I’ve mentioned before how my brother is not necessarily the biggest fan of museums (which isn’t to say that he won’t visit them, just that he doesn’t get excited about them like I do), but he does like military museums (if you couldn’t tell from my Belgium posts), and there is one right in Canton, Ohio that I hadn’t yet been to (though he had, on multiple occasions). So, we decided to visit it together, and go see They Shall Not Grow Old right afterwards (since I liked it so much when I watched it on the BBC I was more than happy to watch it again on a big screen) for a full-day of war-related fun (if war is ever “fun”).
London: The RAF Museum
There’s a reason I haven’t been to the RAF Museum before now, and it is this: London is a bloody big place, especially when you’re using public transport, and Colindale is absolutely nowhere near where I live. In fact, it took so long to get there, I was tempted to write “London(ish)” in the post title, but that isn’t strictly fair, because Colindale is as much a part of Greater London as Wimbledon is (even if it did have me wondering if it would actually be faster to get to the RAF Museum’s Cosford location than their “London” one). As usual, my main motivation for finally taking the plunge was food-related. Namely, bagels. Bagels are one of my favourite foods, and it is nigh-on impossible to get a decent one in London (I absolutely hate cream cheese, so I tend to either eat bagels plain, or with peanut butter or marmalade, but most bagels here are treated solely as vehicles for fatty toppings, and aren’t actually tasty enough to eat by themselves). I’ve tried all the Brick Lane “beigel” places, and found them seriously lacking (and when a chunk of whatever one of the employees was gnawing on flew out of her mouth and into my bag one time, that was it for me. I’m gagging a little just thinking about it), and some place in Camden run by an American that was supposed to offer “authentic New York bagels” was even worse – they were soft and flabby. I’d been hearing good things about Carmelli’s for years, but Golders Green is a hell of a long way to travel just for bagels. But if I combined that trip with a visit to the RAF Museum, which is only a couple stops farther up the Northern Line, I could just about justify it.
But more on the bagels later, let’s talk museum! The RAF Museum was a short hike from Colindale station (fine on the way there, a bit too long on the way back when I was tired from walking around hangars all afternoon), and pretty much looked like a big construction site, because that’s what it is right now. Two of the halls (Battle of Britain and Sunderland Halls) are currently closed for renovation (so I’ll probably have to do a redux at some point), but that’s OK because there were still five halls left to see, even though we had to walk past quite a lot of construction to get to them. The museum is free, though they charge a fee to sit inside a couple of the cooler planes, or to go on the Red Arrows 4D “experience.” A sign outside had recommended that we start with the WWI Hall, but since we weren’t too sure where it was at that point, we just headed straight into the main building, which meant we inadvertently saved the best for last (we asked the guy at the admissions desk who halfheartedly tried to sell us a guidebook where to start, and he vaguely waved his hand in the direction of the hangar entrance, and didn’t mention anything about the WWI Hall, so we initially thought maybe that was closed for construction too. I got the impression that the staff weren’t tremendously enthusiastic about the museum).
I’ve been to a fair few aviation museums before, most memorably on this blog, the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, where I got to go on FDR’s presidential plane, and Wings in Balcombe, where my ass touched the same place as Damian Lewis’s (it’s kind of a long story, if you haven’t read it yet). The RAF Museum, at least the main building, was more old-fashioned and in need of updating than even Wings. The aircraft didn’t appear to be arranged in any particular order as far as I could tell. There was a neat shark-style WWII plane (the Curtiss Kittyhawk III) right when we walked in, next to the old gondola from “His Majesty’s Airship R33” (circa 1919…I don’t think the king ever flew in it, it was just named after him in the way that ships are, since it was considered a ship of the air. It did carry a band at one point though, to promote the sale of Victory Bonds, but people on the ground wouldn’t have been able to see or hear them, so pretty pointless really). It just seemed like aircraft from the first half (or so) of the 20th century were scattered all over the hangar, with no real rhyme or reason to them.
Even worse was the signage. I know I’m usually an advocate for old-fashioned signs, but these were particularly terrible examples. The labels on the actual planes weren’t so bad, but there was additional signage about various RAF engagements on the walls, and this was just appalling – boring, overly wordy, and neglected (there were whole sections of the text completely missing where it had given up the ghost and just peeled off the walls. At one point, there was a section on nuclear power, and I was quite surprised to see it, because the signs genuinely looked like they pre-dated the nuclear age). I can certainly see why they’re re-doing some of the other hangars, and I hope this one is next, because it sure needs it!
Actually, they do appear to be in the process of renovation, because there were sections closed off where they were removing the carpet in an attempt to make the hangars look more like hangars, apparently (though the carpet is the least of their problems). The singularly uninviting looking cafe in the middle of one of the halls certainly wasn’t helping with that authentic “hangar” atmosphere either. After the hall of miscellaneous aircraft (in which there were admittedly some cool things, like a flying boat that had actually been turned into a houseboat at some point, before being restored), there was a room of helicopters, which was still remarkably unengaging, but at least there was a theme.
The hall of mainly WWII aircraft was better, in fact, it was the best part of the main building. There was a large display about American pilots who came over to Britain during the war, both American units which were stationed here, and Americans who joined the RAF prior to America entering the war, which I found quite interesting, despite it suffering from many of the same problems as the text in the first hall. My favourite plane here was undoubtedly the massive Lancaster Bomber…you’ll see why at the end of the post (hint: it has something to do with my absolutely juvenile sense of humour).
This section was also more engaging because there was actually a plane you could crawl into (you can go inside the Spitfire too, but only if you pay a tenner first. I think I’ll stick to the free planes, thanks), and a couple other aircraft you could peer inside (including a Chinook you could walk through the back of). I also thought the small display about ejector seats was reasonably diverting.
After passing through the lame gift shop (the only postcards they had were those “Events from the Day you were Born” ones that looked like they’d been sitting around for a good twenty years. They were all yellowed, with curled edges), we left the building in search of the WWI Hall that appeared to be somewhere around the corner (judging by the map outside that said it was still open, since the staff certainly weren’t volunteering any information), but on the way, we encountered the “Milestones” building, so stopped inside. This apparently contained “milestone” aircraft from the last century or so of aviation, though there was nothing by the Wright Brothers (a 1909 Bleriot was the earliest I saw), save for a yellow line on the wall to indicate the length of their test flight at Kitty Hawk.
Having not learned our lesson from the disappointing first building, we climbed up to the enticingly-named “Control Tower,” only to be met with an empty room (that admittedly had good views of the hangar, but I was hoping for something more…interactive), but on the way up, we encountered a wall of “Flying Aces,” so I’m presenting to you the best moustache of the lot, so you can save yourself the bother of climbing all the way up there too. For all that this were meant to be about “milestones” of aviation, and the hall clearly having been updated more recently than the main building, this was still not particularly impressive, and the displays concluded with a weird section sponsored by Oman about the relationship between it and the RAF, which read more like a tourist advertisement for Oman than anything else (didn’t convince me to go there though).
The final hangar currently open to the public is the WWI Hall, located, appropriately enough, inside the UK’s first aircraft factory building. It has been very recently redone, thanks to a HLF grant, and it shows, because this was amazing compared to the rest of the museum. It actually still had the look of an historic building on the inside (my favourite part was the authentic “Thomas Crapper” pull chain toilets in the bathroom. I love those. It feels like you’re really accomplishing something when you pull the chain), but managed to incorporate modern, interactive, and entertaining elements.
The hall contained a number of really old planes, with display cases in the middle that explained more about the RFC and RNAS (the precursors to the RAF) uniforms, as well as other elements of early military aviation. The surprised fellow above is actually demonstrating a flight mask, as well as some early “electrically heated” clothing that apparently the pilots could only bear to turn on for a few minutes at a time, because the clothing got so hot, they risked burning themselves (it looks like that poor “surprised” pilot might have just burned himself in a delicate area)!
This hangar also had the interactive elements that were so sorely lacking in the other hangars. In addition to a few activities including a game that involved matching up aerial photos of terrain with the actual terrain to see if anything had changed (surprisingly difficult), there was also a mock-up of a biplane, complete with gun and and communicating tube, so you could satisfy your inner Henry Jones Sr, only without blowing up your own tail fin (because there wasn’t one); and an old-school flight simulator that I quite happily flung myself around in for a while (it honestly felt like I was going to pitch myself out the side, because there was no seat belt or anything, but that was half the fun).
There was also that much needed personal touch in this hall. Whereas the other hangars had just included long dull lists of the accomplishments of various well-decorated RAF pilots, this one actually had amusing anecdotes, like one from a pilot and his friend who flew over a beach and pelted German sunbathers with oranges, which was pretty hilarious (he said they laughed so hard, they almost fell out of the plane). I love that kind of stuff.
If the WWI Hall is an example of where the RAF Museum is headed, then I definitely want to come back when they reopen the Battle of Britain and Sunderland Halls, and see what other delights they have in store (to be honest though, I was kind of relieved that not all the hangars were open when we visited, because we were there for ages, and I was exhausted by the time we left. I didn’t want to see two additional ones!). I do hope they can afford to redo the main body of the museum too, because it is sorely in need of it! Even with what’s there now, it is the kind of museum that takes hours to see, and might be better to make two trips if you’re very keen on historic aviation and don’t want to wear yourself out. Because it is free, I can’t complain too much, but the difference in quality between old and new is too striking to ignore. So, 4.5/5 for the new WWI Hall, but only 3/5 for the museum as a whole. Oh, and about those bagels…Carmelli’s is where it’s at. There were only a few flavours available (mainly just different types of seeds, which was OK, since I do really like seeded bagels, though I like blueberry ones even better), but they were fresh out of the oven, and pretty damn delicious. I might have to make the trek out to Golders Green again sooner than expected, because now that I know I can get good bagels, I’m gonna want them all the time!
Croydon, UK: Croydon Airport Museum
I’d been trying to visit the Croydon Airport Museum for months now, but because it’s only open on the first Sunday of the month, it seemed like something always came up to stop me. Fortunately, at the start of January, I’d just come back from America, I was too jet-lagged for anything more ambitious, and the weather was terrible, so there was nothing better to do than sit in traffic for an hour on our way out to Croydon.
The museum is free to visit, and there’s free parking out front, although spaces were hard to come by on the day we were there, apparently because there was an airplane enthusiasts’ convention taking place in the hotel next door, which was also part of the airport complex at one time (you had to pay to visit that, so I can’t report on the enthusiasts). But, we managed to squeeze into a spot, and ran through the driving rain into the museum. A tour was starting up right when we got there, which we joined because I was concerned we wouldn’t be able to view the upper levels of the museum without it (and judging by the signs on the door leading upstairs, that appears to be the case). The “tour” mainly consisted of a man pointing out photos on the ground floor, and explaining a bit about the airport’s history, but once we got to the upper galleries, we were mercifully free to explore them at our leisure.
Croydon Airport started life back in the 1910s as the Beddington Aerodrome and Waddon Aerodrome, which merged at the end of WWI to become Croydon Aerodrome (why do Brits say “aeroplane,” and “aerodrome,” but it’s still called an “airport?” I seriously keep checking to make sure I’m spelling it right, and it’s definitely “airport.”) In the 1920s, it became the first international airport in the world, serving as a base for Imperial Airways (they flew all over the Empire, as it then was, though it seemed rather pricey, with flights to Africa running 100+ pounds in 1940s money (which is apparently the equivalent of £5000 today. That can’t be right. Well, maybe for first class…)). The airport played a major role in any number of historic events, including sheltering The Spirit of St Louis after Lindbergh’s famous flight, serving as the launching point for Amy Johnson’s flight to Australia (the first female solo flight there), developing the concept of air traffic control, and serving as a fighter station during the Battle of Britain. However, by the 1950s, it couldn’t compete anymore with the other airfields that had popped up around London, and it closed in 1959, when much of it was re-purposed, and the rest destroyed. Today, all that remains is the museum building, and the aforementioned hotel next door.
There was a large model of the airport in its prime on the ground floor, but that was probably the highlight in this area. Otherwise, it consisted of posters about Amy Johnson, and walls covered in pictures (and the Cloud 9 Cafe). There were more pictures in the long hallway leading upstairs (we also passed a room where some women were busy chopping lots of onions, presumably for the bar at the back of the museum, which doesn’t actually appear to have anything to do with the museum, unlike the cafe), but save for the one of a young George VI after he completed his flight training, my interest wasn’t really piqued until we got to the caricatures on the stairs.
I love a good caricature, and these were hilariously excellent, featuring various pilots and other airline staff, and usually some sort of pun on their surname. The upstairs gallery was just two small rooms (which were rather packed when the whole tour group arrived up there), but the outer room had loads of dressing-up boxes I was itching to get my hands on (you all know I also love an aviator jacket), though I couldn’t really because I was embarrassed to act like a four year old in front of so many people.
So I settled for looking around the room next door, which contained mementos from the early days of aviation. How comfy does that whimsically upholstered chair look? That was an actual plane seat, an upgrade from the wicker chair next to it, which was used in even earlier passenger planes (I’d imagine you’d be sliding around, unless they bolted them to the floor).
There was also a scale where you could weigh yourself and calculate which flight you would have made it on (they used to have to weigh each passenger to make sure the plane could carry them all, and then arrange the seating so the plane was properly balanced. I don’t think they’d get away with that nowadays). The funniest part was probably the helpful booklets directed at first time fliers back in the day; among other things, like on-board fashion advice, they were instructed that there was no need to lean when the plane was turning, as the plane could make it without their help!
We also had the opportunity to go up in the old control tower, where there were a number of delightful activities. I had fun calculating where a plane was coming from based on the degree of its approach to various airports (having fun with something involving math! Imagine!), and quickly identifying planes based on their outlines. There was a computer game flight simulator, but children were hogging that, so I didn’t get to try it.
I did enjoy all the fabulous old airline posters (wish we still had those today, instead of obnoxious commercials with Jennifer Aniston advertising first class flights I’ll never be able to afford in my life). I’d certainly head to the Channel Islands for a tenner, but that would be about 200 quid in modern money, so maybe not. Damn inflation. You could probably get Easyjet for less than that, if they even fly to Jersey.
They had more Amy Johnson memorabilia up here as well, including the flight bag that was all that was recovered from her last flight, due to the unpleasant nature of her death. Basically, she joined the ATA when war broke out, and she was flying over the Thames Estuary in 1941 when she was forced to bail out of her plane. Her parachute came down over the water, which was extremely cold, and a nearby ship tried to save her, but they were unable to pull her aboard and she accidentally got sucked into the ship’s propeller when it got too close (not sure if she was still alive when she got sucked in, but I hope not!), which explains why they couldn’t recover her body. But that felt (?) rendering of her is all kinds of adorable!
Though we weren’t allowed in the actual control room part of the tower, which is behind glass, we could peer in through the windows and get a pretty good view. It looks like it was still a fairly low-tech operation in the 1950s, with controllers having to make actual calculations by hand. Pretty cool though.
Though the museum didn’t quite live up to its potential, given all that happened here, I still enjoyed myself, and for a free museum, I can’t really complain. I do definitely think they could do more with the gallery space downstairs, and maybe display some of the items in a manner that would make them easier to look at (not everything had a caption, and sometimes there was too much stuff in the cases), but it is volunteer run, and they’re dependent on donations, so I recognise they probably don’t have the kind of money to do everything they’d like. It is a beautiful old building; the ground floor bears a distinct resemblance to an old-fashioned train station, and I would have loved to have been able to catch an actual flight here back in the day (though obviously that would never fly now (pun intended) with security regulations and all). All in all, it was a nice little reminder of a more civilised time in aviation (when one wasn’t forced to sit behind an obnoxious man who insisted on reclining his seat all the way for the duration of the flight including meals and LANDING! And then bouncing around in his seat so it kept bashing into my (short) legs all the while. All while the man next to me incessantly cracked his knuckles. Ugh, sorry, the memory of that hellacious flight is still far too recent), and a good way to kill an hour. 3/5.
Dayton, Ohio: Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center and the Wright Cycle Company
So this is what we rushed out of the Air Force Museum to see. There are actually five different NPS-run sites scattered around Dayton, and I think about six more aviation related sites partnered with them (the NPS website is a little confusing), so there was no way we were going to be able to see them all (though if you have more time, and you pick up a special passport in the gift shop, you can apparently get a free stuffed “Wil-bear” if you get it stamped at seven of the historic sites. Not sure if there’s a charge for the passport). Therefore, we settled on one the Wright brothers had actually spent time in; the former Wright Cycle Company, and the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center next door.
This too, was free to visit, and we began with the “interpretive center,” which I guess is just a fairly interactive museum? I think we were probably meant to start upstairs, but being contrary, we walked through the ground floor first, which explained the mechanics of flight with the help of a variety of hands-on examples.
Someone had taken the trouble to build quite a few little wooden models of planes, and you could do various things to them, like putting them in a mini wind tunnel, or tilting the body of the little figure strapped inside to see how it affects steering. Here it was also explained why the Wright brothers chose to test out their plane in North Carolina, rather than give their home state of Ohio the glory (those smug North Carolinians with their “First in Flight” license plates). Basically, they needed somewhere that was both windy and isolated, since they were paranoid someone else was going to steal their idea. After scouting out a number of locations, it was found that Kitty Hawk best fitted the bill, particularly the “isolated” bit. To get there around the turn of the century required travelling by train, boat, horse-drawn cart, and possibly automobile as well; I would imagine the trek alone would have been a powerful motivator for them to perfect their airplane!
Upstairs, we got to learn more about the early life of the Wrights. Although they did have some formal schooling, they never technically graduated from high school, and all their mechanical skills were essentially self-taught. As young students, they turned their hands to printing, publishing a small newspaper with their friends, which gave them the know-how to later build their own printing press (no one could ever figure out quite how it worked, but it did!).
The museum talked about their close-knit family life, including their sister Katharine, who travelled with them and helped them promote their flying machine (she was mentioned at the tiny International Women’s Air and Space Museum in Cleveland, but it was nice to learn more about her, since she seemed like a pretty cool lady. She was far more personable than Orville and Wilbur, and was vital to making their reputations in aviation circles, which didn’t stop Orville from breaking off all contact with her when she decided to get married. What an ass). The museum also discussed the life of Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African-American poet who lived a few blocks away (you can visit his house as well) and was friends with the Wright brothers. This seemed a bit out of place with all the aviation stuff, but I suppose Dayton doesn’t have that many famous people, so they reckoned they might as well combine them all in one museum. Besides, they were friends, so at least there’s some sort of connection.
Also upstairs was the National Parachute Museum, which was really just one small room, but I still learned more about parachutes than I ever wanted to. There were interactive things in here too, to explain how parachutes worked, and you could feel all the different fabrics parachutes have been made from over the years.
Finally, we headed over to the old Wright Cycle Company. The building is apparently kept locked (at least at non-peak times) so we had to ask at the desk to be escorted over by a ranger. He gave us a brief tour, and then stayed and very patiently answered all of my parents’ many, many questions (since we were the only people there). He mostly talked about the Cycle Company, and the relevance of cycling to early flight, as the steering mechanisms in bikes and planes were similar. Essentially, cycle manufacture was the perfect business for the Wrights to be in to give them a jump on aviation. According to the ranger, without the Wright brothers, manned flight might not have happened for another decade, which would pretty much have changed the entire history of the world, especially the First World War. I mean, obviously he was a Wright enthusiast, but it’s still something that’s interesting to think about.
And speaking of the Wright’s cycles, they had some pretty luxe models. Although factory-made bikes were well in the range of the middle class, and the Wrights did carry some of those, their bespoke models cost around $65, the equivalent of around $1500 today, which is probably not extortionate if you’re really into cycling, but that’s more than 5 times as much as I’ve ever spent on a bike. And of course, the few that have survived today are probably worth millions, but they’re all in museums, including the one we saw at the US Air Force Museum earlier that day.
I reckon the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center and Cycle Company, though much smaller, might have a more widespread appeal than the Air Force Museum (or maybe not, because it’s all aviation when you get down to it). After all, everyone has heard of the Wright brothers, and it’s neat to see where they got their start (I feel like I must have been here before at some point, but probably when I was too young to remember it). It’s also nice that it’s free, as are most of the other NPS aviation sites around town, and I could definitely see spending a day going around and visiting them all. Worth a stop for any history buff in the Dayton area; although the museum isn’t terribly big, it is informative, and seeing the Wright brothers’ shop is undeniably cool. 3.5/5.
Dayton, Ohio: National Museum of the US Air Force
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.
Adventures Around Ohio: A Post of Odds and Ends
There are a few places in Ohio I visited that for one reason or another don’t merit their own write-up, but I’d still like to mention them, so this post will serve as a kind of dumping ground for the odd ones out (I’m so eloquent, aren’t I?).
First up, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Cleveland’s Public Square. I’ve admired it from the exterior many, many times before, but had never been inside. I’m glad I was finally able to check out the interior as well, because it was pretty awesome. The man inside gave us a brief history of the monument, which was built in 1894 by architect Levi Scofield as a memorial to deceased Civil War soldiers from Cuyahoga County. The interior holds a few glass cases with various Civil War memorabilia, , as well as some information about African American and Jewish soldiers.
It also features some gorgeous decorations, like delightful stained glass windows commemorating different divisions of the military, and the most special thing of all – four bronze relief sculptures that dramatically depict events from the Civil War (with great artistic licence taken, mind), including the emancipation of the slaves, the ladies of the Soldier’s Aid Society (with Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes), and the beginning and end of the war. Lincoln is superbly rendered. The walls are lined with the names of all the fallen soldiers, and a bust of Scofield hangs above the door. Obviously, the exterior is very attractive as well, and the lady at the top was modelled after Scofield’s wife. Going inside is free, and only takes a couple of minutes, so I definitely recommend doing so if you visit Public Square on a weekday.
Secondly, I paid a visit to the International Women’s Air and Space Museum inside Burke Lakefront Airport. It’s also free to visit, as it is located just inside the airport’s entryway. It consists of a few display cases around the centre of the room, and some more lining the hall, with information and objects belonging to famous female astronauts and aviatrixes. Everyone knows about Amelia Earhart and Sally Ride, but there were many lesser-known women featured here as well, like Bessie Coleman, and Katharine Wright (sister to the Wright brothers, and owner of a gorgeous lace dress that she wore to meet President Taft, or T-fat, as I call him).
There were even a couple of planes, including the “Purple Puddy Tat,” and a stumpy little plane used for training exercises. The NASA section had a few interactive bits, so you could practice exercising in space, though sadly, there was no practice astronaut toilet. This museum is quite small, but it was better than I was expecting, and it’s always nice to learn more about women who were pioneers in their field, so I hope by posting about it, I can bring some attention to it, as it seems somewhat overlooked. They even have a shop, so again, please consider stopping in if you are downtown and have some time to kill.
Next, there’s the Canton Art Museum, which I only popped into briefly during a “First Night” event (basically a kind of arty open house thing). It seemed pretty small, only three rooms, but there were craft stalls set up around the place for the special event, so some parts of the museum may not have been open, I’m not sure. The parts I did see featured all 20th-21st century artists, including a special exhibit on environmental themed art, which was actually quite cool. Those polar bears above are made from plastic utensils, and there were lots of other naturey type paintings. And they seemed to have detailed explanations on a lot of the pieces, which I appreciate, as I’m definitely more of a reader than an observer when it comes to art.
Then, there’s Farnam Manor. I was reluctant to even post about Farnam at all, because despite appearances to the contrary, I really don’t like to say only bad things about a place, especially somewhere historical, but this place was seriously awful. I went for one of the “lantern tours” for Halloween, which they stress is not a typical haunted house experience. What it is, in fact, is parting with $20 for the privilege of waiting in an unheated carriage house filled with creepy dolls for an hour, because although I called in advance and was told I could show up any time, the people running the house were incredibly disorganised and didn’t employ enough staff.
I knew I was in trouble when a group of incredibly earnest and overenthusiastic preteens showed up who had evidently been on the tour before, and were avid “ghost hunters.” This meant they took pictures with flash every two seconds throughout the tour, hunting for “orbs,” so I was basically blinded the entire time. The only other people on the tour seemed to be ones who actually believed in ghosts. Now, I like visiting “haunted” stuff, and I won’t say I’m entirely disbelieving when I’m left alone in a dark room at night, but I am generally a skeptic, and these people were just over-the-top gullible. The tour ended with them asking yes or no questions of a candle, which appeared to be responding because the woman leading the tour just happened to open the window. The entire tour was really lame, contained almost no history (and the few “facts” she did spit out were incorrect), and had weird “historical actors” in several of the room, one of whom was so enthusiastic that he almost crushed me with a door.
I’ve posted some pictures I took around the house so you can look for orbs or mist too…although I suspect my camera lens wasn’t dirty enough. There was also an outdoor “Trail of Terror” that had crappy lighting, and wound through a forest, which I ended up leaving early because it was so lame and I just wanted to get the hell out of there. Seriously, avoid this place. It is NOT a good time.
Finally, to end on a more positive note, I visited the annual Apple Butter festival/Oxtoberfest (that’s not a typo, they roast an ox) in Burton. I went to this quite a few times as a kid, and mostly just remember eating apple fritters whilst freezing my ass off, but I was pleasantly surprised by my visit this year. It helped that it was still really warm outside, but I also think more buildings were open than in the past. The festival is held in the historic village of Burton, and so many of the old buildings are open to the public, some with costumed interpreters practicing various trades, but the apple butter is also a key attraction, with people taking turns stirring massive cauldrons full of it over an open fire, and then canning it, so you can buy a still-warm jar.
Of course, it is a festival, so expect lots of other carnival type (i.e. fried) foods. The apple fritters are still there, and definitely a treat, as are caramel apples, freshly cut fries, and funnel cakes. You’ll also find a variety of craft stalls. It’s held during the peak of leaf season in Ohio, and Burton is fairly rural, with cute shops on the main street, so it’s a good chance to take in the scenery and indulge your greasy food cravings. I definitely appreciate the fact that there’s some history on offer as well, and people-watching at these sorts of events is a must!
Well, I think that about does it for now as far as NE Ohio is concerned, though you can expect more Ohio posts when I go back again next month for the holidays!