After Texas, we headed up to Ohio to visit my family. My parents wanted to take us on a day trip somewhere, so we eventually settled on Dayton, former home of the Wright brothers, and thus the epicentre of many aviation-related attractions. I had been to the National Museum of the United States Air Force with my parents when I was a kid, but all I really remembered of it were loads of planes, and a rather splendid collection of painted WWII bomber jackets. The main reason I was willing to revisit it, however, was because there was a semi-secret hangar there containing a collection of presidential planes, including the plane FDR took to Yalta. And said hangar would be closing a few days after our planned visit, so this was the only time to see it in the old, pain-in-the-ass-to-access military base before the collection moved to a new, purpose-built gallery (it’ll be opening some time in 2016).
After spending over three hours in the car, I was more than ready to stretch my legs, and the Air Force Museum offered a good opportunity to do that. The complex is huge, mostly made up of vast hangars, and even the walk from the car park is a fairly lengthy one that takes you past a memorial park. Happily, the museum is free. Even the shuttle bus to see the presidential hangar was free, but you had to register for it at a desk off to one corner of the museum, run by several strict older ladies, who made quite a ceremony out of checking our government issued IDs and assigning us each a numbered wristband (woe betide you if you lost it, I would imagine). We had to wait about an hour until our tour time rolled around, so we had a look round the pre-WW2 gallery first.
This more than easily filled the hour, though we started at the wrong end, as we ended up going from 1940s planes to the birth of aviation. However, most of this section was devoted to WWI, which was just fine with me, as I’ve spent the past year researching it for the history project I volunteer with. I’ve been piecing together biographies for a large collection of local lads killed in the war, and I know I shouldn’t play favourites, but I confess to being partial to my pilots. For one thing, pilots had to obtain a licence through the Royal Aero Club, which meant they had their picture taken, and it’s a lot easier to relate to someone if you know what they looked like. For another, pilots were just more dashing than soldiers, especially back in the early days of aviation, and especially the ones with moustaches (most of them). So I read everything in the WWI section with great interest.
There were any number of neat artefacts here, though as usual, I tended to favour the smaller, more personal things over the actual planes. For example, Quentin Roosevelt, youngest son of Theodore, was a pilot in the First World War. He died when his plane was shot down on Bastille Day, 1918, but he was nonetheless given a funeral and proper burial by the Germans, who respected both his fighting skills, and the fact that he was the son of a former president. The original wooden cross that adorned his grave is in the museum, as well as some of his uniform (presumably not the one he was wearing when he died). There was also a stuffed pigeon called John Silver. He was a messenger pigeon during the war; despite being hit by shrapnel during a battle, and losing a leg, he still managed to deliver his message, and was nursed back to health by his unit, becoming their mascot and living well past the end of the war (he died in 1935, which seems incredible! How long do pigeons normally live?).
On a lighter note, one of my favourite cases in the museum held a collection of “blunder trophies;” dating from the 1910s to about the 1930s, they were awarded to pilots who made stupid mistakes during flight, but still managed to survive. These trophies were made into rather punny shapes including a “dumb-bell,” a “horse’s ass,” and a pair of old bloomers (not sure what the pun is there).
By the time we got to the Wright brothers stuff at the end of the gallery (including one of the bespoke bikes made by their cycle company, and one of the later editions of their plane, more on them in the next post), it was time for our tour, so we headed over to our meeting place in the auditorium. Because the Presidential Hangar was on the Wright-Patterson Air Base, which is technically only open to military personnel, it was fairly high security, hence the constant checking of our IDs, and the warnings to not take any pictures on the base until we were in the museum, unless we wanted our cameras smashed. After the security talk, we got loaded into an old school bus, and driven the short distance to the hangars.
Although the process was admittedly a bit of a hassle, it was well worth it, because the hangar contained FOUR presidential planes (some with hilarious president mannequins), and you were allowed to walk through them all and take pictures. Altogether, the hangar held FDR’s, Truman’s, Eisenhower’s, and Kennedy’s planes (and Kennedy’s plane was used by a few subsequent presidents as well), and a number of other government aircraft, including something that looked suspiciously like a flying saucer.
I’m sure it will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read my blog ever, but FDR’s plane was obviously the one I was most excited about seeing. Known as the “Sacred Cow,” because reporters weren’t allowed anywhere near it (allegedly to try to hide the special elevator shaft allowing FDR to board in his wheelchair with ease), the plane was only used once by Roosevelt on his way to Yalta, just a few months before he died. Even if he hadn’t died, I could see why he wouldn’t be keen on using it again. Everything in the plane is now enclosed behind glass, which probably doesn’t help, but even still, the plane was extremely narrow. I mean, this was mainly because the seating areas were bigger and nicer than a normal plane, but it wasn’t that opulent, and I’m not sure how someone in a wheelchair would be able to navigate the aisle.
The planes did get progressively nicer over the years, and by the time of Kennedy’s plane (the first to be known solely as Air Force One; earlier planes had actual names, like Truman’s Independence and Eisenhower’s Columbine), things were up to the sort of standard you might expect inside a presidential jet. Kennedy’s is by far the most famous plane here, because of those unfortunate events in Dallas. This is the plane that Johnson was sworn in as president on, and the plane that then transported Johnson, Jackie Kennedy, and JFK’s body back to Washington, so it was pretty cool to see something so historic, even if I couldn’t quite tell how they managed to squeeze all those people in there for that famous picture of Johnson’s swearing in. I guess the seating arrangements were changed around for subsequent presidents (and some of the seats had to be removed to fit JFK’s coffin in).
The hangar next to the presidential one was also part of the museum, and contained test planes and other experimental aircraft. Not actually caring about test planes anywhere near as much as presidential history, I walked through there pretty quickly, but my boyfriend seemed to enjoy it, though he was most excited for the Blackbird, which turned out to be back inside the main museum building.
So after an hour at the presidential and test hangars, we were bussed (securely) back to the main museum, where we headed back in to see the WW2 gallery. I love all the pin-up girl adorned planes (in addition to the painted jackets) so these were fun to look at, even if we did pass through the gallery pretty quickly, as we were getting tired at this point.
At first glance, it appeared that this was all there was to the museum (I say all there was, but even those two galleries made for a large museum), but down a narrow hallway, we discovered the Aviation Hall of Fame (which we unfortunately just did not have time to visit), and the rest of the galleries, including Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and Space.
These got no more than a passing glance, however, because as I mentioned before, my boyfriend REALLY wanted to see the Blackbird, and also a space shuttle. Well, the Blackbird evidently did not disappoint (apparently there’s also one inside the American Air Museum in Duxford, but I think that’s closed right now anyway). However, it turned out there wasn’t an actual space shuttle in the museum, but they had the next best thing, in the form of a training shuttle.
This was actually quite cool, because the sides were cut away, allowing you to see the cockpit and living quarters more clearly, including, much to my delight, an astronaut toilet. Fortunately, the volunteer there was only too happy to explain exactly how it worked; a complicated system of straps, hoses, wet wipes, and bags that made me grateful for gravity.
We didn’t really have time to look at anything else, because we wanted to see the Wright Brothers old shop and museum before it closed (this was the disadvantage of having to drive so long to get there), but to be honest, there is a limit to how long I can spend looking at non-presidential planes, so this was the perfect amount of time to spend there, in my eyes. We did of course make a stop in the gift shop for astronaut ice cream (it comes in so many flavours now! When I was a kid, you could only get neapolitan. I recommend the mint chocolate chip), and they appeared to have a number of cool other aviation themed items, even aviator jackets (though you’d have to paint them yourself, which is a skill I lack, as I learned in my punk days). This museum is incredibly large, so I think it’s awesome that it’s free, and can definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in aviation, though if you’re not big on it, or military history, you might be as bored by it as I was as a kid (fortunately, even though I’m still not that into aviation (aside from putting my butt where Damian Lewis’s butt was), my fascination with presidential history and WWI meant there was plenty of stuff to hold my attention). 4/5.