Ohio’s greatest free attraction is the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton. If you like airplanes, history, or people watching, this place is for you. The museum contains the world’s best collection of military aircraft – from the Wright 1909 Military Flyer to the YMQ-9 “Reaper” remotely-piloted aircraft currently flying in Afghanistan.
The museum includes an IMAX theater, a reasonably-priced gift shop, and a cafeteria, but the emphasis is clearly the aircraft and related exhibits.
The museum displays the aircraft in chronological order. The Early Years Gallery’s first exhibit is the 1909 Military Flyer. Just around the corner is the Wright Brother’s original wind tunnel. A Fokker Dr. I, similar to the one flown by the Red Baron in World War I, hangs upside down from the ceiling, forever frozen in a dive at a Sopwith Camel parked on the ground.
The World War II Gallery has intrigued me since my first visit in the 1970s. The grinning visage of a Flying Tigers P-40 Warhawk is familiar to everyone. The risqué nose art on the Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby B-17 and the Strawberry Bitch B-24 still catches my eye.
The Korean War Gallery, much like the Korean War itself, gets less attention than the other galleries. It does contain though, side by side, the F-86 Sabre and its nemesis, a MiG 15. This particular MiG 15 was delivered to the United States by a North Korean defector in 1953.
The Southeast Asia War Gallery contains a B-52 like the ones I remember seeing flying overhead as a kid in Dayton. The beefy F-4 Phantom can also be found here.
The Cold War Gallery contains an F-15 Eagle next to a MiG-29. It also contains my favorite – the elegant SR-71 “Blackbird.” George Lucas must like it too – Queen Amidala’s J-type 327 is based on the Blackbird. Kids always enjoy the chance to sit in a plane and give a thumbs up. Open cockpits of an F-4 and an F-16 allow anyone to climb in.
There is more to the museum than airplanes though. The exhibit on the Berlin Airlift details life for West Berliners in 1948 and 1949. The Soviets had blocked ground access to West Berlin. The only way that Britain, France, and the U.S. could supply their zones with food, fuel and supplies was by air. Fuel was the most urgent. The allies delivered 1.5 million tons of coal, in duffel bags, during the 464 day effort.
The World War II Aviator Jacket exhibit is another favorite. The spirit of the young aviators from seventy years ago is easy to see in their painted jackets.
One of the more sobering displays is the Holocaust exhibit. Among other items displayed is a striped concentration-camp prisoner uniform.
I enjoy looking at the aircraft and historical exhibits, but I also enjoy watching people. Years ago, it was common to see a WWII veteran quietly showing his grandchildren the plane he flew in or worked on. Now you are more likely to see a Vietnam vet explaining what he did in the war. On my last visit, I spoke to a man, several years younger than me, who had worked on F-16s.
The most intense people watching can be had at the Bockscar B-29 exhibit. It still amazes me that I can stand five feet away from the aircraft that dropped the bomb that ended WWII. The written materials and video are educational, but what really fascinates me is watching Japanese and Japanese-Americans view the exhibit. I know the mixed emotions I feel – dropping the atomic bombs saved lives on both sides, but it ushered in the nuclear era, and the potential for almost instant world-wide annihilation. But what do others feel? Were their grandfathers soldiers or kamikaze pilots? Did they have a relative die in one of the blasts? Were they interned Japanese-Americans? Or were they just like me, learning about our common history?