Hiller Musuem of Northern California Aviation – San Carlos, California

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 withmuch of an aviation history, and probably wouldn’t envision Palo Alto – home of StanfordUniversity and the birthplace of Silicon Valley – as a likely place for an aircraftmanufacturer to have been based.

But in fact, Northern California has a notable history in aviation, and one of themajor contributors was the Hiller Aircraft Company, a Palo Alto-based manufacturer ofhelicopters and other aviation components. While Hiller isn’t a familiar name amongtoday’s aviation enthusiasts, the company managed to amass a large collection of aviationartifacts 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 northwestcorner of San Carlos Airport.

The Airport and Environs

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

Arrival at San Carlos should be planned with care. The airport is located at the edgeof the San Francisco Bay and is surrounded by controlled airspace, adverse terrain andnoise sensitive areas. To the north, is the San Francisco International Airport, withClass 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 approachesto San Francisco’s runway 28 are just a few miles away, and should be carefully avoided.

SFO TACTo the southeast is the Palo Altoairport, then the Moffett Federal Airfield with Class D airspaces, and beyond that the SanJose Class C. Northeast of San Carlos, is the Hayward Class D, and the OaklandInternational Class C.

As if that weren’t enough, the terrain west of the airport rises to 2,500′ along thespine of the San Francisco Peninsula, making approaches from the west somewhatchallenging. There are also noise-sensitive communities southwest and north of theairport.

Pilots arriving at San Carlos should review the San Francisco Terminal Area chart withcare. The airspaces overlap and may be difficult to identify if careful study is not donein advance. In my experience, most GPS and other moving map systems do not capture thefull 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 pilotsthrough the area. Arrivals from the north will most likely use a Bayshore Transitionthough the San Francisco Bravo airspace, often right over the top of the airport runwaycomplex. This transition should be requested from Bay Approach well in advance. Arrivalsfrom the east can avoid all airspaces and fly across the bay directly to San Carlos at lowaltitude, but it is advisable to be in contact with Bay Approach, as this route crossesbelow heavy jets arriving at San Francisco. Arriving from the South, it is possible toskirt around all airspaces, or transitions can be arranged with Bay Approach, MoffettTower and Palo Alto tower. Bay Approach can also be helpful with arrivals through theOakland 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 restaurantwhich serves breakfast and lunch seven days a week. The museum is directly across therunway 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 examinedwith 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 knowtoday.

The Hiller Museum is a wonderful collection of justthat kind of “junk.” The museum’s main exhibit space is arranged to provide ahistorical walkthrough of aviation in Northern California, including a few aircraft whichwere extremely successful in their time, and some whose time never came at all but stillmade contributions to the art and science of avaition. Several of the exhibits displayproducts that were produced by or with the assistance of Hiller Aircraft, mostly in BayArea factories.

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An early California glider.

History buffs will learn that the first controlled flights in a glider were made inCalifornia as early as 1883, and that the inventor was on the verge of providing hisgliders 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 bythe U.S. Government at Stanford University in 1915. This tunnel did the first exhaustivestudies of propeller shapes, pitches and contours, resulting in many of the advancementsof the post-World War I era. Much of the original equipment and propeller designs testedare 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 andthe other resting on the floor. On the floor is the entire front section and “droopnose” from Boeing’s ill-fated second-generation SST project. The structure isinteresting to examine, especially when viewed in light of the obvious material andcommercial advances since the project was cancelled in 1971. There are no composites andno 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 wingspanand a boxy, landing-gear fuselage with no landing gear. Museum documents explain that thisis the Condor, America’s first robotic aircraft. Originally designed as a pilotless spyplane, the Condor’s major achievements were in proving cutting edge technologies. It wasthe first aircraft to fly a fully automatic flight from takeoff to landing and the firstto include automated multifunction redundancy management, including the ability to recoverfrom engine or rudder failure in flight. The Condor also proved the usefulness ofcomposites in aircraft construction in order to provide the lowest possible weight andhigh stiffness.

Ultimately, the Condor set several records, including those for the highestpiston-engined flight (67,028 feet), and for the longest unmanned, unrefueled flight (51hours 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 ofhelicopter development and different ideas for powering the rotors. Hiller spentsignificant energy on the idea of spinning the rotors with tip-mounted jets of varioustypes. Several production helicopters with this design are on display, including the tiny”Hiller Hornet” which achieved moderate commercial success. Ultimately, thistype of design was doomed by the development of lightweight turbine engines and reductiongear for helicopters, which eliminated the significant weight advantage of the rotortip-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 usesof helicopters in military operations. It successfully carried and fired a variety ofweapons 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 usein rescuing downed pilots. It was transported in a canister that could be parachuted to adowned 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 wasalso an idea whose time never came as better rescue helicopters made self-extractionunnecessary.

Another small corner of the museum is dedicated to flying platforms, first pioneered byHiller in the 1950s, which never became practical products but provided significantresearch 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-prooftwo-seater which was developed in the 1930s as the “everyman’s airplane” wasnever put into mass production due to World War II, and only 11 of them were produced atthe site of today’s San Francisco International Airport. Bob Fowler’s biplane was thefirst to aircraft to fly “coast to coast,” across Panama, in 1913. Hispublicity-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 AreaAirline Historical Society, including many authentic scale models of aircraft with theinsignia of airlines which have served the region over the years. The local Ninety-Nineschapter 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 observedthrough a glass partition. Several of the aircraft on display are still undergoingrestoration 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 iswithin easy driving distance if you choose to rent a car here. Thrifty recently opened anoffice in the terminal building, and can be reached during normal business hours at650-259-1313. 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 wantto 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 havefull-service FBOs and more transportation options.

An aviation enthusiast might also want to combine a San Carlos trip with a visit to theNASA Ames Research Center just a 30-minute driveaway.