The U.S. Air Force Museum is for people who don't think the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum has enough to offer. Aviation buffs can lose themselves for a few hours at Air and Space. In Dayton, they can lose themselves for a few days.
The Smithsonian has 66 planes at the mall (and another 142 in Suitland). Dayton has about 300 planes in four buildings and outdoors. Planes are on the floor or hanging from the ceiling; smaller planes are snuggled under the wings of bigger planes.
How big? The B-36, B-52 and XB-70 bombers and a C-124 transport (which you can walk through). How small? A tiny 1930s Messenger, designed to be carried inside a dirigible.
While the Smithsonian is a general-purpose museum, Dayton is military -- primarily Air Force -- with a couple of Navy planes (the Douglas Devastator torpedo bomber and the PBY flying boat, for example) thrown in under Air Force designations. And some mainly commercial craft are represented under their military guise of transport and liaison planes.
The planes are surrounded by wall and floor displays, giving the history of the Air Force as well as of aviation -- information on early flights and fliers, such as Eugene Ballard, the only black pilot in World War I, or telling how the first Army pilots (the Air Force wasn't created until 1947) were trained -- basically by mail.
There also are wind tunnels, engines, uniforms and more. Increasingly, the museum is putting its planes in tableaus to tell stories. Next to the B-25 is a mannequin of Jimmy Doolittle preparing for his 1942 bombing raid on Tokyo. The P-36 is about to be boarded by a man still in his pajamas as he rushes to defend Pearl Harbor during the attack.
(The pilot on whom the scene is based recently visited the museum and had the staff tuck the pajama pants inside his boots for greater accuracy -- he said he tried to be as military as he could under the circumstances.)
Ohio is beginning to push its claim as the birthplace of aviation -- its new auto license plates proclaim this. The Wright Brothers were from Dayton, and after their first flights in North Carolina, where they went because they were looking for bad weather, they returned home for a few years of further testing. The Army used McCook Field near Dayton for its early testing, and it was here that the museum began in 1923. While there are displays about Leonardo da Vinci and gliders, the oldest real planes are a 1909 Bleriot (the kind that amazed the world by flying across the English Channel) and a modified Wright Brothers Model B Flyer from the same era.
Nearby is a letter from the government telling the brothers to forget their silly idea. It took President Theodore Roosevelt's personal intervention to get the military interested in aviation. Some two dozen foreign aircraft are in the collection, with almost all the World War I group foreign-made because that was what U.S. pilots flew. Startling is the Fokker D VII, decorated in the colors of German pilot Lt. Rudolph Stark -- World War I dabbled camouflage and pink.
Some of the planes are unique in that they were used by famous people in infamous situations, and some are rare surviving examples of their type. One of the stars of the World War II era is a sleek P-61 Northrop Black Widow fighter, almost totally black to blend into the night in which it fought. There also is the inadvertent World War II British semi-stealth fighter, the DeHavilland Mosquito, which made only a faint impression on German radar because it was made mostly of wood.
Then came the jets. America's first operating jet, the F-80 Lockheed Shooting Star, is there, but so are earlier jets, the P-59 Bell Aeracomet, begun in 1942, and a German ME-262, which caused havoc late in the war.
The P-59 is in the museum's two-part annex, the part devoted to research and development aircraft. Among other planes in this hangar are a Lockheed F-12, a forerunner of the SR-71 spy plane; the North American F-107, which cost $30.8 million and was used for less than a year; and Republic's F-91, which had a top speed of 984 mph, but could stay aloft only 25 minutes at a time.
It's safe to assume that if it was Air Force and flew, it probably is here. And toss in a couple of rockets, missiles and spacecraft for good measure.
WHEN YOU GO ...
Getting there: The museum is just east of Dayton, Ohio, close to Interstate 70, about an hour west of Columbus. Exit at Interstate 675 south; signs for the museum appear after about nine miles.
Tours: These are worth taking because the guides offer information not provided elsewhere. Guides must cover a lot of ground quickly, so plan on also going through alone for the more complete visit.
Activities: An Imax theater has several showings daily, and there's a British Harrier jump jet simulator.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's.
Cost: Admission and parking free.
Information: 937-255-3284; Web site: www.wpafb.af.mil/museum.
Pub Date: 02/21/99