By David A. F. Sweet
Unless it’s the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it’s unusual to hear a museum in Ohio being touted as a must-see experience.
A four-hour drive from Chicago, the National Museum of the United States Air Force is an eye-opening jaunt through the history of aviation. The curatorial expertise on display at this museum outside of Dayton matches anything found in our biggest cities.
Hanging above you are some of the earliest flying machines known to man. In front of you are crash helmets and bombs along with medals, propellers, engines and more — all from the dawn of the flying machine.
For those whose only knowledge of air flights during World War I involve Snoopy and the Red Baron, the knowledge and material provided at the museum is riveting (including the story of the Red Baron himself, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, who was shot down and killed in 1918). Dozens of planes and weapons populate the World War II Gallery. The size of the C124 — a staple during the Korean War — as seen from the inside and the outside is awesome to behold. Witnessing the sleekness of a supersonic jet is also part of the tour, and simulators nearby let the young (and young at heart) get a sense of what a ride is like. Then to encounter towering missiles that, one assumes, were once pointed at the former Soviet Union leaves one impressed at the fear they could engender.
I thought I knew quite a bit about World War II, but I was proven wrong. There are World War II battles discussed that I had never heard of; did you know that Japanese took over some Aleutian Islands off Alaska during the war? There’s other surprising information. President Ronald Reagan served in the Air Force? Granted, because of poor eyesight he never flew a plane; he made training films in Burbank for the troops Amid all this, there’s even an exhibit on the Allies’ liberation of concentration camp prisoners during World War II.
Why is the largest aviation museum in the world — which is free and open all year, save for three days — located in Ohio? Orville and Wilbur Wright’s work here led to the flight at Kitty Hawk, and they returned to Ohio in 1904 and made improvements to the Wright Flyer. The Wright-Patterson Air Force Base where the museum is located stretches across 8,000 acres, so it has plenty of room to host its four massive hangars. (Be prepared for a robust walk, though dozens of electric wheelchairs are poised at the entrance for those who need them)
I have been to both National Air and Space Museums in the Washington, D.C. area and, despite their strengths, they can’t compare to the Midwest’s contribution to aviation history. With Veterans Day approaching, consider a visit to one of our military’s most impressive collections.
Unsung Gems columnist David A. F. Sweet is the author of Three Seconds in Munich. E-mail him at email@example.com.