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A history of flight: Air Force museum is Ohio's top tourist draw

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio - The battered bomber rests on a sandy, makeshift runway with the members of a maintenance crew gathered around it. As palm trees sway gently behind the plane, one of the ground crew is attaching a hose to its nose section while another fiddles with a landing gear assembly. Both men have their shirts off in the tropical heat, and sweat glistens on their faces and torsos.

The cries of seagulls drift across the South Pacific scene, and waves crash against an unseen beach. The men call back and forth to each other. Then another sound, a faint rumbling, can be heard, and it grows in volume until it becomes the deafening roar of planes passing overhead at low altitude. After the sound finally fades into the distance, a lone voice can be heard.

“What do you think, General?”

It's the voice of a sound technician, holding an audio remote control in his hand.

Charles Metcalf, a serious-looking man in a dark suit, stands alone about 30 feet from the bomber's right wingtip. He stares straight ahead, his head cocked slightly as if he's still trying to hear the sound of the departed aircraft.

“The planes sound right,” he says finally. “But there's something else ...”

“The birds?” asks the technician.

“No, it's the ocean,” Metcalf says. “The landing strip wouldn't have been close to the beach, so you wouldn't be hearing the waves on the shore.”

Metcalf, a retired Air Force major general, is the director of the United States Air Force Museum. At the moment, he's helping to run a sound check on one of the museum's exhibits, which is getting new audio effects to accompany the hardware, mannequins, and other props that are already part of the display.

“If we had something like that wrong, somebody would be sure to notice it,” Metcalf says later, “and they'd probably let us know about it.”

Such attention to detail is one of the things that sets this sprawling facility outside Dayton apart; another is the fact that, with more than 10 acres of indoor exhibits in three enormous hangars, it's the largest aviation museum in the world. There are more than 300 aircraft and missiles on display here, plus thousands of artifacts, documents, photos, and mementos of aviation history.

Admission is free, and with more than a million visitors a year, the museum is Ohio's No. 1 noncommercial tourist attraction. But staff members say they still need to make the exhibits more relevant to a new generation of visitors.

“When we had lots of veterans coming in, they'd know the stories, they'd look at the planes and know what they were seeing,” says Jeff Underwood, the museum's historian. With fewer veterans around each year, that pattern is changing.

“See all these kids?” he asks, gesturing at the families and school groups wandering among the exhibits. “That's our next audience. We have to do a better job of telling these stories.”

There are plenty of stories to be told here, and plenty of hardware to aid in the telling, from a Wright Brothers plane that's been rebuilt from original parts to an actual Apollo space capsule.

The museum is divided neatly into galleries, with each one covering a slice of aviation history. The Early Years Gallery includes the earliest flight legends through the early 1940s. Among the 40 aircraft on display here are a 1918 Fokker like the one flown by Germany's Baron von Richthofen and a World War I Sopwith Camel, familiar to fans of Snoopy and his aerial exploits in the “Peanuts” comic strip.

The Air Power Gallery, which concentrates on the World War II period, contains more than 60 aircraft and missiles. Among the more impressive warbirds on display here are the “Bockscar” B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, a Messerschmitt fighter from the German Luftwaffe, and a jet-black Northrop “Black Widow,” built with radar equipment in its nose to locate enemy aircraft in total darkness and destroy them.

A smaller gallery, with about 20 aircraft in it, focuses on the Korean and Vietnam wars, from the 1950s through the '70s. This area is dominated by a massive Convair B-36 bomber, which has a wingspan of 230 feet and room for a bomb payload of 86,000 pounds.

At the other end of the scale is a stubby “parasite plane,” the XF-85 “Goblin,” which looks like a flying version of the old Gremlin automobile - a jet fighter with the rear end chopped off. The Goblin would sit in the bomb bay of a giant B-36 until enemy aircraft attacked; then the bay doors would open and the Goblin would be lowered by a trapeze and released to take on the attackers.

Many of the museum's displays include mannequins, props, and theatrical lighting, all designed to help tell “people” stories. One of these features a pilot, still wearing his pajamas, clambering into his P-36 fighter during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Another depicts a training plane resting on its nose, the hapless pilot being chewed out by his instructor as members of a ground crew tend to the plane's bent propeller.

The largest and newest display area is the Modern Flight Hangar, with more than 70 aircraft and missiles. Among the big attractions here are a $42 million F-117A Stealth bomber; an exotic XB-70 bomber, made of titanium and able to fly three times the speed of sound; a “Blackbird” reconnaissance plane, once the world's fastest and highest-flying aircraft, and an F-15 fighter, used to deadly effect against Scud missile launchers during Operation Desert Storm.

Signs at the hangar's entrance ask visitors not to touch the aircraft, but the urge to do so is almost overwhelming, and many visitors can't resist.

For $4, visitors can take a four-minute flight simulator ride, and there's no charge to walk through a C-124 cargo plane or sit in the cockpit of an F-4 fighter jet.

In the Space Gallery is the Apollo 15 Command Module used in 1971 to carry the first all-Air Force Apollo crew to the surface of the moon, as well as assorted satellites and spacecraft, and a collection of space suits going all the way back to a 1958 Mark I “lunar surface suit” that looks like something out of a Buck Rogers movie.

Not all of the museum's displays focus on aerial hardware. There are leather bomber jackets with ornate pictures and bombing-run tallies painted on their backs, 12-foot-high sections of the Berlin Wall, and pictures and uniforms from some of the celebrities who have worn an Air Force uniform over the years: Major Clark Gable, Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart, and Capt. Ronald Reagan, to name a few.

One of the most fascinating exhibits is a mile away from the main complex, in the Presidential Aircraft Hangar. This building is home to nine presidential planes and helicopters, including Franklin D. Roosevelt's “Sacred Cow,” the first official presidential plane. It was specially equipped with a small elevator to lift FDR and his wheelchair aboard.

Visitors can walk through that plane, as well as other presidential aircraft, including Eisenhower's “Columbine III” and Truman's “Independence,” which has a small poker table in it that was used by the President and his aides during flights.

The crown jewel of the collection is its newest addition, a Boeing 707 known as SAM (“Special Air Mission”) 26000 - the first aircraft to use the call sign “Air Force One.” The plane, put into service in 1962, was used by every President from Kennedy to Clinton, as well as vice presidents, cabinet members, congressional delegations, and foreign heads of state.

The plane flew JFK to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, and later that day, after Kennedy's assassination, Lyndon Johnson stood in the jet's passenger cabin to be sworn in as President. The aircraft then carried him back to Washington.

In the rear section of the passenger compartment on that flight was JFK's casket. Because crew members thought it would be undignified for the slain President's body to travel in the cargo hold, they cut out and removed part of a wall partition and four seats near the plane's rear door to bring the coffin aboard. Visitors walking through the plane can still see clear signs of those modifications.

Back at the main museum complex, there's a 500-seat Imax theater that projects films on a six-story screen. It's currently showing a pair of movies; one is Stormchasers, which takes viewers inside tornadoes, hurricanes, and other violent storms. The other movie, Michael Jordan to the Max, appears an odd choice to be playing at an Air Force museum. The basketball legend was known in his playing days as “Air Jordan,” but that's a pretty tenuous link.

Metcalf, the museum's director, has an explanation for the Jordan movie, though it seems to be a bit of a stretch.

“What [Jordan] talks about - hard work, never giving up, pushing for excellence - these are the virtues we espouse in the U.S. Air Force,” he says. “I wish we could get every 18-year-old to see it. These are the things we'd like to see in all our recruits.”

The museum also operates a gift shop, bookstore, and cafeteria.

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