National Museum of the United States Air Force
Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio
"Ohio's largest free attraction" could be the largest free attraction in America, or at least the most imposing. It's not every day you get to stand next to a replica of a nuclear bomb, or a plane that actually dropped one. We enjoyed its unashamed showcase of aerial might so much we returned for another visit later the same week!
The National Museum of the United States Air Force is a complex of vast, interconnected hangars on the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, exhibiting 100 years of aircraft. American tax dollars paid for most of the planes, bombs, and rockets on display, so it had better be free.
Just be prepared to do a lot of walking, starting with the stretched-out parking lot (as you might expect, featuring a huge handicapped section) and then what seems like miles of interior hangar exhibits. Outside, in a large adjacent park, are many memorials for individual air force groups and squadrons. It appears that each squadron got a tiny memorial, but some raised money to construct really nice monuments -- fancy sculptured pilots and fighters arcing overhead, even a granite pagoda crowned with a climbing Mustang.
Inside, it's all self-guided. Take as many photos as you like. You'll need several rolls of film or a backup memory card.
Air Power in World War II
As is our habit in historic aircraft collections, we briskly power walk through the early days of flight until we reach World War II. That's where the US Air Force really starts to show off its global firepower.
Bits and pieces of the B-24 "Lady Be Good" are arranged near signs that tell of ghostly activities around the artifacts of this "cursed" plane. It disappeared in 1943 during a mission over Italy, and wasn't found until sixteen years later in the very un-Italian desert of Libya. A large stained glass window, transported from a Wheelus Air Force Base chapel in Libya, honors the original crew. "In memory of nine who made the desert a highway for our God."
What else? Planes, planes... and more planes, in front of you, behind you, above you. In lit display cabinets along the walls are the trombone of Glenn Miller (he died in a crash while entertaining the troops in Europe), and the leather bomber jacket of Jackie Coogan (TV's Uncle Fester). We make a mental note to check out the large exhibit about Bob Hope, which includes a video loop of his stand-up routines for the troops, and his 1966 Christmas Special Emmy. A small crowd gathered -- after 40 years, Hope's jokes could still get a laugh.
Toward the end of the building is "Bockscar" (or "Bock's Car" -- its pilot was Frederick C. Bock), the B-29 bomber that dropped an atom bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Bockscar sat in storage at an airfield in Arizona until it was flown here in 1961 -- the frigid depths of the Cold War -- to be put on permanent public display and perhaps serve as a warning to any beatnik or commie tourists.
Bockscar's few interpretive panels have little of the verbal pussyfooting seen with more politically correct WMDs. This was a vital mission that sped the end of hostilities waged between the Allies and the Axis. Even so, you wince at the plane's nutty cartoon logo -- a train transporting a nuclear payload from the US, splat, onto Japan.
Cold War Gallery
As visitors leave WWII, things are looking pretty good. A bullet-riddled Hitler bust found in Gen. Von Runstedt's HQ is displayed near a Bronze Eagle from the Fuhrer's Reich Chancellery -- not polished and behind glass, but down in the rubble, defeated. Nearby, generous GI mannequins offer a German kid mannequin a chocolate bar.
Then you enter a dark tunnel, after passing through an East German-style checkpoint manned by menacing guard mannequins. Welcome to the Cold War! (Note: Fortunately, this museum uses male mannequins when depicting our fighting men. More on the US male mannequin crisis.)
A small exhibit honors "Vittles," the forgotten dog hero of the 1948-49 Berlin airlift. Vittles accompanied American planes on 131 missions to deliver aid behind the Iron Curtain. "Operation Little Vittles" air-dropped candy to children in West Berlin during the crisis. General Curtis LeMay named the dog and ordered a special parachute made, on display here, in case Vittles had to bail out.
The entrance to the Cold War hangar has a display of a young mannequin couple climbing over the Berlin Wall to freedom. The rest of this giant hanger is black, with eerie patches of blue and red light reflected off of stealth fighters and supersonic bombers -- as if the visitor is on the airfield tarmac at 2 am, just waiting for Defcon 4 and orders to commence World War III.
A surprising number of A- and H-bomb replicas are arrayed on the floor beneath the bomber wings, including Fat Man, the bomb dropped by Bockscar. The massive Mark 17, the original hydrogen bomb, a hundred times more powerful than Fat Man, sits near a bench for quiet contemplation.
For a little comic relief, a suit of medieval armor known as "Iron Mike" is exhibited among the aircraft. Iron Mike belonged to an interceptor squadron in Alaska, and was frequently kidnapped by other squadrons, "an example of esprit de corps."
Experimental weapons systems and aircraft are given their due here. All that's left of the fabled Flying Wing is a piece that survived its crash during a 1948 test flight. Obsolete spy planes such as the Blackbird, and more modern stealth fighters -- a view of which would have gotten you indefinitely detained only a few years ago -- are now polished photo-ops for public scrutiny. It makes you wonder about all of the stuff that you can't see right now; exhibits in the future War on Terror Gallery.
Further back, in the recently completed Space Gallery, several full size rockets rise several stories above the other exhibits. The Apollo 15 Command module is here, along with other assorted craft returned from the void. These are impressive -- but look at the small stuff in the glass cases for some rewards, such as Ham the Astrochimp's undergarments, and the leather bomber jacket (with extra-long chimp sleeves) he wore when he met President Kennedy in 1961.
With recent history still being written, there is no great gallery pronouncing exactly what period we are in now ("Victories in the Non-Integrating Gap"). We did find a gallery room of original artwork cut from the sides and noses of Gulf War fighter planes -- nods to Frank Frazetta and Edward Teller. And the museum displays a piece of the Pentagon blown off by the 9/11 terrorist attack.
An extensive gift shop offers all kinds of Air Force models, books, and museum souvenirs. We admired the postcards, squadron patches, and heroic action figures of Orville and Wilbur Wright.
We couldn't afford the time on this trip, but visitors can sign up for a special shuttle bus tour to the hangar that exhibits JFK's Air Force One plane.