Near Dayton, Ohio, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is home to the world’s largest and oldest military aviation museum, the National Museum of the US Air Force. Docent-led tours guide civilian groups and military reunions through the nation’s most cutting-edge aviation collection. At the entrance to the enormous hangars, I reunited with my own airman to experience the massive complex together.
It was my first visit to a military base, but certainly not his. He was at the base on official business. Since I was covering my military travel beat, so was I.The several motorcoach groups and officer-training cadets who followed me in appeared as awestruck as I felt. Standing at the museum’s entrance, I think all of us were relieved when our guides appeared — theirs a trained docent, and mine, an Air Force-rated pilot.
As the museum is an icon of American innovation and military strength, it was a dream of both of ours to tour the National Museum of the US Air Force. It features more than 360 aerospace vehicles and missiles, amid more than 17 acres of exhibit space, and growing.
“Each year, more than 1 million visitors come to the museum to learn about the mission, history and evolving capabilities of America’s Air Force,” said Rob Bardua of the museum’s public affairs division.
Upon walking into the first exhibit, we instantly knew this museum was the largest series of buildings either of us had ever been in. The ceilings appear sky-high and the opposing walls seem miles away. But how else would this museum fit missiles and 500,000-pound bomber aircraft?
The magnitude of the enormous aviation wonders that surrounded us was jaw dropping. The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress’ wings alone are 185 feet wide, 26 feet greater than its body’s length. We silently stood in front of the B-52, imagining what it would be like to maneuver such a gigantic piece of machinery. Of course, my accompanying airman had a better idea than me.
In the World War II collection, we solemnly gazed at the displayed B-29, Bockscar, which dropped the Fat Man atomic bomb on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. Browsing on to later wars, historical markers taught us about a F-86 and MiG-15 that helped the museum represent the Korean War. And the F-4 stood among Vietnam standouts.
Tucked away in a dark corner of the museum, we found the plane that inspired my airman to fly: the F-117 Nighthawk. Elated, he had been waiting years to pay his respects to this aircraft after seeing it in an air show as a child. The Nighthawk first flew in 1981, but was shrouded into secrecy until 1988. The Air Force retired the Nighthawk in 2008, primarily due to the fielding of my absolute favorite aircraft: the F-22 Raptor. And not far from the Nighthawk, we found her.
This stealth air superiority fighter jet formally entered the service in 2005. The Raptor’s radar, weapons control and electronic warfare systems work together in one integrated unit. This sleek jet can carry 26,000 pounds of fuel with two external fuel tanks, and reach speeds up to 1,489 mph, nearly twice as fast as the speed of sound. Amazing!
After we posed for photos, we continued on to the Space Gallery, where we found NASA’s first Crew Compartment Trainer (CCT-1) serving as a main exhibition. We walked into the full-size, high-fidelity representation of the shuttle payload bay to look inside its cockpit, where hundreds of knobs, gears and switches made us feel lost; this shuttle was definitely made for astronauts.
Over in the Missile and Space Gallery, another legendary piece of machinery caught our eyes: the Apollo 15 Command Module, the fourth mission to land astronauts on the moon and the only Apollo mission with an all-Air Force crew.
According to Bardua, Endeavor will be moved, along with its otherworldly counterparts, to the museum’s new 224,000-square-foot fourth building, to debut in June.
“Similar in size and shape to the museum’s three existing hangars, the $35.4 million fourth building will house aircraft from the museum’s Presidential, Research and Development, and Global Reach collections, as well as a new and expanded Space Gallery,” Bardua said.
And yes, I’ll have to return upon its opening, perhaps for a docent-led tour. Aircraft and exhibits located near the current CCT-1 exhibit and STEM Learning Node in the Cold War Gallery, including the AC-130, EF-111A, F-111F, F-117A, are now unavailable until the museum’s re-launch.
After crossing most of the museum’s exhibits, we could see why staff recommends planning for an entire day at the museum. The Air Force enthusiast I am, I could have spent weeks.