Museum of Aviation
Warner Robins, Georgia
Unless you're in the Air Force, or you've spent time around Macon, Georgia, you probably haven't heard of the Museum of Aviation. That's a shame, because the place is huge. There are acres of planes and missiles outside, and a giant hangar filled with aircraft and displays, and another giant hangar, and another, and another. It just keeps going.
Friends in high places (of influence, not altitude) and the adjacent Robins Air Force Base help explain why the Museum of Aviation is so big -- the second-largest Air Force museum in the entire U.S., second only to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in size and scale. There's a lot to see, the range of exhibits can leave you dizzy, and the fact that it's all so unexpected adds to the fun.
There are airplanes, of course -- too many to count -- but there's also a spacesuit from Skylab, the entire recreated "hideaway office" of Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, the wacky neckties of Lt. Col. Darwin Edwards ("Mr. Museum"), and the hand-sewn uniform of Jose the Duck.
And because generations of tax dollars paid for it, it's all free.
"A typical Air Force base will have a very focused flying mission," said Mike Rowland, the Museum of Aviation curator. "But because we're an Air Force depot we touch many things going on in the Air Force, so we can tell a more expansive story."
Take the Flying Tigers, for example. The Tigers were pilot-adventurers who left the U.S. military to fight the Japanese before Pearl Harbor, on the other side of the planet from Macon, Georgia. Yet there was enough of a connection to Robins Air Force Base to justify not one, but several Tigers exhibits in the Museum of Aviation. A dummy of Brig. Gen. Robert "God is My Co-Pilot" Scott Jr. sits in the cockpit of one of the Tigers' distinctive fang-toothed P-40s, named "Old Exterminator." William Pawley has an exhibit; he helped bankroll the Tigers, and died under controversial circumstances (Some claim he was part of a plot to assassinate JFK).
Then there's Raymond Perry Rodgers Neilson; his exhibit is titled "The Artist" because he painted portraits of all the Tigers who died in the war (The museum displays a rotating selection). Lt. Gen. Claire Chennault, the Tigers' colorful commander, is shown in a 1942 tableau with his pith helmet, his ever-ready supply of hot pepper sauce, and one of his Chinese manservants, who, according to the display, he christened with names such as "Ten Bowl Rice Man" and "Houseboat." And back to Brig. Gen. Scott -- he has an entire gallery, which you enter through a replica of the Great Wall of China, since he walked its entire 2,000 mile length when he was 72.
Interactive aircraft exhibits in the museum may not be Disney-slick but they get the job done, giving visitors the chance to experience what it's like inside a World War II B-17 bomber, a Vietnam War Huey helicopter, or a modern-day Joint STARS E-8C surveillance jet, sucking up data so that smart bombs and drones can do the work formerly entrusted to B-17 crews with mascot ducks.
The museum has so many airplanes that even its four exhibit hangars aren't enough to accommodate them all. Many are stored outside in the "back yard," while the museum has begun lifting the planes indoors onto pedestals so that more planes can be slid underneath. These once-again-airborne aircraft include behemoths such as a B-29 Superfortress and an SR-71 Blackbird that once flew 2193.3 mph, "faster than a speeding bullet," said Mike without exaggeration, the fastest recorded speed ever for a piloted airplane.
Mike said that the museum hopes to one day build its biggest hangar yet to shelter its most immense aircraft, but that will have to wait for funding from the Air Force and the museum's Foundation -- which itself is significantly funded by its annual Georgia Invitational Golf Tournament, which has an exhibit in the museum, too.