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Backers fight to save Marines' Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum ahead of April 1 closure

The fate of retired aircraft at the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum in San Diego, shown here on March 17, 2021, is unknown due to budgetary concerns.

JARROD VALLIERE/THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE

By ANDREW DYER | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: March 18, 2021

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — With only two weeks of operations remaining, members of the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum Foundation are asking the Marine Corps to reconsider the decision to permanently close the museum on April 1.

The museum, part of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, is the only military museum dedicated solely to Marine Corps aviation, said Chuck Meadows, the foundation's operations manager.

"What's so important about this museum is it's such a unique site," said Meadows said Wednesday. "It would be an absolute tragedy for this to go away."

The museum was founded in 1989 in Orange County at the previous home of the 3rd Marine Air Wing — Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. When that base closed in 1999, the museum followed the air wing south to Miramar. The museum has its own public entrance apart from the base's security gates.

Aircraft are all displayed outdoors.

Because the museum is owned and operated by the Marine Corps, it is unable to collect admission dues from the public and is free to visit. That means that unlike other museums that have struggled financially due to the ongoing pandemic, the aviation museum's budgetary trouble has nothing to do with limited pandemic operations. Instead, it's linked to year-over-year budget cuts to the base itself, the Marines said.

"MCAS (Miramar) has experienced year after year budget cuts as the service continues to modernize equipment and prioritize operational force readiness," said Capt. Matthew Gregory, a base spokesman, in a statement. Gregory said it costs the base $460,000 a year to operate the museum — funds that are now needed for "operational priorities" at the airfield.

Michael Aguilar, a retired Marine brigadier general, is the executive director of the museum's foundation, a non-profit that supports the museum via donations and manages about 25 volunteers. Aguilar said the foundation has tried for years to come up with a way to permanently take over museum operations from the Marines but has been met with roadblocks every step of the way.

"We've made proposals but any deal requires negotiations," Aguilar said. "If they'd come to the table ... if they'd partner with us, we can provide an opportunity to relieve the Marine Corps of these costs."

Aguilar said the latest proposal is for the museum to partner with the San Diego Air and Space Museum in Balboa Park. But it would take another two years before the new partnership could fully fund the staff payroll that makes up the bulk of the Marine Corps' costs.

However, Gregory said such an arrangement isn't so simple — federal law requires the Marines to lease any property it owns at full market rates, something that could put a private lease deal on ice.

Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, attempted to make such a deal easier in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act but the provision was struck from the Senate version of the bill, Aguilar said.

Among the museum's almost 50 historical aircraft is the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter that airlifted Graham Martin, the former U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, off of the U.S. embassy roof as Saigon fell in 1975. It's one of Meadows' favorite museum pieces, he said.

"Preserving the aircraft is essentially preserving the stories of the people that flew them and that took care of them," Meadows said. "Those are the heroes. Fundamentally, it's the stories."

The museum's aircraft include those the Marines flew in every U.S. conflict since the beginning of World War II.

Col. Charles Dockery, the commanding officer of the base, commended the work of the museum's staff and volunteers over the last two decades in a statement.

"The museum has served San Diego well for two decades," Dockery said. "The volunteers and staff have made tremendous outreach efforts with our local schools and community, and I commend them."

On Monday, Rep. Darrel Issa, R-Bonsall toured the museum with Aguilar and said he'd speak with the Marine Corps commandant this week. Aguilar said he expects a final decision from the Marine Corps top officer any day.

The museum is open on weekends and attendance is up almost quadruple since the pending closure was announced, Meadows said. The next two weekends ahead of its closure will be "open cockpit" days where visitors can sit inside some of the aircraft.

Once shuttered, the Marines will begin relocating aircraft to other aviation museums, Gregory said. Those discussions are already underway.

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