I have to admit, my husband was much more excited to see this museum than I was. He has his private pilot’s license, and his grandfather was an aviator in World War II, so he was thrilled to visit the official museum of the Air Force.
But we weren’t there very long before I, too, was just as fascinated by the exhibits. There was much more to this museum than just rows of airplanes (although there were plenty of aircraft on display!).
The United States Air Force Museum is located in Dayton, Ohio, adjacent to Wright Patterson Air Force Base. It is housed in giant hangars, large enough to exhibit some pretty big airplanes!
The museum begins with a look at early aviation, exploring the role of “lighter-than-air” flight (balloons!) as early as the Civil War. A piece of silk from a Confederate balloon was on display. A replica of a Wright Flyer, complete with Orrville and Wilbur figures, greets you as you enter the “Early Years Gallery.” Some of the signage had recently been redesigned, but other areas of the gallery are in need of some attention. The displays were a bit dated and could use some refreshing.
As we moved through the gallery, we encountered the stories of early aviators, World War I planes, and the technological developments that led to World War II. A Holocaust exhibit was displayed in the small corridor leading to the extensive display of World War II aircraft. A highlight of that section was an extremely rare Nazi concentration camp prisoner’s uniform. Very few are still in existence, and the power of this single artifact stopped us in our tracks.
I was particularly impressed with how the aircraft are placed into context. Through the use of scenery and mannequins, the planes themselves tell a story. For example, in one exhibit, the aircraft is displayed with its nose into the ground, depicting a “training mishap” in the dessert. The mannequins complete the story, with a superior screaming at a young aviator who is fervently defending himself.
A highlight of this section was seeing the actual airplane that dropped the second atomic bomb on Japan. While the “Enola Gay,” who dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima, is displayed at the Smithsonian, the “Box Car” is at the United States Air Force Museum. Standing next to it is an exact replica of the bomb. Having never seen an atomic bomb before, I was amazed that so much destruction could have been wielded from something so small.
The best part of our visit was a trip to the Presidential Aircraft and Research and Development/Flight Test Hangars, which are located on Wright Patterson Air Force Base itself. Since those hangars are only accessible by bus, visitors must sign up to visit them – and you should do that as soon as you get there! We got the last two spots on our tour, and soon after signs went up announcing that all tours were full. Be prepared to show a photo ID.
Being able to board Air Force One was my favorite part of this museum. We were able to get on several different planes that had been used by US presidents, including the one that transported Kennedy’s body after his assassination. The crew refused to put his coffin in the cargo hold, which was the only place it would fit, because they did not think it was dignified for the President of the United States. So an area of the passenger compartment was cut to accommodate the coffin. We were able to stand right where Lyndon B. Johnson took the Oath of Office on that same flight. You can’t get any closer to history than that!
An adjacent hangar housed many prototype planes, some of which were extremely strange looking! I couldn’t believe some of them ever got off the ground.
The United States Air Force Museum is also the home of the National Aviation Hall of Fame, which enshrines the pioneers and leaders in flight. Several interactives help to explain the mechanics of aviation.
The museum also houses an IMAX theater, a Modern Flight Hangar, and a large auditorium.
To enter the museum, you must pass through a very well appointed gift shop, full of every imaginable aviation book, movie, and trinket. There were also some very attractive shirts for sale!
Plan on spending the entire day at this museum, or break it up into two visits. There is no admission charge, and parking is free.