Author photo

By Mel Makaw
contributing writer 

China Lakes Air Museum in Ridgecrest

Day Trippin' with Mel


April 15, 2023

Mel Makaw.

Several retired planes are at the entrance of the China Lakes Air Museum in Leroy Jackson Park in Ridgecrest.

My friend Lauraine Snelling and I went north last week to Ridgecrest with a dual agenda. She had business to take care of at the DMV there, and I wanted to visit the China Lakes Air Museum. We decided to combine business with pleasure and go together for a day trip. It turned out to be a great choice, and a great day.

It was a warm and sunny (but windy!) day, and we were pleasantly surprised to see lots of wildflowers on the way up the 14, both in the hills to the west and on the desert floor all around. I don't know when I've ever seen so many flowers along that road.

It took us about an hour and 15 minutes to get to the DMV, which was first on our agenda. That business was accomplished easily and without waiting (and without an appointment). We ate lunch at KFC and then headed over to the museum.

Located right off China Lake Blvd, in Jackson Park, the China Lakes Museum is small but easy to find. You can't miss the white planes sitting out in front of it. And though it's not a huge place yet (there are plans to expand), it is packed full of history of China Lakes, which includes a history of science, armaments, and technology. The museum exists to "preserve and honor the history of the Navy's premier full-spectrum weapons research, development and test facility."

It was both my and Lauraine's first time visiting the museum, and we were both impressed with the scope of research and development that has been and is being done so close to home. We were especially interested in learning about "technology transfer" – i.e. how much of the technology developed by and for the Navy is also used by us, the general public, every day.

For example, the Navy developed a technique for stop-action filming, which allows us to watch fast action on the TV without the picture being blurry. Other technology developed at China Lakes is used by the Mayo Clinic to develop ultrasound imaging. Another fun transfer I particularly enjoyed learning about is that "chemiluminescent light sticks" – what we know as glowsticks – were originally used by the military as emergency lighting in rafts, downed flyer beacons, etc. and are now also used as commercial novelty items at fairs and other community get-togethers (I love wearing a necklace of glowsticks at the fair when the sun goes down).

There are many other technological firsts and transfers, and a long list of "weapons firsts" attributed to the folks at China Lakes. Among the weapons developments and advancements are things like rockets and missiles (think Sidewinder, Walleye, and Shrike, to name a few), and nonnuclear components and testing (i.e. for atomic bombs). Personnel at the Lakes played a part in the Manhattan Project (called the Camel Project locally).

Each exhibit in the museum has a short video to watch, and in the main meeting room longer videos are available. Bob Campbell, president of the China Lakes Museum Foundation, set us up with an interesting 15-minute video that took us on a helicopter tour of the base.

In addition to the museum, there is a great gift shop – all run by volunteers – with lots of books, clothing, toys, badges and other paraphernalia, DVDs, mugs and airplane models. We were particularly amused by the sense of humor shown in the gift shop (one t-shirt said: "the pessimist says the glass is half empty; the optimist says the glass is half full; the engineer says the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.")

If you go, take the 58 east to Mojave, then take the 14/395 north, toward Bishop. Take the 178 East exit, through Inyokern and on to Ridgecrest. The museum is located at 130 E. Las Flores Ave., which is right off of 178 (178 is China Lake Blvd. once you make a necessary turn). The air museum is right next door to the Maturango Museum; both are part of Leroy Jackson Park, which also includes the popular Petroglyph Park.

Mel Makaw.

Bob Campbell, president of the China Lakes Museum Foundation, points out some early rockets developed at China Lakes.

The China Lakes Air Museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. except for major holidays. Admission is free to members, otherwise $5 for adults and $3 for students, seniors, and veterans; active military members and families are free. (Note: the gift shop and information areas, including the outside airplane displays, are always free.)

All in all, Lauraine and I had a productive and informative day, accomplishing what we each set out to do. I like combining business with pleasure whenever possible, and new experiences are always fun to have with a friend. I highly recommend it.

© 2023 Mel Makaw. Mel, Tehachapi writer/photographer and avid day tripper welcomes your questions, comments, and suggestions at


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