Friday, February 3, 2023

The United States Air Force Museum – Part I

…continuing with our late summer road trip to Michigan and beyond…to Indiana and, in this post, we were in Ohio.  It was another day and there was one more museum for us to explore.

The National Museum of the United States Air Force is the official museum of the U.S. Air Force.  It’s located at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton Ohio.  Opened in 1923, this is the oldest and largest military aviation museum in the world.  It is huge…a lot of walking for sure.  There are 4 very large buildings that provide 1,000,000 square feet of exhibit space.  There are more than 360 aircraft and missiles on display, not to mention all sorts of important and interesting ancillary exhibits.  Annually, about a million visitors tour the museum.

Readers shouldn’t panic.  First of all, our time was limited and our energy levels were limited, and we skipped the missiles display as well as the building with the oldest aircraft.  That building features aircraft from the period before and including WWI.  Also, even in the 3 huge buildings that we did visit, I will not provide photos and narrative for each and every aircraft or missile on display.  In 2 parts, I will show a just a few exhibits…mostly but not all aircraft.

I’d like to tell you that the photo above depicts the entrance to the Air Force Museum…but it’s actually the exit.  The actual entrance is much less dramatic.  There is a cafeteria in the museum when you need a break…and if you explore the whole museum, you will need a break!  For those of you who like souvenirs, there are a couple of shops selling everything from t-shirts and caps to mugs and more.  I did buy a baseball cap…thereby contributing to the non-profit Air Force Museum Foundation.

What follows is my selection of some of the aircraft and other exhibits we viewed.  They are in no particular order…

This striking and futuristic looking aircraft was actually built in the late 1950s or so.  The North American Aviation XB-70 Valkyrie was the prototype for the planned B-70 supersonic strategic bomber for the U.S.A.F. Strategic Air Command.  The 6-engined Valkyrie could cruise for thousands of miles at more than Mach 3 (2,300 miles per hour) while flying at 70,000 feet altitude. 

At those speeds and altitudes, the aircraft would be almost immune from attack by interceptor aircraft…which at the time were the only effective weapon against bombers.  When the Soviets introduced surface-to-air missiles in the late 1950s, manned bombers were increasingly vulnerable…and perhaps obsolete.  The B-70 program was canceled in 1961.  This is the only remaining XB-70 Valkyrie.

This is the Rockwell B-1 Lancer.  Despite the vulnerability of bombers…actually all aircraft…presented by surface-to-surface, the USA and other governments have not stopped building bombers.  The Lancer is a supersonic variable-sweep wing heavy bomber.  It is one of three strategic bombers serving the USAF.

The B-1 was first envisioned as an aircraft that would combine the speed of the earlier B-58 Hustler with the range and payload of the B-52 Stratofortress, subsequently replacing both of those aircraft.  Rockwell International, now part of Boeing, won the design contest.  This program was on and off again as perceived needs changed and delays in the B-2 Spirit program grew.  Deliveries of a variant of the B-1, now designated as the B-1B, began in 1986.  By 1988, 100 of these aircraft had been delivered.  As of 2021, the USAF is operating 45 B-1B’s.

This is a British Hawker Siddeley Kestrel FGA.1.  It is one of the British experimental aircraft that eventually led to the Hawker Siddeley Harrier, the first vertical and/or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) jet fighter-bomber.  The test aircraft served to demonstrate an original technique of flight as well as a new type jet engine…a Pegasus vectored-thrust engine.

I have personal memories of the Hawker Siddeley Harrier.  I was working in the security department of McDonnell Douglas Aircraft in St. Louis Missouri when the first Harrier flew in to Lambert Field and an enthralled crowd of McDonnell employees.  It flew across the airport at a low altitude and then it stopped…in mid-air…before landing vertically in front of us.  Very cool indeed!

There were 4 different Harrier type aircraft developed and over 850 Harriers in total were delivered.  In addition to the USA and Great Britain, Harriers were used in Thailand, Italy and Spain.  The U.S. Marines as well as Italy and Spain still have Harriers in service.  Famously…or perhaps infamously if you happen to be an Argentine, Harriers served the United Kingdom/Great Britain well during the Falklands conflict.  

It’s a flying saucer…sort of.  The Avro Canada VZ-9 Avrocar was a vertical off aircraft that was part of a joint USA/Canada secret military project that was initiated during the early years of the Cold War.  This saucer-like aircraft was intended to provide lift and thrust from a single “turborotor” blowing exhaust out of the rim of the disk-shaped aircraft. 

The Avrocar was originally designed at a ‘fighter-like’ aircraft capable of very high speeds and altitudes.  The project was scaled back by the USAF but then it was taken up by the U.S. Army to meet a tactical combat aircraft requirement…like a high-performance helicopter.  However the Avrocar had thrust and stability issues that were very limiting and the project was cancelled in 1961.  

Of course, if you are a conspiracy theorist, perhaps the government or some other entity has really built and is flying their 'saucers'.  After all, at least this one was real...

This is another experimental vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) jet aircraft.  The Ryan X-13 Vertijet was built by Ryan Aeronautical in the 1950s.   The key objective of this project was to prove the ability of a pure jet to vertically take off, hover, then transition to horizontal forward flight, and subsequently land vertically. 

The Vertijet made its first horizontal flight in late 1955.  A little later it made full horizontal to vertical attitude conversions and back again at altitude.  A second prototype made a vertical take-off from the vertically raised trailer, transitioned to horizontal flight and back again, landing on the vertical trailer via a landing wire and hook system.  In a 1957 demonstration flight in Washington D.C., the X13 crossed the Potomac River and landed at the Pentagon.  Further development was discontinued by the USAF because there was ‘no operational requirement’ for the aircraft

This is a Fairchild C-82A Packet.  It was intended as a heavy-lift aircraft that would succeed prewar (WWII) civilian designs such as the Douglas C-47 Dakota or the Curtiss C-46 Commando.  The C-82 was designed as a multi-role aircraft that could serve as a cargo carrier, troop transport, parachute drop, medical evacuation and glider towing. 

The only prototype flew in September of 1944.  Fairchild built the C-82s in Hagerstown Maryland…with deliveries beginning in 1945 and ending in the fall of 1948.  A total of 223 of these aircraft were built before they were replaced by the more successful C-119B Flying Boxcar.  The last C-82A was retired from the USAF inventory in 1954.

This is an aircraft that has sad and serious ties to America’s history.  It was the first of 2 Boeing VC-137C United States Air Force aircraft that was specifically designed and maintained for use by the President of the United States.  SAM 26000 used the call sign “Air Force One” when the President was on board, otherwise its call sign was SAM 26000, indicating Special Air Mission.

SAM 26000 is a customized Boeing 707.  It entered service in 1962 during John F. Kennedy’s Presidency.  Raymond Loewy worked with President Kennedy to design the Presidential Seal that is still used today.  FYI, this is the same Raymond Loewy who designed logos for Shell, Exxon, TWA, buses for Greyhound, streamlined locomotives for the railroads, the iconic 6.5 oz. Coca Cola bottle and who assisted with the design of the interior of NASA’s Skylab. 

SAM 2600 served at the primary means of transportation for Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon…during the latter’s first term.

On November 22, 1963, after landing at Dallas’ Love Field with President Kennedy and the First Lady, SAM 26000 was the backdrop to live broadcasts of the Kennedy’s greeting well-wishers.  Later that day, after the President’s assassination, this aircraft carried President Lyndon Johnson, Lady Bird, Jacqueline Kennedy and President Kennedy’s body back to Washington D.C.  When President Kennedy was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, SAM 26000 flew overhead, following 50 fighter jets.

This is the only Lockheed VC-121E ever built.  This military version of the famous Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation commercial airliner served as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s personal airplane from 1954 until he left office in January of 1961.  It was 18 feet longer than the commercial airliners.

This was actually President Eisenhower’s third Lockheed Constellation.  He named it Columbine III, after the official state flower of Colorado in honor of his wife Mamie.  An adopted daughter of Colorado, Mrs. Eisenhower formally christened the Columbine III with a flask of water from Colorado rather than the traditional bottle of champagne.

The Columbine III’s most important mission took place in the summer of 1955, when it flew President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to Geneva, Switzerland for the first peacetime summit between the leaders of the Western democracies and Soviet leadership.  After President Eisenhower left office, the USAF continued to use this aircraft as a VIP transport.  This plane flew at a speed of 330 mph and had a 4,000 mile range.  It was retired from service in April 1966 and was flown directly to the museum for permanent display.

This is a Douglas DC-6, a piston-powered airliner and cargo aircraft built by the Douglas Aircraft Company from 1946 to 1958.  It was originally intended as a military transport near the end of WWII, but following the war it was reworked to compete with the Lockheed Constellation in the long range commercial transport business.  More than 700 DC-6 aircraft were built and some still fly in cargo, military and wildfire control roles.

In 1947, President Harry S. Truman replaced his old VC-54C (DC-4) with a modified C-118 Liftmaster, the military name for the DC-6 aircraft.  He named it the “Independence” after his Missouri hometown.  It was given that distinctive exterior paint job, with its nose painted like the head of a bald eagle.  The aircraft has a stateroom at the rear and the main cabin could seat 24 passengers or, alternatively, made up into 12 sleeper berths.

This is a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19, NATO code name “Farmer”.  It is a Soviet second generation, single-seat, twinjet fighter aircraft.  It was the world’s first mass-produced supersonic aircraft as well as the first Soviet production aircraft capable of supersonic speeds at level flight.

It is estimated that as many as 10,000 MiG-19s were built by the Soviet Union, China and Czechoslovakia.  Other nations that had these aircraft in their air forces include Cuba, North Vietnam, North Korea, Poland, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Iraq and Syria as well as most of the rest of the Warsaw Pact countries in Europe.  MiG-19s were retired from the Soviet Air Force in the early 1960s.

Here is an excellent example of a non-aircraft exhibit at the USAF Museum.  This large tableau is comprised of sections of the Berlin Wall (1961 – 1989).  The painted section was one of many such decorated segments of the wall on the side facing away from Communist East Germany.  These concrete murals were a form of protest.  This one was originally painted by “Noir”, a French painter living in West Berlin.  He repainted it before it was shipped to the Air Force Museum.

The Berlin wall was indeed the concrete symbol of the Iron Curtain.  Thousands of teachers, doctors, engineers and other professional fled East Germany and to stop the brain drain, in 1961, the Soviets and East German Government began building the wall.  Even after it was completed, another 5,000 fled over it, went through it or went under it over its 28 year ‘life’.  About 100 more people were killed attempting to flee to the west. 

As for the automobile, it is a Trabant 601S “Delux”.  While East Berlin tried to present itself as a paradise, most East Germans lived poorly.  The Trabant with its 2 cylinder, 2-stroke engine which produced 28 HP, was a goal for many…but the wait time was about 8 years before delivery.  The car’s body consisted of compressed plastic and cotton panels attached to a galvanized steel chassis.  So much for a worker’s ‘paradise’!

This is a Mikoyan MiG-29, NATO code name Fulcrum.  It is one in a sequence of MiG twin-engine fighter aircraft that were designed in the Soviet Union.  It was developed as an air superiority fighter during the 1970s in order to counter new United States fighters such as the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Fighting Falcon.  The MiG-29 entered service with the Soviet Air Forces in 1983.

In addition to air-to-air combat, many MiG-29s have been equipped as multirole fighters capable of performing many different missions.  They are commonly equipped with air-to-surface weapons and precision munitions.  Many variants of this aircraft have been built, with over 1,600 MiG-29s already completed and newer versions still in the works.  More than 30 nations operate or have operated MiG-29s at this point in time.

This strange looking ‘bird’ is a Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, a retired American built single seat, twin-engine stealth attack aircraft.  It was the first operational aircraft that was designed with stealth technology.  The F-117A’s first flight took place in 1981 and it was shrouded in secrecy until it was shown to the public in 1988.

The Nighthawk received a lot of publicity for its role as an attack aircraft in the Gulf War of 1991.  One F-117 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile during the conflict in Yugoslavia.  With design considerations related to stealth technology, such as lower engine thrust, no afterburner, a low wing aspect ratio and the high sweep angle needed to deflect incoming radar waves, the F-117 is limited to subsonic speeds.  Including prototypes, a total of 64 F-117 Nighthawks were built.  The USAF retired these aircraft in 2008 when the F-22 Raptor entered the Air Force inventory

It isn’t all about American or Soviet/Russian aircraft.  This Panavia Tornado GR 1 represents a family of twin-engine, variable-sweep wing multirole combat aircraft that were jointly developed and manufactured by Italy, the United Kingdom and West Germany.  Variants of this aircraft serve as interdictor/strike fighter-bombers, electronic combat/reconnaissance and the air defense/interceptor role.

The Tornado first flew in 1974 and it was introduced into service in 1979 – 1980.  It versatile enough that it could replace varied types of aircraft in the adopting air forces.  The only export operator of the Tornado was the Royal Saudi Air Force.  The Tornado served in many conflicts ranging from the Gulf War in 1991 and up through the Libyan civil war in 2011.  Including all of the variants, a total of 990 of these airplanes were built.  The Tornado has been retired from the British Royal Air Force but they are still in service in the other countries mentioned above.

This is a heavily modified Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.  This variant of the C-130 is named the AC-130A SPECTRE and it is basically a gunship designed to provide ground support for US troops.  The aircraft carries a variety of ground-attack weapons that are integrated with sensors, navigation and fire-control systems.  The airframe is manufactured by Lockheed Martin and Boeing has the task of converting the aircraft into a gunship and for aircraft support.  The SPECTRE replaced a former gunship, the Douglas AC-47 SPOOKY.

Given its large profile and low operating altitudes of about 7,000 feet, the SPECTRE is an easy target and its close air support missions are usually flown at night.  The AC-130A has a unpressurized cabin, with the weapons mounted to fire from the port side of the aircraft.  During an attack, the gunship performs a pylon turn, flying in a large circle around the target, allowing it to fire at it for much longer than in a conventional strafing attack.  Armament for these aircraft have varied over the 50 years that they have been providing close air support.  They have included 20 mm, 40 mm, and 105 mm cannons.  Given the current and future military environments, these aircraft’s days of service are numbered.

This relatively ungainly looking airplane is one of my very favorite military aircraft.  The Fairchild Republic A-10 is a relatively simple aircraft with a single mission, whereas most military aircraft in this day and age are very complex, very expensive creations, that are expected to fulfill numerous roles.  The A-10 Thunderbolt II is a single seat, twin-turbofan, straight-wing, subsonic attack aircraft.  It has been in service with the United States Airforce since 1976.

The Thunderbolt is commonly referred to as the “Warthog” or simply “Hog”.  It was designed to provide close air support to friendly ground troops by attacking armored vehicles, tanks and other enemy ground forces.  It is the only aircraft designed to close air support that has ever served with the U.S. Air Force.

Flying low to the ground and attacking enemy forces with tanks, cannons and missiles is a dangerous business.  As a consequence, the Warthog’s airframe was designed for durability, with 1,200 pounds of titanium armor to protect the cockpit (the pilot) and aircraft systems…which allows the aircraft to absorb damage and continue flying.  The pilot is basically sitting in an armored ‘bathtub’.  It also can take off and land from relatively short runways and its simple design enables the aircraft’s maintenance with minimal facilities.  The Warthog/A-10 is designed to be able to fly with one engine, half of the tail, one elevator and half of a wing blown off.

A total of 716 A-10 Thunderbolts/Warthogs were built and about 280 remain in service with the USAF.  Plans to retire them have been shelved for now as no viable replacement has been developed.

My next post will take a break from our visit to the United States Air Force Museum…returning to the more mundane parts of our late summer 2022 road trip.

Just click on any of the photographs to enlarge them…

Thanks for stopping by for a visit!

Take Care, Big Daddy Dave 


  1. Not a museum that I would visit. But so interesting to see the Berlin Wall and a Trabant in Air Force Museum.

  2. There seem to be many prototypes that were not put into production. Interesting museum.

  3. Well hey, that's my kind of museum. My first flight was on a Continental (TWA). I flew for Pan Am on DC-6, 7 and 8, and many a Boeing 707. Was out before the big 747 came around. I loved seeing these airplanes. I'm linking your post to mine tomorrow for Sepia Saturday about Women and Planes. In case anyone else out there likes planes like you and me. (And I am so glad you did the walking to get these photos!) Oh, there's typo on a date for the Tornado.

  4. While I am not certain a visit to this museum would be on my list if I were in the area, I did enjoy your informative post about some of the aircraft (thankfully not all). I can imagine for those interested in aviation history, a multi-day visit would be best.