When I worked at the National Air and Space Museum, I liked to take guests into the Early Flight gallery to show them a certain historic airplane. Often overlooked by visitors, it hung overhead, dimly lit, its wooden frame painted silver to look like metal, its muslin wings stained with oil. The unrestored biplane looked every bit of its century-plus age.
The Wright brothers built the airplane and flew it at nearby Fort Myer, Virginia, to demonstrate its capabilities to the U.S. Army. Purchased by the Army, the 1909 Wright Military Flyer became the world’s first military airplane.
Aviation technology soon advanced in leaps and bounds. Within just a few years, armies across the world were using airplanes for observation and reconnaissance, to shoot down other planes, and to drop hand-held bombs. Aircraft would play decisive roles in World War II, and today air power is a preeminent part of our national defense.
Merely 80 years separate the 1909 Wright Military Flyer from the B-2 Stealth Bomber, a matte-black flying wing that is nearly invisible to radar and can deliver up to 20 tons of precision weaponry on a single globe-spanning mission.
That full range of aviation history is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, it is the oldest and largest military aviation museum in the world. It houses some 400 aerospace vehicles and missiles, along with thousands of other aviation artifacts, and draws over a million visitors a year. I visited recently with my brother and sister-in-law, who (lucky for them) live not far away.
The museum consists mainly of a row of four huge interconnected hangars. Each is nearly the size of the aircraft hangar at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Northern Virginia. If you visit the Air Force Museum, be sure to wear comfortable shoes; it has over 22 acres of indoor exhibit space to explore.
The main exhibition areas are arranged chronologically. The exhibits in Building 1 cover the early years of military aviation through World War II. Building 2 displays aircraft from the Korean and Vietnam wars. Building 3 covers the Cold War era. Beyond that you enter a round gallery displaying a ring of tall missiles. Finally you enter Building 4, the newest hangar, which opened in 2016. It features sections on space, research and development (including stealth aircraft), airlift and other missions, and the museum’s historic collection of presidential aircraft.
The entrance, with a banner advertising the museum’s newest addition, the B-17F “Memphis Belle.”
The Early Years Gallery has a reproduction of the 1909 Wright Military Flyer, the world’s first military airplane.
You can enter the holds of several large cargo planes.
And of course, there are aircraft from the Thunderbirds, the Air Force aerial exhibition team.
Who says flying saucers don’t exist? This attempt in the 1950s at creating a supersonic, vertical takeoff and landing fighter-bomber fell short. It only reached 35 mph, got about 3 feet off the ground, and proved uncontrollable.
The Presidential Gallery in particular is worth the long trek through the first three hangars. It features 10 aircraft used by presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. You can walk through four of the aircraft.
The oldest of the four, a Douglas Skymaster named Sacred Cow, was the first aircraft designed for presidential use. It transported Roosevelt (the first president to fly while in office) and Harry Truman. It has an elevator in the rear that allowed Roosevelt to board easily using his wheelchair. Truman also flew on The Independence, a modified version of a Douglas DC-6 airliner. Dwight Eisenhower traveled on the Columbine III, a modified Lockheed Super Constellation. You can walk through both of these airplanes as well.
This modified Boeing 707 airliner carried presidents from Kennedy to Clinton.
This aircraft was the first built to transport a president. Franklin Roosevelt used it only once, to fly to the Yalta Conference in 1945 to meet with Churchill and Stalin. The aircraft had an elevator in the rear (the rectangular box) to accommodate the president in his wheelchair.
President Eisenhower flew in this modified Lockheed Super Constellation.
When this Boeing 707 was finally retired from service in the 1990s, it was replaced by a modified Boeing 747.
The fourth airplane you can board, a modified Boeing 707 airliner, was the first jet aircraft built for presidential use. When the president was on board, it was designated Air Force One. This aircraft carried all eight presidents from John Kennedy to Bill Clinton and is the most poignant to visit. You can stand in the aisle at the exact spot where Vice President Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office to become president while flying back to Washington, D.C., from Dallas, Texas, after Kennedy was assassinated. A few rows back is where seats were removed to accommodate the casket containing Kennedy’s body.
My favorite section of the museum was the World War II Gallery. Here, the history of this museum and the Smithsonian intersect. After the war, the Army Air Forces set aside a huge collection of Allied and captured Axis aircraft for preservation and exhibition. Much of the cream of that collection was transferred to the Smithsonian to be displayed in a future National Air Museum. President Truman signed the law creating that museum in 1946, and it finally opened as the National Air and Space Museum in 1976.
Meanwhile, the Air Force added the remaining World War II aircraft to its own collection, which dates back to 1923. That collection became the core of the Air Force Museum, which opened at its current location with a single large hangar in 1971. Since then, the museum has more than quadrupled in size.
The Consolidated B-24D Liberator bomber was used in every combat theater in World War II. I once attended a lecture at the Smithsonian to hear Senator George McGovern talk about his experiences flying Liberators.
A Royal Air Force pilot relaxes by his plane while he awaits the call to action during the Battle of Britain.
A pilot trainee gets chewed out after a bad landing. Yellow wings denoted a training airplane.
This North American B-25B Mitchell bomber was restored to resemble the one Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle flew during the famous Tokyo Raid in 1942.
The Douglas C-47 “Gooney Bird” was the military version of the DC-3 airliner. My father flew on one while in the Army during World War II. It was his first and only airplane flight until he flew with me on a jetliner to visit to Washington, D.C., in the 1960s.
The Consolidated OA-10 Catalina flying boat was the Army Air Forces’ version of the Navy PBY. It was used for air-sea rescue.
This Boeing B-29 Superfortress named “Bockscar” dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan.
The nose art on “Bockscar.”
World War II was my parents’ war, and the war I know most about. It involved the aircraft I’m most familiar with. Here I found examples of airplanes I remember assembling from plastic model kits when I was a kid—a B-24 Liberator, a B-17 Flying Fortress, a B-29 Superfortress—and many more I recognized. Also here is the museum’s newest major exhibition, which opened this past May. It features the famous B-17F Memphis Belle, the first heavy bomber to complete 25 missions and return stateside. I could have spent hours in this gallery alone.
One corner of the World War II Gallery is devoted to the newly restored B-17F “Memphis Belle.”
B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators formed the backbone of the Army Air Forces’ strategic bombing force during World War II.
It was called a Flying Fortress for a reason; it bristled with defensive guns. The later model B-17G also had a gun turret in the nose.
Note that “Belle” is wearing red on this side of the nose and blue on the other.
A topside gun turret and a ball turret are displayed near the airplane. To squeeze into the tiny ball turret, the gunner had to wrap himself in a fetal position around the machine gun.
Standing here, I couldn’t help but recall the grim ending to Randall Jarrell’s famous short poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”—“When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”
But there was so much more: cool airplanes to see, cargo planes to board, a B-29 fuselage to duck through. We didn’t even bother with the inevitable flight simulators and IMAX theater, or enter the full-size mockup of a space shuttle. We only glanced at many exhibits over which I did not have the time and mental energy to linger.
I can now empathize with all those visitors to Washington, D.C., who want to take in the entire Smithsonian in a day. It can’t be done. Nor can you experience in one visit all that the National Museum of the United States Air Force has to offer. But if one visit is all you have, it’s worth a gallant try.
David Romanowski, 2018