A day of excited plane-gazing at the US Airforce Museum

I recently visited the US National Air Force museum, in Dayton, Ohio. Situated in the birthplace of aviation, right where the Wright Brothers lived and worked on their flying contraption, it is indeed historical. Hearing about the museum which has the world’s largest collection of aircrafts, and inching closer to a 100-year heritage, I was quite excited.

Being a history buff, I try not to miss any museum hopping opportunities. When I last visited Washington DC some years ago, I spent all of the 3 days in the Smithsonian museums, practically living out of them, until they booted us out every night, after the closing hours.

Visit to the USAF museum situated in the Wright-Patterson airfield turned out to be a treat, on many counts. You don’t have to necessarily be an aviation enthusiast or a fan of history to enjoy it, there are several activities and aspects to keep one engaged. I present some of the key highlights here.

1. Tracing the origins of aviation

The museum has a showcase section on the early years that begins with the initial flight experiments of the Wright Brothers, including a replica of the first-ever powered aircraft. There are several models showing the incremental improvements over next few years, including the first-ever military aircraft, the Wright 1909 Military flyer.

Model of the Wright Brother’s first military flyer, 1909 (Pic: US Airforce photo)

Though initially planned for spying by the army, it doubled up as a fighter in strange ways. The pilots tried bringing down enemy airplanes in early dogfights, by throwing bricks or hurling ropes onto the plane’s propeller!

2. The Doolittle Raiders

Nothing less than a fairy tale is the story of the Doolittle raiders from WW II, also shown in the movie, Pearl Harbour. After the Pearl harbour bombings, America plotted a retribution under Col. Doolittle, with a plan to bomb deep into Tokyo and inflict some damage to the Japanese mainland.

The 80 men who volunteered for this almost-suicidal mission, with no clear plans to land or return, have been immortalised as the Doolittle raiders. With 61 of these surviving the WW II, they begun an annual ceremony of meeting and toasting other surviving members, using their individually marked 80 silver goblets. The number of silver goblets turned upside down mark all those who passed away.

80 goblets of the Doolittle Raiders with individual name-markings & the 1896 Cognac.. notice just one goblet facing up

The museum houses these goblets now and all but one are turned upside down. The last surviving member of the raid from seven decades ago, Lt Cole ages 101 and lives in Dayton.

3. Steeped in History

Moving past the world wars, there are aircraft showcasing the major aviation developments since the 1950s, into the Berlin airlift, space wars, planetary missions and the most recent technological advances. Its noteworthy that a large majority of the aircraft in display are the actual historical ones, painstakingly preserved and refurbished over the years.

Bockscar bomber along with a replica of the fateful ‘Fatman’ nuclear bomb, that was dropped on Nagasaki, 1945
Endeavour spacecraft used for the Apollo 15 moon mission

4. Showcasing the mistakes

An interesting aspect was the display of not just the stellar aviation accomplishments, but also a proud display of the goof-ups and failed experiments. Whether its a design experiment gone wrong..

A bit awkward looking fighter, that was to sit within a larger bomber plane — a failure, this program was axed

..or an ambitious project not quite living up to the reputation, these are on display as well. Its entirely another thing that US has the wherewithal and defence budget to write-off billion of dollars, like a pet project & move on.

Once a top-secret military project, the Avrocar ‘saucer’ never flew higher than 3 feet.. but, still makes a great photo-op!

5. Veteran Guided tours

One thing which made our visit worthwhile was the guided tour and storytelling using the artifacts on display. What could have otherwise ended up as a monotonous, day-long read through every artefact in sequence, was livened into a 60-minute story, by not just describing the aircraft but the background and emotions around it. It was more appropriate that this was done by the USAF veterans, and their passionate families.

The passionate tour guide, Ginny who did a great job.. in front of the famous X15 — the fastest aircraft ever, at 6.7 Mach

6. More than just old Aircrafts

The ~100 year old museum laid out in a series of hangars, has been tastefully done up and the aviation theme seeps in everywhere, including the Refuelling cafe, Valkyrie restaurant and kids activities.

To add to the variety, one can spend time on the aircraft simulators by going on fighter missions or just travelling in space. There are several 3D movies themed on aviation and engineering technology, running through the day. And one can take a slice of the action home through the nice museum store.

Poster of the D-Day 3D movie we watched (Pic: Houston museum)

It was a day well spent, though we couldn’t really cover the full museum. When in Ohio, this is a major attraction not to be missed. This needs atleast one-full day to cover a major part of the display.

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