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The U.S. Air Force Museum

February 2024
3min read

From the Balloon to the Moon

The U.S. Air Force Museum’s collection is not strictly military; it recounts the epic of flight starting well before the Wright brothers. It’s also not solely about the United States: There’s a British Spitfire, for example, that coexists peacefully with a German Me-262. Nor is it limited to operations within Earth’s atmosphere. Spacecraft on display include the Apollo 15 Command Module, which returned from its lunar landing in 1971. Still, as the name suggests, this museum’s focus is on American air power. Think of an aircraft that’s been in the U.S. arsenal, and there’s a good chance you’ll find it here. One of my favorites has long been an F-86H Sabre with skin panels removed so you can study its innards. B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers were produced in vast numbers during World War II, but they’re rare now, and the museum has immaculate examples of each. As for the earlier Martin B-I, which represented a number of firsts, such as internal bomb storage and retractable landing gear, there’s only one left in the world, and it, too, is here.

In one gallery there are biplanes, such as the World War I Curtiss “Jenny,” and, bulging overhead, the Caquot observation balloon, used in both world wars. In another gallery there are the F-117A Nighthawk fighter, the pilotless RQ-1 Predator, and the Advanced Tactical Fighter YF-22.

I remember the first time I took a look at the museum’s Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Beside it was a placard no different from those for other exhibits, with details on wingspan, weight, engines, and other specifications. I absorbed all that but then did a double-take as I read the last line of text, which tersely reports that this is the aircraft that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Just one sentence, easily overlooked. It’s hard to get more low-key that that. Since then some more exhibit panels have been added, with photos and text about this bomber and its place in history. Still, Bockscar , as the airplane was christened, quietly on display near Dayton for some 40 years, has managed to escape the kind of public furor that surrounded its sister ship, Enola Gay , in Washington a few years back.

Near Bockscar is another B-29, or just the forward fuselage of one, actually. But this one you can explore from within, entering through the nose and exiting out the back. I never tire of doing just that since it gives at least an inkling of what a bomber crew’s surroundings were like. I imagine that with so many other aircraft on display, a fair number of museum visitors miss the two B-29s. But there’s another bomber that’s hard to miss. With its 230-foot wingspan, 10 engines, and a tail reaching close to 47 feet high, the Convair B-36 would be eye-catching anywhere. Here in this enclosed space, with people and other, smaller aircraft clustered tightly around it, Gulliver and the Lilliputians come to mind. The bomb-bay doors are open, so you can look into the cavern built to hold 86,000 pounds of destructive power. However, living up to its moniker of Peacemaker, no B-36 ever dropped a bomb in anger. The last flight of any B-36 was this one’s arrival at Wright Field in 1959.

There was a time when the B-36 was probably the biggest draw at the museum, but no longer. Since 1998, museum officials confirm, it’s unquestionably a military-version Boeing 707 with an unmistakable color scheme and the tail number 26000. It was the first aircraft to fly with the call sign Air Force One. In more than 35 years of service, it made many historic flights. It took Kennedy to West Berlin for his Ich bin ein Berliner speech, and Nixon to China, and Kissinger to Paris for secret talks with the North Vietnamese. But beyond all the others, there is one flight that will always be associated with this airplane: the trip to Dallas in November of 1963. You can now climb the stairs, enter through the forward doorway, and examine all the compartments, including the one in which Lyndon Johnson was sworn into office. Toward the rear you pass by where the President’s casket was placed. To allow it in, a bulkhead had to be cut through, as you can see. On the return to Washington, Jacqueline Kennedy sat alongside the casket.

In addition to SAM 26000, the museum’s presidential aircraft collection includes Eisenhower’s military-equivalent Constellation, dubbed Columbine III , Truman’s DC-6, the Independence , and the first air transport configured for a Chief Executive, a Douglas C-54 that came to be called the Sacred Cow . Though it was built specifically for Franklin Roosevelt, he was able to use it only once, to attend the Yalta Conference in February 1945. Extending below the lower fuselage surface is an elevator installed to accommodate FDR’s wheelchair. Before Truman got the Independence , he used the Sacred Cow , and it was while on board in 1947 that he signed legislation creating the independent Air Force. It becomes apparent from this collection of aircraft that our Presidents have not traveled like flying potentates. You can board each of them and see that they may have represented the state of the art in comfort and efficiency for their time but not opulence.

The presidential planes are in such good shape that the visitor could take their immaculate appearance for granted. But this state of preservation is the result of the most painstaking work, as is evident when you look at the photographs that show the condition of that sole surviving B-10 bomber at the time the government of Argentina donated it to the museum. To learn more about the aircraft restorer’s art, tours of the workrooms are available.

—L.A.R.

 

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