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Hidden Balboa Park: Exploring the Basement of the Air & Space Museum

Beneath the new SPACE exhibition and the 3D/4D theater of the San Diego Air & Space Museum is a hidden world of propellers and engines, tools and drafting tables. Hanging proudly from the ceiling is a sign that says “Preserve rather than restore. Restore rather than replace.”

Even though I had been to SDASM dozens of times for events and exhibitions, I had no idea that this room existed until a week ago when Verne (one of the museum’s volunteers, pictured below), offered to show me where the volunteers congregate to do restorations and reproductions.

“We can build darn near anything,” he said, demonstrating an old English wheel that they use to curve metal. One volunteer, Dutch Voltz, made the wheel for the museum in 1998. “We even make the tools to make the parts to make the airplanes.”

He said that many of the volunteers are in their 70s and 80s. They have diverse professional backgrounds—some are retired pilots, others were engineers—but it’s clear that they share an absolute passion for planes. Much of the work requires great patience and detail, such as this project to restore a carburetor found underwater.

Mixed with the plane parts are artifacts and old exhibit objects that are not currently on display in the museum galleries, such as this TWA map from the 1940s,

this 1920s sign advertising gas prices,

and these alarmingly realistic dummies chillin’ in the closet.

Find information about the SDASM’s volunteer opportunities online. To assist with restoration, volunteers should have experience in engineering, fabrication or maintenance and must be at least 18 years of age.