National Museum of the Air Force

Along with this year´s New York City Marathon (see my post about it here), the other key visit in our trip to the US was the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

Part of the National Aviation Heritage Area (also including the Wright Cycle Company and the Huffman Prairie Flying Field), this museum displays probably the largest collection of aircraft in the world, with more than 360 items, and definitely the most remarkable for western military and experimental aircraft.

Located inside the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the museum has three separated areas of exhibition: 1) 6 big hangars grouped together and devoted to military aircraft, following chronological order, and related to the relevant conflicts of the past century in which they flew; 2) two hangars in the “active side” of the Base devoted to presidential aircraft and the Research & Development (R&D) prototypes; and finally 3) an open-air static display of transport and electronic warfare airplanes.

It is to be noted that, as many other museums in the US (i.e. the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museums in Washington, DC), it has free entrance. However, for the non-US residents, one may have to consider the cost of opportunity of traveling to Dayton instead of going to other more common spots when visiting the US. I leave this consideration to each reader. Ours was clear this time.

For a convenience donation of around US 4$, you can get the map shown below, also an “aircraft locator” of the exhibition, which gives visual hint of the scale of the collection:

Exhibition map and plane locator of NMAF

Exhibition map and plane locator of NMAF

I prepared a dedicated post to the R&D Gallery due to the relation of the aircraft displayed there with the ebooks of NASA I have been reviewing in this blog. However, I want to summarize here some of the highlights of each exhibition, including the R&D Gallery. Let´s get started.

Early Years and World War II

The “Early years” hangar displays the aircraft that would compose the first air forces. From the first Wright Military Flyer of 1909 to an absolute classic such as the Sopwith Camel. For spaniards, the display of the Kellet K2/K3 autogiro explains that it is partly base on the De La Cierva´s design.

To me, the highlights of the “World War II” hangar to be mentioned are the Boeing B-17 and B-29 bomber fortresses, and definitely the North American B-25B Mitchell, which formed Lt. Col. Doolittle´s fleet for the Tokyo Raid. This episode is probably best known to the general public through the Hollywood blockbuster Pearl Harbor. The movie features Alec Baldwin as Doolittle, and gives a glimpse of the modification efforts to get the type embarked on aircraft carriers.

The beautiful and historic fighters Supermarine Spitfire and North American P-51D Mustang are displayed there. One design that got legendary engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson fame is its Lockheed P-38L Lightning, first of a saga of revolutionary developments of his acclaimed “Skunk Works”.

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A european note is given by the first jet fighter to be operational, with one exemplar of the Messerschmitt Me-262 twin jet, displayed along with its Junkers-Jumo 004 Turbojet, in a cut-out that allows the view of the variable nozzle mechanism!

Korean War and South East Asia War

In these two galleries, the transition from the last propeller aircraft to the jet powered era can be witnessed.

From the Korean War side, remarkable aircraft are displayed such as the Douglas C-124 Globemaster II, a big aircraft for its time and easy to recognize through its double decker windows.

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As for the fighters, a curious design based on the Mustang is the “twin” fuselage North American F-82 G, built that way to allow a second reserve pilot for long endurance missions. The transition to jet fighters is best represented with the North American F-86A “Sabre”, which was the backbone of many western air forces, including the spanish one.

Neither belonging to Korean war nor to South Asia battles, a Lockheed F-22 Raptor is displayed between the two Hangars. Currently the star of the US air strike forces, we had to take a picture of it:

F-22 Raptor, the main fighter of the modern USAF

F-22 Raptor, the main fighter of the modern USAF

In the South East Asia section (devoted mainly to the Vietnam War, although not mentioned explicitly in the exhibition) more jet and supersonic fighters are displayed, such as the McDonell F-4 Phantom II, the General Dynamics F-111, with its variable swept wings, or the russian MiG-17. I took a picture of a less known fighter, the Republic F-105G Thunderchief, with its characteristic “inverted” jet inlets:

Characteristic air inlets of the F-105

Characteristic air inlets of the F-105

Among the big aircrafts in this hangar, there is one exemplar of the old, although still in service, Boeing B-52D Stratofortress, and a curious Early Warning version of the Lockheed C-121D Constellation. Without the radar modification, the Constellation, aka Connie, is arguably the most beautiful propeller transport aircraft ever built, and another great achievement of “Kelly” Johnson. Now, to conclude with this section, a Hollywood note: with the displayed Fairchild C-123, the visitor may recognise the transporter flown by the “smugglers” Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson in the motion picture Air America 🙂

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It is to be noted that Javier and I were walking through this hangar after having visited the Presidential and R&D galleries, for which the visitor have to schedule the bus transportation at fixed hours. As a result we started to be fatigued because of the many hours spent there and the many aircraft examined. Even for aviation enthusiasts, this outstanding museum can be exhausting. That is the reason why we took less pictures from this point on.

Cold War

Chronologically, the Cold War section comes next, occupying the largest hangar of the complex by far. The picture below provides just a glimpse to half of the hangar:

Partial view of the cold war gallery

Partial view of the cold war gallery

There, many aircraft known to the younger readers are displayed: the fighter General Dynamics F-16, or the great McDonell Douglas F-15 vs. one of its historic rivals, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29.

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Also some of the most known creatures from the Skunk Works are displayed here: The magnificent Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, probably the last great design from Kelly Johnson; the U-2 Dragon Lady, the spy plane that proved to be key in the cuban missile crisis, or the F-117 Nighthawk, the game changer that trully opened the “stealth” era, and that marked the succession of Kelly by Ben Rich as head of the Skunk Works, who struggled against his mentor to build the plane (1).

Some proven aircraft from the Vietnam era are represented again in this gallery, such as the mentioned F-4 or the F-111. Another european note is given by the Panavia Tornado, first trully pan-european fighter aircraft and somehow precursor of the modern Typhoon.

Other aircraft, on the contrary, are rare exemplars to contemplate, such as the Convair B-36 Peacemaker, with its combination of 6 propellers and 2 jet engines. Javier wrote a worthwhile post about it, read it here. The bomber Rockwell B-1B Lancer is another one you don´t get to see every day, same as the Republic A-10 Thunderbolt. And definitely hard to see is the Northrop-Grumman B-2 Spirit, a strategic bomber whose complete fleet is currently in service, and therefore no plane is to be seen in static display, in any museum or in any airshow, but the development static-test unit shown in Ohio.

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Presidential and R&D Gallery

As I mentioned before, you can schedule a visit to the “active side” of the Air Force Base, where two additional hangars are part of the museum´s exhibition.

The Presidential Gallery basically displays aircraft that served different US presidents (the Air Force Ones) and other VIP missions: From the old Douglas VC-54 that transported Frank D. Roosevelt, to the more modern Boeing B-707, VC-137 in its presidential denomination, or also the beautiful Constellation again, then called VC-121 Columbine, which “Ike” Einsenhower was lucky to fly in.

The good thing about these aircraft is that you can enter each of them, and compare the communication equipment installed for the different presidential staffs along the decades, from the old portable projector of Truman´s Douglas VC-118 to the printers, computers and telephones of the VC-137.

Projector to watch filmed records during flights

Projector to watch filmed records during flights

The other hangar is devoted to the R&D Gallery.

Now, if you are an aviation enthusiast, imagine that you are a 3 years old kid entering a candy shop or a toy store. And imagine that you are given paper and pencils and you are asked to draw the most fantastic airplanes you would like to fly. Well, the feeling of the toy store and the results of your drawings is what can be seen in this gallery. It is the ultimate dream of every aerospace engineer.

Altough more detail comes in another post devoted to this gallery, I can´t refrain myself from listing some of them showing some pictures.

You have the prototype for the Blackbird, which is a smaller aircraft, designated YF-12:

The smaller brother of the Blackbird, the YF-12

The smaller brother of the Blackbird, the YF-12

You have a plane with the wings swept forward, the Grumman X-29:

Detail of the forward swept wings and canard surfaces

Detail of the forward swept wings and canard surfaces

The first to break the sound barrier, the legendary Bell X-1:

First supersonic aircraft, the Bell X-1

First supersonic aircraft, the Bell X-1

Or the fastest ever, the rocket powered North American X-15:

Nose detail of the X-15, made of Inconel X material

Nose detail of the X-15, made of Inconel X material

A stealth aircraft that resembles a whale? The Northrop Tacit Blue:

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Or why not “attaching” an additional cockpit for flight controls flight test, the Convair NC-131 H Total-In-Flight-Simulator, or TIFS:

A cockpit "coming out" from other cockpit, the TIFS

A cockpit “coming out” from other cockpit, the TIFS

Or just this big, stilyzed bomber aircraft, the supersonic and magnificent North American XB-70 Valkyre, another unique exemplar only to be seen at NMAF, and so big that was hard to be entirely caught by my camera:

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There are more aircraft exhibited, up to 30 additional types, all unique in their special features. They would open new ways for experimentation in the fields of aerodynamics, flight controls, systems, etc… Alone this hangar is worth the entire visit.

Open Air Display

Finally, before we were about to leave museum, we spent some time in the open air exhibition. There some transport aircraft are in static display.

The first flight test unit of the McDonnell Douglas C-17 Globemaster III, which was filmed in some movies (read here in which ones), or the Lockheed C-130E Hercules . Both types are still in service:

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The Boeing EC-135Snoopy Nose” is a rare type designed for airborne command-and-control missions. Here you can easily understand to what does it owe its name:

Javier in front of the "Snoopy" nose.

Javier in front of the “Snoopy” nose.

To end with the photo gallery, a picture of myself in front of the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter, the predecessor of the C-17, with the big hangars of the museum in the background:

So many aircraft to see inside those hangars, hope to go there again...

So many aircraft to see inside those hangars, hope to go there again…

Final remark

From the reading of this post, it is clear that the visit to the NMAF is a must for aviation enthusiasts. The Wright historical places in the surroundings of the Air Force Base round up a complete review of the history of western aeronautics. However, such a visit should last for some days, otherwise the amount of information and sites to see can be overwhelming.


(1) For aviation enthusiasts I strongly recommend the reading of Ben Rich´s “Skunk Works” a novel-like account of the development of remarkable aircraft during the cold war, with the political context and hundreds of technical and personal anecdotes of Kelly Johnson, Ben Rich and some of the Lockheed´s engineers that built those great aircraft.

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9 Responses to National Museum of the Air Force

  1. beanomics says:

    Not even for aviation enthusiasts, just someone with a bit of curiosity can plan a visit. Perhaps for me? Really interesting reading your post, one more time

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