Shock and Awe: The National Museum of the United States Air Force

A B-52 and many other aircraft at the National Museum of the USAF
A B-52 and many other aircraft at the National Museum of the USAF

How many billions of dollars of advanced aviation research can you fit inside three (and soon to be four) massive aircraft hangars?  The National Museum of the United States Air Force (USAF) in Dayton, Ohio provides a jaw dropping collection of military aircraft, spacecraft and rockets which detail the history of aviation from a military perspective.

My profession is as an aerospace engineer so when I recently had the opportunity to visit Dayton the Museum quickly became a ‘must see’ attraction while I was in town.  When you see the photo below with the lush green grass just remember that Ohio is a snow covered state during winter.

National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton Ohio
National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton Ohio

Did You Know that Dayton is the Home Town of the Wright Brothers?

You may not be aware that Dayton, Ohio was the home of Orville and Wilbur Wright (known as the Wright Brothers), who successfully achieved the first powered aircraft flight in the world on 17 December 1903.  As a result there is a rich history of early aviation which can be seen at both the National Museum of the USAF and in the surrounding area.

Arrival at National Museum of the United States Air Force

The Museum dominates the surrounding landscape.  As you approach Wright-Pattison Air Force Base the Museum appears to get bigger and bigger so a great sense of anticipation builds before you even enter the facility.

After entering I decided to do a quick skim through the full exhibit, just stopping as something caught my interest.  You could easily spend many days in the Museum if you are a true military aviation aficionado!  Below are my impressions of a few of the exhibits which caught my attention.

Key Exhibits

The Early Years of Military Aviation

I started my tour in the early years of military aviation exhibit.  A really interesting story about the history of the Wright brothers is on display.  A replica of the 1909 Wright Flyer which was the first aircraft which the Wright Brothers sold to the United States Army showed just how quickly the Wright Brothers managed to develop and evolve their aircraft design into something which actually worked!

Walking through the early years display you can develop an appreciation of how quickly aviation technology evolved over only a short period of time to support the World War I efforts.

An early aircraft - it is amazing how the technology has evolved over the past ~100 years!
An early aircraft – it is amazing how the technology has evolved over the past ~100 years! (my apologies for the darkness of the photo – it was really hard to get a good shot inside)

Really Big and Really Cutting Edge Aircraft

While I have seen a B-52 bomber before it is easy to forget just how big they really are!  The photo below does not do justice to the sheer size of the hangar and the B-52 aircraft.  Seeing special aircraft like the B-1, B-2, F-22 and SR-71 Blackbird up close for the first time was a real highlight.  The Museum also contains many older and current experimental aircraft, including both manned and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

A B-52 bomber and many other aircraft at the National Museum of the USAF
A B-52 bomber and many other aircraft at the National Museum of the USAF

Fascinating Ancillary Exhibits

Wedged in between the aircraft displays are many smaller scale exhibits which provide a fascinating insight into aspects of military history.  I strongly recollect seeing a display of leather bomber jackets from World War II pilots.  I never realised that they actually hand painted the back of the jackets with their call signs and their personal logos and also recorded their bombing achievements.  The display brought home the reality of the job the pilots had to do, especially considering how young most of them were at the time.

Other displays about Bob Hope’s career as a military performer and funny aspects of the Berlin Airlift were also memorable.  Some new displays also depict aspects of the current conflict in Afghanistan.

A Cartoon depicting the progress of a deployment to the Berlin Airlift
A Cartoon depicting the progress of a deployment to the Berlin Airlift

US Presidential Aircraft and Early Experimental Aircraft Display

The Museum also has a separate exhibit which include the original Air Force one Presidential aircraft, along with some of the significant early experimental aircraft such as the XB-70 Valkyrie.

I was disappointed to discover that the separate tour to visit this exhibit was not operating during my visit due to the US government funding issues.

In the future this exhibit is planned to be relocated into a new fourth hangar which is currently planned to be constructed alongside the current main museum facility.

Display of Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles - which were just a bit confronting...
Display of Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles – which were just a bit confronting…

USAF Missiles and Space Display

The final big display I visited was the Missiles and Space display.  The USAF has had a long history of being involved with the United States Space Program and most Space Shuttle pilots started their career in the USAF.  You may not be aware that the USAF is also the custodian and operator of the United States nuclear missile arsenal.

Seeing an Apollo capsule which had been into space was really interesting, but it was the in your face display of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) which really caught my attention.  Seeing the sheer size of the nine missiles on display and reading about how they had progressively evolved the missile and nuclear technology really brought home the risk of nuclear war from these deadly devices.

Conclusion

I am really pleased I made the effort to visit the National Museum of the USAF.  On a surface level I learnt many new things about the history of aviation and space exploration.

At a deeper level I walked away with a new appreciation of the sheer amount of technology development which has occurred over the past 110 years since the Wright Brothers succeeded in their first flight of a powered aircraft.  The National Museum also rightly showcases the might of USAF as the leading air force in the world.

If you have the opportunity to visit the area I strongly recommend that you take the time to visit the National Museum of the USAF.

About the National Museum of the United States Air Force

The National Museum of the United States Air Force is located in Dayton, Ohio on the site of Wright-Pattison Air Force Base.  The museum is open to the public from 9am to 5pm 7 days per week with the exception of major public holidays.

Entry is free however you are not allowed to take bags, food or drinks into the Museum.  Lockers are available for a small fee.

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The National Museum of the USAF is laid out so you can sequentially walk through the entire facility, starting from the early years of the USAF, World War II, Southeast Asian War, Korean War, the Cold War and a separate section for Missiles and Space.  There are also many options to create your own route depending on your particular interests.

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Have you ever visited or thought about visiting the National Museum of the USAF?  Please share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below.

 

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