The Heritage of the Force

Sept. 1, 2003

The US Air Force Museum at Dayton, Ohio, has become one of the top tourist attractions in the Midwest, drawing 1.2 million visitors a year.

On the approach from Interstate 675, the museum complex is visible—and impressive—from a considerable distance. Three enormous hangars, built in the style of aviation Quonset huts, dominate the view.

In the background are the buildings and runways of Wright–Patterson Air Force Base. The museum grounds are part of the base, but the big exhibition hangars are outside the gates, so the public can enter freely.

The airpower heritage is rich here. Dayton was the home of the Wright brothers. Huffman Prairie, where they worked and flew, is three miles away.

This is the oldest and biggest military aviation museum in the world. Visitors can see about 250 airplanes.

There is a replica of the 1909 Wright Military Flyer, a Sopwith Camel, the World War I biplane of Snoopy’s comic strip daydreams, a shark-mouthed P-40 in the war paint of the Flying Tigers of the China Air Task Force, a B-17 Flying Fortress, an F-86 Sabre, a B-52, an F-105 fighter-bomber from the Vietnam era, a high-flying SR-71 spyplane, and much more.

Airplanes need not be ancient to have a place here. The YF-22, prototype for the new stealth fighter, is already on display, as is the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, which achieved fame in Afghanistan.

Later this year, a B-2 bomber will go on display, the first permanent public exhibit of a B-2 anywhere in the world.

Famous Airplanes

Some of the aircraft in the museum are individually famous:

  • The B-29 Bockscar, which on Aug. 9, 1945, dropped an atomic bomb. After the war, a mistake in official records attributed the Nagasaki mission to a different B-29 and Bockscar was relegated to storage in the Arizona desert. The error was later discovered, and the museum obtained the historic aircraft in 1961.
  • SAM 26000, the modified Boeing 707 that flew as Air Force One in 1963. It carried President Kennedy’s body back from Dallas after he was assassinated. Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President aboard this aircraft. (SAM is for “Special Air Mission”; 26000 is the tail number.)
  • Maj. Bernard F. Fisher’s A-1E Skyraider, a World War II-era attack bomber adapted for air commando work in Vietnam. On March 10, 1966, Fisher landed this A-1E on an airstrip, overrun by North Vietnamese regulars, in A Shau Valley, South Vietnam. Fisher taxied through fire, smoke, and battle debris to rescue a fellow pilot who had crash-landed, then fire-walled the throttle and took off with 19 bullet holes in his aircraft. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for this action.

The museum owns thousands of artifacts, including military uniforms dating back to World War I and earlier, a Glenn Miller trombone, and a bicycle manufactured by the Wright brothers in 1895. Some of the artifacts are on display, but many others are in storage.

There is also a 500-seat IMAX theater.

The museum has always been a popular site for special events, and more so than usual this year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of powered flight. The US Postal Service issued its Wright Brothers First Flight stamp at the museum on May 22, concurrent with issuance at Kill Devil Hills, N.C. The “Dawn Patrol Rendezvous” of authentic and replica World War I aircraft was scheduled to be held there in September.

Bigger by a Third

The AAA guidebook rates the Air Force Museum “a gem” and says it will take you four hours to see it, but that must have been before a new building opened this summer, expanding the indoor exhibit space by a third. If you’re interested in airplanes and airpower, you will need a full day, at least.

The Hall of Missiles, a silo-shaped tower 140 feet tall, is still under construction alongside the new hangar. When completed early next year, it will house the extensive collection of ballistic missiles and launch vehicles.

The museum has come a long way since 1923, when it was established in the corner of a hangar at McCook Field near downtown Dayton. It moved to Wright Field in 1927 and has had several locations over the years. In 1941, its space was converted to wartime use, and its collection went into storage. It did not open again to the public until 1955.

It moved to its present location—and into the first of the huge Quonset hangars—in 1971. Even then, the collection was too big for the floor space available. Many airplanes were parked outdoors, vulnerable to the elements. Visitors had to go about a mile to a facility on the old Wright Field flight line to see some of the aircraft. A second Quonset hangar was added in 1988.

With the third hangar that opened this summer, the indoor exhibits and displays in the museum’s main buildings now occupy almost 17 acres. However, visitors must take a shuttle bus to see about 30 aircraft that are still at an auxiliary site inside the fence on the main base.

Among the attractions on the shuttle run are nine Presidential aircraft. The most notable is SAM 26000. Also on display is the VC-54 Sacred Cow, the first Presidential aircraft, which served both Roosevelt and Truman. It was aboard Sacred Cow in 1947 that Truman signed the National Security Act, establishing the Air Force as a separate service.

Eventually, all of the Presidential aircraft will move (along with spacecraft) into a fourth Quonset building yet to be built at the museum’s main site.

The museum is under the operational control of Air Force Materiel Command at Wright–Patterson but gets its policy direction from the Office of the Air Force Historian in Washington. The staff of 96 Civil Service employees is augmented by 450 volunteers who greet visitors, conduct tours, work on exhibits, sand, paint, and polish artifacts, and take airplanes apart and put them back together.

A case in point is Robert Spaulding, who has racked up 26,000 hours as a volunteer. He was a sergeant pilot, flying L-4 aircraft, in World War II. After the war, he worked for McCall Printing Co. in Dayton until he retired in 1982. Ever since, he has been a volunteer in the museum’s Restoration Division, where he now supervises 56 other volunteers. (Coincidental curiosity: Spaulding had the Air Force Magazine account at McCall’s when the magazine was printed there in the 1960s.)

Visitor Mix Changes

Even though airplanes are parked wingtip to wingtip in the exhibition halls, the focus is not on airplanes alone.

“ There are not enough pure aviation enthusiasts to support a museum of this magnitude,” said retired Maj. Gen. Charles D. Metcalf, director of the museum since 1996. “We value the aircraft, but their greatest value is being able to engage an audience and make a point.”

That philosophy is part of the museum’s adjustment to change in the mixture of visitors. In times past—especially in the early days when the museum was much smaller and less renowned—Air Force veterans accounted for much more of the attendance than they do now.

That reflects, among other things, a decline in the population of veterans. Only six percent of the American public below the age of 65 ever served in the military, Metcalf pointed out.

Air Force veterans still come in large numbers to see the airplanes they knew and flew. They are often accompanied by their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

But an increasing share of the visitors have no direct ties with Air Force service. Thirteen percent of those who come are foreigners. Large numbers of schoolchildren come through on tours.

Whereas the P-51 and the P-47 would have been big magnets for earlier generations, young visitors today “don’t even break stride going by on the way to see the F-16 or the F-15 or the F-22,” said Terrill M. Aitken, senior curator. “That’s what they’ve seen in video games and on TV and to finally see a no kidding, for real F-16 is really slick.”

“ Six years ago, our attendance was suffering,” Metcalf said. “We changed our philosophy. Rather than being a museum of hardware, just airplanes sitting around staring at you, we shifted to people and events.”

Attendance has since recovered to previous levels and is heading upward. Whereas some other museums have seen attendance decline with the falloff in air travel after 9/11, the Air Force Museum—most of whose visitors arrive by automobile—has not.

Teaching History

“ We look at story lines,” Metcalf said. “How can we make the heritage and tradition of the Air Force interesting to our visitors?”

That often means supplying background and context that earlier generations that came to the museum did not need. “We find we have to teach world history, military history, and even geography,” Metcalf said.

Today, young visitors may have little or no knowledge of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he said. The exhibit of the P-36 fighter fills in that gap and, to boot, tells a story that even some veterans may not have known.

The strike at dawn Dec. 7, 1941, not only sank US ships at Pearl Harbor but also left many Army Air Forces aircraft on Oahu destroyed or burning. One of the few that did get in the fight was a P-36 from Wheeler Field, flown by 2nd Lt. Philip M. Rasmussen.

The exhibit has a mannequin representing Rasmussen, who did not take the time to dress, standing on the wing of the airplane in his pajamas, a gun belt strapped about his waist. Rasmussen and three other pilots engaged 11 enemy aircraft, and he shot one of them down before running into more Japanese Zeros than he could handle. He took considerable battle damage but managed to land, with more than 500 bullet holes in his P-36. In 1998, Rasmussen—a retired colonel—came to the museum to lecture.

Eventually, Metcalf said, “Every significant aircraft will have its own habitat.” A good example of what he meant is the “Back to the Philippines” habitat in place around the exhibit of the A-20 attack bomber.

The A-20 diorama is extensive, situating the airplane amid coconut trees and jungle vegetation on New Guinea in 1944, with sound effects of aircraft flying overhead. Mannequins depict airmen working on an engine, and sign text, maps, and sound track explain the campaign to liberate the Philippines.

The story of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in 1942 is told at the B-25 bomber exhibit. The aircraft is situated in a life-size diorama, a simulation of the deck of the aircraft carrier Hornet. A mannequin portrays Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, who will lead the raid, other members of the Raiders, and Army Air Forces and Navy crew members loading bombs into the bay of the B-25.

One of the more unusual presentations is the BT-9 trainer aircraft from the 1930s and early 1940s. It is depicted on its nose to illustrate the high washout rate (40 percent) of cadet pilots in World War II.

In this instance, the cadet pilot has applied the brakes too hard when the wind was at his back. The wind lifted the airplane’s tail, causing the nose to hit the ground. In the diorama, mannequins portray the hapless cadet getting a lecture from his instructor while mechanics check out the damage.

The museum also operates a Web site (, where visitors can find more information about what they saw at the museum after they return home. It has 3,000 pages and 1,500 photos. Metcalf predicted 95 million hits on the site this year.

The Large and the Rare

Opinions may vary about which of the aircraft in the museum is most interesting, but there’s no argument about which one is the biggest. The B-36J bomber wins that contest with ease.

The mighty B-52 looks big, and it is. But the massive B-36, located in the newest exhibit hangar, is the largest bomber in the history of the Air Force.

Its wingspan is 230 feet—almost twice the distance of the Wright brothers’ history-making flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903—and it has 10 engines, six of them reciprocating and four turbojets. The propellers are mounted behind the wings. The intercontinental B-36 was the mainstay of Strategic Air Command until it was replaced by the all-jet B-52.

There is a legend that when the museum’s B-36 moved indoors, the building was constructed around it. That is myth. However, it is true that the end part of the building was not completed until the B-36 was wheeled into position.

The aircraft closest to the B-36 in its present location is an F-94C Starfire interceptor, and it looks very small by comparison.

One of the rare aircraft on display is the B-24 bomber, and that’s a story in itself. During World War II, more than 18,000 were bought, more than any other bomber in US history. They were so common that, apparently, nobody noticed they were becoming rare until nearly all of them were gone.

The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington does not have one and rates the B-24 as its “most wanted airplane.”

The B-24D at the Air Force Museum flew combat missions in North Africa in 1943 and 1944. The name painted on the fuselage, along with nose art of a recumbent lady, is Strawberry Bitch. The museum says that “the aircraft was named, in part, because of the pinkish-tinted paint.” This is the paint scheme and name it had in World War II. Museum tour guides sometimes refer to the airplane as the “Strawberry Lady.”

Adding to the Collection

It might seem at first glance that the museum has one of everything, but that is not the case.

“ We will never have all the aircraft we would like, and to have one each of everything that was ever flown by the Air Force is an unrealistic dream,” senior curator Aitken said.

Even if it were possible to have every aircraft the Air Force ever flew, there would not be enough room to display, park, or store all of them. In fact, when the museum acquires a better or more historic example of an aircraft type, it may be necessary to let the model it held previously go. For example, when the museum in 2002 obtained a B-1B bomber with extensive operational experience, it released its B-1A, which had been a test model.

The Air Force Museum has first dibs on airplanes when they are retired from the operational fleet and tracks the ones it wants by tail number. The C-141 airlifter that will eventually join the collection (around 2006), for example, is presently flying with a Reserve unit at Wright–Patterson and got a new paint job when it went through periodic depot maintenance earlier this year.

This particular C-141 was chosen for the collection because it was the “Hanoi Taxi,” the first aircraft out of Hanoi with POWs on board.

Metcalf said that a “big footprint yet to come” is the XC-99, the largest land-based reciprocating engine airplane ever built. (The Soviet AN-225, powered by six jet engines, was bigger.) The XC-99 was the transport version of the B-36, but was almost 10 feet longer and over 10 feet taller.

Only one of the giant airplanes was ever built, and it flew with the X (for experimental) designation from 1947 to 1957. It has been on display in San Antonio, for many years, but it is now being dismantled for shipment to the Air Force Museum and restoration and reassembly there.

When the Presidential aircraft move into a fourth Quonset hut hangar, yet to be built, at the main museum site, the XC-99 will go into the facility they presently occupy on the main base, Metcalf said.

The museum is steadily collecting artifacts, including photographs, documents, clothing, and personal equipment of Air Force veterans. The search is always on for other kinds of artifacts as well. At the B-24 bomber exhibit, for example, visitors can see a sample of the pierced steel planking used for taxiways in World War II. (It was slightly different from the PSP used in later wars.)

Artifacts from current operations are collected as well. In June, aircrews that flew combat missions in Operation Iraqi Freedom presented the museum memorabilia from that conflict, including American flags, flight suits, boots, and dog tags.

Fiber optic lighting is used to preserve artifacts from deterioration after they are put on display.

“ We have all seen how the ultraviolet radiation in sunlight bleaches out the paint on old automobiles, but many people are unaware that fluorescent lights emit the same UV radiation,” said museum historian Jeffery S. Underwood. In museums, fluorescent light bleaches the color out of photographs, documents, wood, and textiles and hardens the softest leather. To protect its artifacts, the USAF Museum employs the latest advances in fiber optic lighting, which emits no harmful UV rays. For example, its displays of the four World War I Medals of Honor and World War II leather flight jackets use fiber optic lighting.

There’s no telling how an aircraft or artifact obtained today might figure into an exhibit in the future. The museum built a reproduction of the Kettering Aerial Torpedo, nicknamed the “Bug,” in 1964. It is a pilotless biplane, 12 feet long and with a wingspan of 15 feet, invented by Charles F. Kettering and Orville Wright in 1918. After a predetermined length of flying time, the engine shut off and the apparatus fell to earth, detonating 180 pounds of explosive when it hit. World War I ended before it could be used.

The Army Air Forces gave serious thought to reviving the Bug for use in World War II, but dropped the project because it did not have the range to take off in England and reach targets in Germany.

A number of radio-controlled airplanes were built as aerial targets and for other uses in the 1930s and 1940s, and the museum has examples of these.

With the passage of time, new possibilities emerged for pilotless aircraft. On display at the museum today are Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles used in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Nearby is the prototype for the X-45 unmanned aerial combat vehicle, which is still in the concept demonstration phase.

That’s a lot of air machines orbiting around a central idea, and in time, the Kettering Bug could well move out of the “Early Years” gallery where it now appears to be the centerpiece of an exhibit telling the story of how unmanned flight evolved.

Restoring History

The aircraft on the exhibit floor at the Air Force Museum are in pristine condition and look factory fresh, but they didn’t arrive that way. Typically, they came here dilapidated, banged up, and missing parts.

About 20 percent of the museum staff’s effort goes into restoring aircraft. Most of this work is behind the scenes, but tours of the restoration and exhibit facilities are offered once a week during the summer and once a month the rest of the year.

If original parts are not available, the restoration staff manufactures them. The museum’s Sopwith Camel, for example, was built from scratch in the restoration hangar, following the original drawings from World War I.

“ We try to restore all the aircraft to airworthy condition,” said Myrl Morris, chief of the Restoration Division. “That is the ultimate goal. … I estimate over half the aircraft on display are still serviceable. A very good example of the restoration standards would be the P-12, which was practically built from the wheels up and only needs fuel and oil to go flying. Our B-17 Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby did actually fly after restoration.”

On a day in June, the principal activity in Morris’s shop was on the B-2, which will go on display later this year. Waiting on the ramp outside, much in need of renovation, was the F-15 Streak Eagle demonstrator that broke eight time-to-climb records in 1975. Inside, work was in progress on a German V-2 rocket from World War II.

In the back of the hangar, a Spad XIII C.1 was beginning to emerge from extensive restoration. It was built in 1918, but had done most of its flying with Cole Palen’s famed Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Rhinebeck, N.Y. (See “Dawn Patrol on the Hudson,” December 2002, p. 54.) When Palen died, he bequeathed the Air Force Museum its choice of the vintage aircraft in his collection. The museum chose the Spad.

However, Palen’s pilots at Rhinebeck had flown the Spad with an air-cooled Lycoming engine instead of the original water-cooled Hispano–Suiza engine. That was just one of the changes required to return the Spad to its World War I configuration.

Numerous parts had to be manufactured anew. Irish linen—used to cover the aircraft 85 years ago—was obtained from London’s A.H. Vane and Co., Ltd., the sole source distributor for the Irish manufacturer of this fabric. The Research Division used all sorts of methods, including analysis of the original fabric from World War I aircraft to determine the proper colors for the Spad’s insignia and other markings.

The restoration team also meticulously followed original specifications to make interior parts—such as the fuel pump and plumbing lines—which will not be seen by visitors when the Spad goes on display in the museum.

“ But we would know,” Morris said.

Air Force Field Museums

A lesser-known mission of the Air Force Museum is to assist and support other museums. It presently has more than 32,000 items on loan to 12 Air Force field museums, 13 other Department of Defense museums, 79 US civilian museums, and 25 museums abroad.

Many of the aircraft on static display at museums, air parks, and bases around the country are the property of the Air Force Museum, which has let them out on long-term loan.

Some of the better collections are at the sites of former Air Force bases. The Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum, at Rantoul, Ill., has 34 historic aircraft that were static displays at Chanute Air Force Base before it closed. However, a B-36 that Chanute once had is no longer there. It was taken apart and moved by train to the museum at the former Castle AFB, Calif.

When a base closes, Metcalf said, the community usually has an interest in some of the static aircraft staying, but generally looks on the big ones as too expensive to maintain. It costs about $25,000 to paint the B-36, Metcalf said, and it has to be painted every five or six years.

Particularly good collections can be seen at the official Air Force field museums. They are:

  • Eighth Air Force Museum, Barksdale AFB, La.
  • Air Mobility Command Museum, Dover AFB, Del.
  • Air Force Flight Test Center Museum, Edwards AFB, Calif.
  • USAF Armament Museum, Eglin AFB, Fla.
  • South Dakota Air and Space Museum, Ellsworth AFB, S.D.
  • Warren ICBM & Heritage Museum, F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo.
  • Hill Aerospace Museum, Hill AFB, Utah
  • History & Traditions Museum, Lackland AFB, Tex.
  • USAF Security Police Museum, Lackland AFB, Tex.
  • Air Force Space and Missile Museum, Patrick AFB, Fla.
  • Peterson Air and Space Museum, Peterson AFB, Colo.
  • Museum of Aviation, Robins AFB, Ga.

John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributing editor. His most recent article, “Rumsfeld Tackles the Civil Service,” appeared in the July issue.