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High-Flying Adventures at Air Force Museum

August 2, 2010
By Barb Romick

Planes, rockets, space flight memorabilia, presidential planes, aviation history, military history, and even a Bob Hope special exhibit - there is something for everyone at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

You'd think that because the National Museum of the United States Air Force is second only to the Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian that a visit would put a big dent in your wallet.

But no; a visit to the museum is very inexpensive. Admission is free; the tours are free; and if you pack a cooler with your lunch and eat at one of very nice picnic pavilions in Memorial Park on the grounds of the museum, the only cost you'll have is the gasoline for the trip.

Article Photos

The Curtiss P-40E Warhawk and many more can be viewed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

There are some "pay" things to see and do; but they are definitely not essential to having a fantastic time at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. And if you're really not the picnic type, the Valkyrie cafe on the second floor of the museum has very reasonably priced pizza, sandwiches and snacks

Since more than 1.5 million people visit the museum annually, upon your arrival, the first order of business is to make reservations for any of the tours you might want to take because they fill up quickly.

On this visit, my husband, John, and I decided to head over to the Presidential and R & D Galleries. It's been a few years since I'd gone over to the gallery; and things really have changed. In the past, you just went to the bus loading area, got on a bus, went over to the gallery, stayed as long as you wanted, and caught a bus back to the museum.

Thanks to the heightened security post-9/11; now, you have to make a reservation for the bus, show picture ID and get a wristband. Fifteen minutes prior to your tour time, you meet in the auditorium, walk to the bus with your group for the ride to the hangars. The Presidential hangar and the Research and Development (Experimental) hangars are next to each other, and you can walk back and forth between them. Visitors are allowed 45 minutes to take pictures and go into any of the Presidential planes that are open. At the end of the 45 minutes, you ride the bus back to the museum with your group.

Then, for the first-time visitor, the easiest way to see the Air Force Museum is in chronological order. One thing to remember is "Do Not Touch." The museum is remarkably "barrier" free, and a natural tendency is to touch the plane or rocket because they are so close; but the oil from hands and fingertips starts the deterioration process even on the metal of airplanes and rockets. There are some hands-on exhibits, which are clearly marked. An interesting fact noted on the explanation placards is that many of the airplanes were actually flown to Wright-Patterson AFB before being put on display.

As you enter Hangar 1, you'll make your way around the Early Years Gallery viewing exhibits of early flight including a Montgolfier balloon model illustrating one of the earliest successful attempts of man to fly, a Wright Brothers wind tunnel and airplanes of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Continuing to the other side of Hangar 1, you'll view the exhibits and planes of the Air Power Gallery which cover the years of World War II.

Hangar 2 is the Modern Flight Gallery, which houses the Korean War Gallery and the Southeast Asia War Gallery. In the Korean War Gallery, you'll find planes and exhibits including helicopters, bombers, jet fighters, and one of the largest airplanes in the museum, the C-124 Globemaster used extensively as a strategic airlifter during the Korean War and the Southeast Asia War. A "must see" exhibit that you can walk through is the fuselage of a B-29.

In the Southeast Asia War Gallery, the plane that really catches your eye and seems to overshadow everything else in the gallery is the Boeing B-52D Stratofortress, which is huge. In addition, visitors also can see surface-to-air missiles, an MiG-17, personnel carriers, and the helicopter known as the Jolly Green Giant, a Sikorsky CH-3F, which was used in Vietnam for combat rescue.

The Cold War Gallery in Hangar 3 showcases America's largest bomber, the B-36 Peacemaker; the Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, the premier anti-tank aircraft in the world today; the Lockheed F-117 stealth fighter-bomber; and the B-2 Stealth bomber, which is capable of delivering large payloads of conventional or nuclear weapons without being detected by enemy radar.

A circular annex of Hangar 3 is where you'll find the Missile and Space Gallery with five missiles, the Apollo 15 command module, and engines and rocket paraphernalia on display.

There are also many life-size dioramas throughout the galleries to help visitors visualize life during a particular period and many displays with video showing historical news clips or documentaries.

Now you can visit the extras that the Air Force Museum has to offer. In the connecting walkway between the Modern Flight Gallery and the Cold War Gallery is a diorama/exhibit depicting the Berlin Air Lift. As you exit the Modern Flight Gallery, the National Aviation Hall of Fame displays pictures and text information about the inductees - individuals and organizations who have uniquely contributed to America's rich legacy of aviation achievements. In another connecting hallway, the visitor will find the Enlisted Heritage exhibit which displays various uniforms of the Air Force and its predecessor organizations.

Visitors enter the Holocaust exhibit through a gate reminiscent of the type that was found at many of the death camps in Europe. The legend over the gate reads "Arbeit Macht Frei," which in German means "Work Makes You Free." The Holocaust exhibit uses photographs and a video display to tell the story of the effort by the Nazis to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Also, during World War II, almost 36,000 Army Air Forces (AAF) personnel were confined in Prisoner of War (POW) camps in Europe. Despite their status as POWs, some Jewish and non-Jewish Americans were sent to concentration camps.

Between the Early Years Gallery and the Air Power Gallery is the Hall of Honor and Kettering Hall with a special exhibit in honor of Bob Hope's entertaining of our military for over 50 years. The exhibit includes video clips from a few of his military shows in combat zones around the world and many personal items, papers and awards that he had received over the years.

Exhibits at the museum are constantly being updated or enlarged. On this visit, the C-124 walk-through plane was closed for updates. However, the newly added F-4 and F-16 sit-in cockpits were open, and there were plenty of children waiting for their chance to pretend to be fighter pilots.

The human effort that goes into making this museum the showplace that it is is phenomenal. Staff members and volunteers work to acquire and then prepare airplanes, clothing and other items for display. Museum workers are responsible for the filing and keeping of more than 200,000 documents including films, technical manuals, video tapes, drawings, etc. There are more than 6,000 items on exhibit at the museum out of more than 44,000 items in the entire collection. In addition, the museum has about 23,000 items on loan to more than 400 other museums and display sites. Also, scholars and those with a professional interest are allowed to use the archives in the museum's research division.

The gift shop at the National Museum of the United States Air Force carries a wide variety of items. Available for purchase are aviation-themed children's toys and games; T-shirts, sweatshirts and jackets; mugs, pens, stationery and other miscellaneous items; model airplanes; books on every facet of aviation history; CDs and DVDs of music and movies of the war years; and posters of airplanes. The gift shop also carries pins, hats and ties in distinctive stripes for the veterans of specific wars or recipients of medals such as the Silver Star or the Purple Heart.

You don't have to be an aviation expert, a war veteran or a history buff to enjoy and learn from the exhibits. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the first-time visitor will probably need all eight hours to do justice to the museum.

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