Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum
In former years this was known simply as the SAC (Strategic Air Command) Museum, it was at Offutt Air Force Base, and everyone knew what it was about. BOMBS! Well -- bombs and the hardware that carried them. Axis-cracking bunker-busters and big, bad, Commie-toasting fryboys, slung inside the bellies of B-52s. If Brezhnev or Mao ever got cocky, all they had to do was look at pictures of the old SAC Museum, and they'd simmer down.
But the Cold War and Good War are history now, and the SAC Museum has softened with age, planning to settle into comfortable retirement. The facility moved from its old Omaha tarmac to a $30 million, grit-free complex out in suburban-prairie Ashland. It was given a new name and a new mission: to become the region's look-at-the-cool-aircraft museum (inviting tough comparisons to the much larger National Museum of the United States Air Force and our predictable pining for the messier SAC of yore).
Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum has much to offer, but we'll always feel that stressing the delivery vehicles at the expense of their frightening payloads is a strategic misfire...
The museum does have lots of nice air candy. A bad-ass SR-71A Blackbird tilts at eye-level as you enter, as if about to impale your face on its needle nose.
Beyond, in two cavernous hangars, are dozens of rare warbirds, including a B-52, a U-2 spy plane, a B-1A bomber, and a North Vietnamese MiG-21 that "just kind of showed up one day," according to curator Brian York.
You can walk underneath most of these, poke your head up into an open bomb bay, sit in a cockpit trainer, or walk the upper balcony to see the aircraft from every angle.
Out front, Atlas, Minuteman, and Titan missiles cast bold shadows across the parking lot. "John Glenn launched at the top of a Titan," York told us. Actually, Glenn launched at the top of an Atlas (we didn't know that, either), but it really doesn't matter all that much. The missiles aren't here because of John Glenn. But an astronaut triumphantly orbiting the earth is easier on visitors than digesting the strategy of a thousand Titans ready to deliver a million Hiroshimas, and then not needing to after all...
Displayed down on the hangar floors, along otherwise tall, blank walls, are obsolete control consoles and panels that were the brains of the operation. Their toggle switches, mechanical counters, and vacuum-tube boxiness make you realize that the jets and rockets look slick because they have to plow through the air, not because the military had an eye for design.
Off to one side, behind a low wall of sandbags, flight simulators and motion-master rides beckon the kids -- and probably have more processing power than all of SAC did in its heyday.
Also down on the floor are classic displays from the old Museum, scattered around the periphery. Some of these, like a cross-section cutaway of a subterranean nuclear missile base, were lovingly crafted in some long-outsourced government model shop.
And some are just strange, like the exact replica of Jimmy Doolittle's hands at the controls of a B-25, on his way to bomb Japan (The bronze "Hands of Destiny" was a Bicentennial gift from Mutual of Omaha, the same insurance company that sponsored Marlin Perkins).
As for the mechanical displays -- which look like they could be part of a Cold War coin arcade -- many of them weren't working when we visited. An apologetic Brian York attributed this to gremlins. "Sometimes, exhibits just shut down," he told us. Maybe World War III never happened because neither side could get its equipment to work?
Two of our favorite exhibits had dents in them, deliberately left in place by the Museum's restoration staff. One is the Apollo 009 test capsule, the first one launched into space. It was later dropped by helicopter onto the desert floor to gauge the possibility of dry-land landings -- but it tended to bounce and roll after impact (bad for astronauts) which nixed the idea. The other is an XF-85 Goblin -- also known as "the flying egg" -- a tiny single-seat jet fighter designed to drop out of a bomber and fly around as an escort. But it could never get back into the bomber because of the turbulence, and since it had no wheels, it crashed a lot.
Brian told us that the new Museum has only had one protester, and that he showed up way back in 1998 and hasn't returned since. Nebraska, it seems, is at peace with sky-warrior heritage. In the main hangar, for example, groups can make advance reservations to "Lunch under the B-36," with tables arranged beneath the plane -- right next to a massive 1950s Mark-36 hydrogen bomb.
No one seems to notice the nuke, and the museum seems in no hurry to point it out.