On The Way To OSH: U.S. Air Force National Museum

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AVweb doesn’t often review aviation museums—although we should.

The progression of flying technology housed in our military aircraft museums is fascinating for its scope and testament to the airmen, inventors, companies and manufacturing men and women who came before us.

I’ve seen a number of excellent museums: The National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. is a must see. So is the San Diego Air and Space museum. I enjoy them all—including the U.S. World War Two museum in downtown New Orleans. It’s short on airframes but every square inch in multiple buildings is well worth the sojourn.

But by far the best, in quantity, presentation, accessibility and sheer volume, is the stunning U.S. Air Force National Museum in Dayton, Ohio. You can visit the website to plan and preview your visit, but no amount of YouTube video will prepare you when your breath is taken away by the sheer audacity of the Air Force Museum collection.

My visit was on a Sunday, Memorial Day weekend, and the museum was a beehive of activity. When you walk from the parking area through the memorial park with hundreds of plaques and markers commemorating long-forgotten Bomb Groups and individual sacrifices, you remember what this museum represents in blood and treasure spent to preserve freedom.

Check the losses of the Mighty Eighth (Eighth Air Force in World War Two) for reference: over 26,000 airmen killed in action, with over 4,100 bombers lost.

If you go—and I recommend you do—prepare for at least a full day of OMGs. I was there three hours. It was overwhelming. Here are some observations from my notes that day:

The just-arrived Memphis Belle was the best B-17 aircraft preservation I have ever seen, better than new.

The newly opened Hangar #4 with the B-70 Valkyrie, my favorite airplane of all time, resides there. It’s surrounded by an array of space hardware, Muroc lake X planes and a full-size Titan rocket.

The workmanship on the surviving B-70 made the white-painted titanium skins look like flawless glass.

There are airplanes that few Americans have ever noticed and a few that are unimaginably fast, huge, complicated and costly.

As a cold war baby who was instructed how to hide under my desk in the event of a thermonuclear blast in the neighborhood, Hangar #3 at the museum was probably my favorite. Take a look at this gallery:

view on YouTube

The B-36, successor to the B-29 and the world’s first truly trans-hemisphere strategic bomber, was overwhelming. The size of that magnificent 10-engine Cold War dreadnaught was stunning. Men built and flew this thing, somehow, and this airplane never fired a shot or dropped a single bomb.

General Jimmy Stuart made that beast famous in “Strategic Air Command” with co-star June Allison as the devoted wife. Stuart also flies the B-47 in the movie. Ironic today that the B-36 flew Strategic Air Command missions everywhere but the Korean peninsula as far as we know, during the Korean War, and might have nuked the Chinese if Douglas MacArthur had his way.

Among other things that astounded me were the airplanes that were cast in roles never intended by designers—but used to various degrees of success and fatalities in the desperate race to achieve air superiority no matter the human cost.

For example, I relearned that B-47 pilots trained, sometimes tragically, to toss nukes while performing a multi-G vertical climb into a full Immelmann to escape H-Bomb blast effects. They often ran out of airspeed or over-stressed that skinny wing. I don’t think a B-47 ever dropped an iron bomb in anger either.

No matter what model airplane I built as an 11-year-old airplane nut, like the SR-71, F-4 or B-70, it was there. There were more than one can ever catalog in their memory banks including spacecraft, drones, nuclear weapons, and every fighter and bomber the Air Force or Air Corps every flew to name a few.

There’s no C-5A galaxy. Not because this place isn’t big enough—it is—but probably because these national assets are still flying every day.

But wait, there’s more to Dayton for aviation history buffs.

A five- or ten-minute drive skirting the fence of the huge Wright Patterson AFB is the Ohio version of the Wright Brothers memorial on a bluff overlooking the twin runways about three miles distant. It’s atop a Native American burial mound with a type of circular promenade surrounding a twenty-foot column and plaque. Other plaques also commemorate the nearby pasture where Orv and Wil perfected the world’s first closed circuit sustained flights.

I visited that pasture, which is hard to find, largely undeveloped and barely cared for by the Park Service. It’s a pasture with reproduced shed, a launch rail and a 12-foot Derrick used to catapult the first Wright Flyer and successive airframes.

It is not fitting that the pasture is barely mowed or that any significant marker, monument or anything worthy of note exists there. Of course, nearby Dayton is also the home of the Wright brothers' bicycle shop where the world’s first wind tunnel and the Wright Flyer was built. I plan to stop by next time I visit.

If you have the opportunity— I would suggest that anyone flying from the East Coast to Air Venture should make a fuel stop and experience the Air Force Museum this summer. Say hey to Wil and Orv too.

Comments (4)

Good article, Tom. I agree 100% with your assessment that the Air Force museum is a must see for any pilot. I was fortunate to spend a day there recently and did not see the full collection. The B-70 was my favorite as well. As a young teenager, I was fortunate to see it fly at an air show at Carswell AFB in Fort Worth, Texas. That same day we came across an SR-71 left unguarded in a hangar. They both looked like something out of a sci-fi movie and it made a life long impression on me. Another great exhibit at the museum is the collection of former Presidential aircraft (Air Force One) from Franklin Roosevelt through JFK. You can walk through each to see how the Commander in Chief's personal plane has evolved.

The museum has literally something for everyone from WWI biplanes to the space shuttle, all housed in air conditioned comfort. Just take a good pair of walking shoes and your camera.

Posted by: John McNamee | July 9, 2018 11:34 AM    Report this comment

> Of course, nearby Dayton is also the home of the Wright brothers' bicycle shop where the world's first wind tunnel and the Wright Flyer was built. I plan to stop by next time I visit.

Dayton is no longer home to that bicycle shop. Henry Ford moved it, along with the Wrights' home from 7 Hawthorne St. (and the surrounding soil and manhole cover) to Dearborn, MI. Ford hired Charlie Taylor to restore the shop, and he managed to aquire their original tools - not just the same models, but the exact tools.

Posted by: Garrett Nievin | July 9, 2018 5:01 PM    Report this comment

Thank you Tom.

Like you, I was a young admirer of the B-70. Today as an engineer that admiration has only strengthened.

I remember the last (and only) time I saw this magnificent machine in person. Fifteen years ago I spent two days at the museum. On the afternoon of the second day I stood under the nose of the B-70 looking at the signature of test pilot Joe Cotton below the cockpit. A docent approached and said "You know, Joseph comes in here every once in a while and he stands right where you are and looks up at the airplane."

If you're planning to visit Dayton I'd allow three days to see everything. Study up by all means but understand that nothing can prepare you for what you'll experience once you step inside.

Posted by: kim hunter | July 11, 2018 2:37 PM    Report this comment

I was fortunate to participate in a behind the scenes tour of the restoration of the Memphis Belle last year just before Airventure. I'm looking forward to seeing her finished now. The restoration volunteers have another B-29 in their pipeline, too.

Even as a USAF retiree and an airplane devotee, there were some airplanes in there that I'd never heard of. Better still, many of the flight test airplanes I 'played' with during a 15.5 year stint at Edwards AFB in the 70's and 80's are on display ... I got to see them again. It had been over 30 years since I was last there and the improvements were breathtaking.

I strongly urge a visit. Plan on walking a lot and spending a whole day. The best part ... it's free. Just buy something from the gift shop which provides some of the funding.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | July 16, 2018 3:10 AM    Report this comment

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