Air Force museum starts with Wright stuff

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Turns out, I have a few things in common with Wilbur and Orville Wright.

I grew up near Dayton, Ohio.

I’ve been very involved in bicycling and newspapering.

I even, like Wilbur, was smacked in the face by a hockey stick (but that’s another story ... or two).

However, I never was inside what I grew up taking for granted as “the Air Force museum.”

I’m not sure how I missed it, seeing as how the place is such a mecca for school field trips.

It’s located on this sprawling air base (it has its own ZIP code) on Dayton’s east side that in the early 1900s was the prairie where the Wright brothers used to test their invention, the airplane.

In the nearly 30 years since I moved away, Dayton has made a much bigger deal out of promoting the legacy of its aviation pioneers. Ten years ago, Congress recognized Dayton as the National Aviation Heritage Area, with several sites in and around a national historical park.

But there’s no bigger monument to the Wrights than what’s officially called the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Earlier this spring, on a trip home to visit my Dad, I decided it would be fun to finally visit with my 6-year-old son and science-and-space-geek wife.

I wasn’t expecting to much like it myself. A “military” museum sounds as exciting to me as a “colonial” one (yawn).

But this place totally wowwed me, as well as the rest of my family.

And we can’t wait to go back.

The Air Force museum makes that easy, even for Pittsburghers who don’t have relatives in Dayton, as it’s a one-tank-of-gas, four-hour drive, mostly on Interstate 70. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day but three -- Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. And it’s free.

That last part is amazing when you see how much you get at what bills itself as “the world’s largest and oldest military aviation museum.”

Most of the exhibits are inside three interconnected buildings that are as big as aircraft hangars because they, well, are aircraft hangars.

And more and more varied aircraft than most people can imagine are hanging and otherwise artfully arranged inside the cavernous spaces, dramatically spotlit and decorated with realistic mannequins and other props. As my first-grader put it, “The fake people are kinda freaky. They look right at you!”

The individual planes are mapped on the foldout “aircraft locator” that we received upon entering and that showed how they are grouped by eras. Rather than start with the Wrights in the “Early Years” exhibit, we were drawn into the “World War II” gallery, so thick with history that it really felt a little like traveling back in time. The airplaines and the context are illuminated by videos, soundtracks and related artifacts.

I found myself learning about lesser-known things, such as “The Hump” that Allied pilots had to fly over from India to China. And I found myself moved to see better-known things, such as “The Aircraft that Ended WWII” -- the “Bockscar” B-29 Superfortress that dropped the Fat Man atomic bomb on Nagasaki. I was walking around that silvery artifact at the same time as some tourists I’m almost positive were from Japan.

We finally made it out of that first exhibit and into the one next door, where we saw a reproduction Wilbur Wright on a reproduction Wright 1909 Military Flyer, which the Army bought as the first heavier-than-air military flying machine.

The exhibits that follow dramatically tell the story about all that happened next, as the Army begat the Air Force and it flew into the “Korean War,” the “Southeast Asia War” and then the “Cold War.” Depending on your age and background, different planes and pieces will stand out, each having starred in some aspect of history, from the Berlin airlift to the Vietnam War to the moon landing. 

Some are just physically sexy, such as the Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird. 

I was fascinated to walk around and under a B-52 Stratofortress, one of the gigantic bombers I used to watch fly training flights out over Lake Huron after they’d done what they did in Vietnam. I really did get the shivers in the Cold War exhibit, well remembering how it felt, growing up, to physically fear nuclear war.

In an adjacent silo, I was reminded that there still are LGM-30 Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles “on alert.” But my family and I enjoyed looking at the rockets (My wife: “Awesome!”) and other “Missile & Space” exhibits, including a display case of freeze-dried space foods.

"The fruit cocktail looks like poop,“ said my son, who made me hold him up to see it all. ”No, really: It looks like dried poop.“

The food looked fine, but basic, in the museum’s Valkyrie Cafe, but I already had a nearby Vietnamese restaurant (Linh’s -- in mind for lunch. So in the sprawling museum store, we bought some dehydrated space ice cream to tide over my son, who also picked out a big airplane toy that he bought with gift money from an Ohio aunt.

The only other money we spent we spent well -- $14 for all three of us to ride a fighter-jet flight simulator that was great fun for our first-grader, as well as a long line of school children outside the thing when we emerged. 

Before we left, we quickly explored the outdoor ”Air Park,“ which has more planes as well as buildings, including a reconstructed Nissen Hut that used to house American airmen near London. I loved looking around the reconstructed Belly Tank Bar, complete with British beer engines, where the mannequins’ American voices bellyached about British ales: ”Don’t look for any cold ones. They’re all going to be warm.“

There is much more to see than we could in three hours. With more time, we could have signed up for the bus trip to see the ”Presidential Aircraft“ and ”Research & Development“ exhibits, both of which sound excellent. Thinking it was in the latter, we somehow missed the new space shuttle crew compartment trainer exhibit. The museum didn’t get one of the actual shuttles that NASA retired, but it did get this trainer, in which scores of astronauts trained over three decades. That exhibit opened in the Cold War gallery this spring. 

And much more is in the works. Earlier this week, the museum broke ground on a $35.4 million fourth main building, which is to house the presidential and experimental stuff and more (including the shuttle trainer exhibit), and it will open in 2016. It will expand the existing 1 million square feet of exhibit space by nearly a quarter million square feet of more good stuff. 

Whenever you go, and I strongly recommend that you do, I think you’ll be struck by how much the U.S. Air Force, how much military aircraft, and how much Wilbur Wright, have affected the past century of history -- our history and your history and your life.

That’s how it hit me, anyway. Like a hockey stick.  

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National Museum of the United States Air Force, 1100 Spaatz St., Wright-Patterson AFB OH 45433 (near Dayton), 1-937-255-3286, Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. every day but Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Free admission

Special event Sept. 27-28: World War I Dawn Patrol Rendezvous marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I in Europe with original and reproduction WWI aircraft, radio-controlled models, period autos and re-enactors and more.

Bob Batz Jr.: and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.

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