, this type of design was doomed by the development of lightweight turbine engines and reduction gear for helicopters, which eliminated the significant weight advantage of the rotor tip-mounted jets.

There are a number of other interesting helicopters in the collection. One is the "proof of concept" helicopter employed by the military to examine possible uses of helicopters in military operations. It successfully carried and fired a variety of weapons demonstrating the helicopters' potential as a ground-support aircraft in combat. The Rotorcycle, displayed on the ground floor, was developed for the Marine Corps for use in rescuing downed pilots. It was transported in a canister that could be parachuted to a downed pilot in a remote area, and could be assembled in less than an hour using no tools. The thought was that the downed aviator could then fly to safety. In the end, this was also an idea whose time never came as better rescue helicopters made self-extraction unnecessary.

Another small corner of the museum is dedicated to flying platforms, first pioneered by Hiller in the 1950s, which never became practical products but provided significant research that contributed to short or vertical take-off vehicles.

Bob Fowler's biplane
Bob Fowler's 1913 biplane, which crossed Panama from the Pacific to the Atlantic in the first ocean-to-ocean flight.

There are many other interesting aircraft. The Stearman-Hammond Y-1S, a spin-proof two-seater which was developed in the 1930s as the "everyman's airplane" was never put into mass production due to World War II, and only 11 of them were produced at the site of today's San Francisco International Airport. Bob Fowler's biplane was the first to aircraft to fly "coast to coast," across Panama, in 1913. His publicity-seeking flight set off a security scare when it was recognized that the Canal and in fact all coastal areas were vulnerable to attack from ship-supported seaplanes.

The upstairs gallery of the museum hosts an exhibit of memorabilia from the Bay Area Airline Historical Society, including many authentic scale models of aircraft with the insignia of airlines which have served the region over the years. The local Ninety-Nines chapter is in the process of creating a "Women in Aviation" exhibit.

Curtis Jenny
Partially-restored 1917 Jenny.

Downstairs, adjacent to the entrance gallery, the restoration shop can be observed through a glass partition. Several of the aircraft on display are still undergoing restoration and many more are not yet restored to the point of being ready for display. One of the partially restored aircraft on display in the main gallery is a 1917 Jenny an example of the many produced by factories in the Northern California.

Other Things to Do

The Hiller Museum is the major attraction at San Carlos, but the entire Bay Area is within easy driving distance if you choose to rent a car here. Thrifty recently opened an office in the terminal building, and can be reached during normal business hours at 650-259-1313. Call in advance to assure availability and verify operating hours.

There's a popular airport cafe in the San Carlos Airport terminal building if you want to grab a bite of breakfast or lunch. There's also an excellent pilot shop there.

You could also make a quick hop across the bay to Hayward or Oakland, which have full-service FBOs and more transportation options.

An aviation enthusiast might also want to combine a San Carlos trip with a visit to the NASA Ames Research Center just a 30-minute drive away.