Travel Log: National Museum of the United States Air Force

Travel Log 2

(Dec. 6, 2017) I suffered a severe airplane coma three days ago. My brother and oldest nephew nearly had to perform mental resuscitation on me after my brain all but shut down from the incredibly amazing sensory overload that is the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

The “Air Force Museum” (as it is commonly known) is one of the largest military aviation museums in the world. Over one million square feet (four hangars) in size, it dwarfs my beloved National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola. You will need at least two days to see and appreciate it all. My brother, who is currently stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and his family gave me the grand tour in just one day (hence the aforementioned air plane coma of sensory overload) on Dec. 3. I went back on Dec. 4 to finish seeing some of the exhibits we skimmed over the day before.

National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
The beginning: a bust of Charles Taylor, the Wright Brothers’ mechanic, stands vigil at a replica of the first plane the U.S. Army bought while the only surviving World War I Caquot Type R observation balloon dominates the background.

The museum starts, much as Alice did, at the beginning: the introduction of aircraft to the U.S. Army by the Wright Brothers. You will wind your way through the early years, the world wars, the Cold War, Space Age, and into a new, fourth hangar of presidential and experimental aircraft. They have several one-of-a-kind aircraft that are the only known examples left in existence. Dominating the first hangar is the only surviving Caquot Type R observation balloon left from World War I. Fully inflated, it hangs over an exhibit that includes the basswood cross placed at the grave of Lt. Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of former President Theodore Roosevelt. Quentin was shot down over Chamery in 1918 and buried with full honors by the Germans. The basswood cross they placed at his grave was constructed with wire taken from his downed airplane.

Of course the museum is stocked with volunteer docents, all of whom have some connection to military aviation. You will find a number of naval veterans here, volunteering at the Air Force Museum simply out of love for aviation. Stop and talk to these men and women, and you will find some very incredible stories.

My oldest nephew, Luke, and I were in the World War II exhibit near a B-25 Mitchell bomber that was set into a diorama depicting the flight deck of the carrier USS Hornet (CV 8) prior to launching the 1942 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. The B-25 itself is a WWII veteran, but not a Doolittle Raid veteran. There were 16 aircraft launched that day; 15 crashed. The 16th plane, No. 2242, was flown by Edward J. York, and landed near Vladivostok. It was seized by the Russians and the crew interred for 13 months since the Soviets were not yet at war with Japan. The plane was used by the Russians for several years and reportedly scrapped, though there are still those who are searching for it.

Behind the life-sized diorama, we found an exhibit featuring the Doolittle Raid goblets that had been presented to the survivors by Tuscon, Arizona, following World War II. This is a set of 80 goblets, each embossed with the name of a Raider. As the Raiders held their reunions, they would drink a toast from the goblets. They developed a tradition of turning upside down the goblet of each Raider after they passed away. Today every goblet but one is upside down. Only Lt. Col. Robert Cole, USAF (Retired) remains, and, at 101 years old, his time with us is probably very limited. One can only imagine how he feels now that his goblet is the only one left upright.

Luke and I heard the story of the goblets from one of the museum volunteers, Lt. Col. Jim Mecham USAF (Retired). Lt. Col. Mecham was a fountain of stories himself. Going into flight training at 19, he first flew during the Korean War. Much of his career was spent as an instructor, originally using the B-25 Mitchell bomber as a multi-engine trainor through the Vietnam War. He would go on to fly 23 types of aircraft during his career, including the SR-71 Blackbird. He debunked the myth that all SR-71 pilots earned astronaut wings—turns out many SR-71 pilots didn’t fly high enough or far enough to qualify even though the Blackbird itself was capable.

Before parting ways, Lt. Col. Mecham told Luke and I one last story about the world of research and development. He participated in some experimental programs himself, and rubbed elbows with a lot of people who were very involved in the development of rocket engines during the early efforts that eventually evolved into NASA and the space program.

Following WWII, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (the forerunner to NASA) and the nascent Air Force continued using the desert southwest for a testing ground. The lack of population made collateral damage unlikely in the event of a malfunction, and the isolation helped hide the activities from prying eyes (like the Soviet Union). The work was so secret that, if a rocket got away and crashed, the wreckage was not immediately recovered for fear the salvage activity would attract Soviet attention.

One rocket did go awry and crashed outside the test range in 1947. Per procedure, it was not salvaged immediately, and, when the wreckage finally was collected, the effort was shrouded in secrecy.

“You know where it crashed?” He asked Luke and I. “Roswell, New Mexico.”

I’m not saying other theories about Roswell are incorrect, but I will say that truth is often stranger (and more ironic) than you think!

National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
Luke with Lt. Col. (Ret) Jim Mecham at the Doolittle Raid exhibit.

The museum’s newest building has FDR’s plane, the Sacred Cow, complete with elevator to get him aboard in his wheelchair. You can tour Truman’s Independence, Eisenhower’s Columbine III, and SAM 26000, a modified 707 and the first aircraft to carry the call sign Air Force One while the president is aboard. SAM 26000 was acquired during the Kennedy administration, and Jackie Kennedy helped design the livery (her design is still in use today). Tragically, this is also the aircraft that transported Kennedy’s body back to Washington, D.C., after he was assassinated in 1963. You can stand in the spot where President Johnson took the oath of office before the plane left Dallas, and the back galley where Kennedy’s casket was carried and Jackie sat during that sad return flight.

There are so many aircraft of note here it is impossible to list them all. The Bockscar, the B-29 that dropped the 2nd atomic bomb in 1945 is here. The XB-70A Valkyrie, a “Buck Rogers” looking experimental supersonic bomber dominates the experimental gallery. You can get up inside the bomb bays of a B-36J Peacemaker and B-52 Stratofortress. There is a new section of hands-on learning for kids that is guaranteed to burn off some of that youthful energy, a space section with nuclear ICBMs towering over you, two cafes to refuel at, and a gift shop so big it’s nearly its own shopping mall.

The museum is located on the grounds of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, but is in a cordoned-off section that does not require any kind of ID check so as to make it easy on the public to visit. Nearby is is Huffman Prairie, where the Wrights spent 1904 and 1905 perfecting their original 1903 Kitty Hawk flyer, and downtown Dayton with its Wright Brother sites is not 15 minutes away. You can buzz through this place in a day, but if you can make it a two or three day stop, you ought to. It really is that big! Don’t try to fly through; take you time and immerse yourself. It is well worth!

National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
The nose gear of the B-29 “Bockscar” frames two visitors sutdying the aircraft’s historic flight.

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