Sunday, May 01, 2022

Warbirds Museum day; a nostalgic look at aircraft of the past

FEATURE – Aviation evokes nostalgia for many people. World War I brought tales of biplanes and triplanes with lore of famous flying aces such as “The Red Baron.” The 1920s boasted the solo transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh in “The Spirit of St. Louis” while World War II was famous for its dogfights in P-51s and long-range bombing raids in well-known crafts such as B-17s. After World War II was the dawn of jet aircraft, punctuated by the now-famous Tom Cruise classic Top Gun in the mid-1980s.

Southern Utah residents don’t need to go far to see that nostalgia on display. The Western Sky Aviation Warbirds Museum next to the St. George Regional Airport displays tons of it.

The museum was the brainchild of Jack Hunter, a retired Colonel in the United States Air Force. He served active duty in the Strategic Air Command from 1966 to 1970 as well as an Aircraft Maintenance Staff Officer from 1980 to 1990. Throughout his illustrious Air Force career he was also a group commander and squadron commander. He retired from the Air Force in 1996. Since then, he has owned and operated a few fixed base operations and served as a lead pilot for Rocky Mountain Healthcare Life Flight. He counts among his greatest successes when he served as Director of Flight Operations at Utah State University, where he hired, trained and supervised flight instructors.

Looking at his career, Hunter obviously has a passion for aviation. He moved to the St. George area to work for Sky West Airlines and has since remained, founding the museum to both fuel his passion and to share it with area residents and visitors. 

“I started doing this crazy thing and then it snowballed,” Hunter said.

The museum opened in 2006 at the old St. George Airport and moved near the new airport in 2011. Hunter used a lot of his own money to get the museum off the ground and did not receive any funding from St. George City in the initial process nor in the move to the location. The museum has not received any grants or government funding either.

“It was an expensive move here,” Hunter said of the relocation to the new airport.

The museum earns its operating-expense money from donations and its special events. The museum also receives RAP Tax funding as well.

“We’re just trying to maintain what we have here,” Hunter noted.

All the museum guides are volunteers. Hunter said he wishes he had the money to hire them full time. Most of the volunteers, like Hunter, have aviation experience and have worked in the aviation industry in some capacity. These guides have fun stories to tell museum guests.

One guide, Rusty Restaino, said he likes to tell visitors how far aircraft safety has come. During World War II, 14,000 airmen were killed during training flights and 45 percent of all aircraft losses were non-combat, he said. He said he also enjoys giving museum visitors a tour of a jet engine, explaining the parts of the engine as well as aircraft parts most people do not even know exist. 

The museum’s largest hangar includes three jet engines on display, including one of the very first jet engines ever produced in the late 1940s, the bulky British NEN-10/Russian VK1A engine. 

Restano said he loves answering questions and teaching those who did not know much about aviation previously.

Most of the planes in the museum’s collection are donated or on loan from private owners. All of the planes are still airworthy. Hunter admits that the planes haven’t flown much lately because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He and his staff can’t just fly them for fun. They have to be flown during special events such as airshows, he said, especially since fuel is so expensive and they can go through hundreds of gallons an hour.

To keep the museum’s planes airworthy takes a lot of work. Sometimes they have to send parts back east to be remanufactured and sometimes it’s hard to find the right parts, Hunter said. For instance, once the company who remanufactures parts for the museum said one job would take four months and it turned into 14 months to see it through to completion.

The museum’s claim to fame is that it is home to the only A-37 (a Vietnam-era jet) that is still flying, Hunter said.  The plane is on loan from a private owner, Charlie Largay, who lives in Montana. Largay’s foundation also provides money for the museum’s operating expenses.

There are no planes with Southern Utah ties in the museum, Hunter admitted, but there are tributes to pilots who now live in Southern Utah or have lived here among the museum’s hangar displays, including World War II aces Richard Fleischer and Alden Rigby as well as Bill Gorton, Kay Eckardt and even lady engineer Nancy Wood.

The museum also pays tribute to the flying career of Utah’s 2nd district U.S. Congressman Chris Stewart, who Hunter said is a friend of the museum. Stewart was an Air Force pilot who flew on the world-record non-stop flight around the world.

Several paintings by noted aircraft artist R. G. Smith are also on display. Hunter said he has over a thousand books and other aviation memorabilia, but no space to display them. The museum hopes to add another hangar and acquire more planes in the coming years.

The museum just received a former Buffalo Airways C-54, which is a World War II-era four-propeller powered plane – the same type of plane that the late “Candy Bomber” Gail Halverson flew during the Berlin Airlift in 1948. The plane arrived from Florida on April 28.

During the flight to St. George, one of its engines went out over the Grand Canyon, but it still made it safely to the St. George Airport. The museum will dedicate the plane to Halverson’s honor, Hunter said.

The Museum’s Primary Fleet


One of the first fighter jets developed by the Soviet Union, the single seat MIG 15 UTI first saw service in 1949 and was the primary fighter jet of North Korean and Chinese forces during the Korean War (1950-1953). 

MIG 17 

The MIG 17 was the successor to the MIG 15 and built to be more stable with its wings swept back 45 degrees and a more angular tail. It was the primary fighter of the Soviet Union and also flown by the Viet Cong against American military forces during the Vietnam War.

British Provost

Featuring a Rolls Royce Viper engine and produced between 1958-1967, the Provost was a British jet-powered trainer for the Royal Air Force until 1993. Hunter said the Provost is the museum’s most economical plane, costing $800 per hour to fly.

T-38 Talon

A two-seat supersonic jet trainer, the T-38 is still in service and has been a primary training plane of both the U.S. Air Force and Navy. It is currently planned on being phased out and replaced by the T-7 Red Hawk.


A lightweight two-seat fighter is similar to the T-38 trainer and was used for reconnaissance missions.

Cessna T-37 (Tweet)

This small, twin-engine jet trainer was a primary training aircraft for the U.S. Air Force for 52 years. The last one was produced in 2009.

A-37B Dragonfly (Supertweet)

Used as a light attack plane and ground support during the Vietnam War, the one the museum has boasts an interesting history as the North Vietnamese captured it and flew it in combat on their side, but the U.S. recaptured it later on. As far as the museum knows, it is the only A-37 still flyable, Hunter said. The A-37 is the precursor to the more-famous A-10 Warthog.

Visiting the Museum

The Western Sky Aviation Warbirds Museum is located just north of the St. George Regional Airport. It features displays in two hangars as well as a few planes outdoors.

The museum hosts two big events in Mid-May each year – an armed forces celebration airshow and 1940s-themed hangar dance. For more information, look at the museum’s events page or its Facebook page. The airshow features classic airplanes such as a World War II era P-51 as well as a B-17, which attendees have the opportunity to ride in.

The museum’s hangars also play host to high school dances and other private events throughout the year. Those who would like to host event at the museum should call the museum at 435-669-0655.

The museum is always looking for volunteers to help out and donations to help with its operating expenses.

“Our volunteers are tremendous,” Hunter said, “but we don’t have enough.”

For more information about the museum, visit its website.

Story and photos:

1 comment:

  1. Just to be clear on the T-37 Tweet USAF trainer reference here, the last one rolled out of the assembly line in 1973, not 2009. They were retired by the USAF in 2009.