National Museum of the US Air Force
2/3rds of the way in from my parking space, the lobby of the museum beckons. Hangar one is on the right.
You may find this delayed post to be worthwhile. Just south of Dayton Ohio, this museum is certainly the best aircraft museum I’ve ever seen and, just as certainly, the most expansive. I got there at noon on July 3rd, and although every car parking slot was filled, the RV section a quarter of a mile away at the outskirts still had spaces. What a mob! Plus, groups of cadets were assembled outside in an area peppered with stone markers dedicated to the various Air Force and Air Corps units who served during wars. The lobby was bustling but not unduly so. Once in hanger one, no issues. Plenty of acreage for everybody.
I’ll begin near the beginning. This is a Wright Military Flyer replica (1955) of the one that first flew in 1909. The Wrights first flew in 1903 and that is considered by most to be the first truly controlled flight, as opposed to momentary hops off the ground. It used wing warping instead of ailerons to control side-to-side tilt, a feature which has been reinvented in much more recent aircraft. They were the first to create a practical means of 3-axis control, making fixed-wing flight practical. This was flown for two years by the US Army for two years as a flight trainer. It crashed and was rebuilt several times before it was retired and replaced by what would become more conventional designs.
Let me just sum it up: incredible. There are four extremely large hangars packed with aircraft, both on the concrete and suspended by wire overhead. When I say extremely large, I mean that they had a B-52 bomber packed into hanger one, along with many other large bombers and cargo planes, no sweat. Somehow, even the fighters seemed larger than they do when viewed out of doors. Aircraft for every function from every time period. Lots of informational placards with the basic stories of each aircraft, plus an assortment of wall hangings describing major missions, personal accounts of harrowing events, you name it.
This bust of Charles Taylor honors the man who designed and built what is considered to be the first successful airplane engine, and he did it start to finish in just six weeks. He had begun in the Wright’s bicycle business in 1898, and was chief mechanic in the first transcontinental flight in 1911 by Cal Rogers. He lived until 1956, and must have appreciated witnessing the profound changes in aircraft performance.
Perhaps the most meaningful way to describe it is that after arriving at noon, I wandered through building one at a pace where I could see and read about 2/3-3/4 of everything, not including most of the airplanes overhead. Suddenly it was 3:45 and I realized that there was no way to fully experience this place in any single-day way. I’m thinking 3 days, and that’s cutting out some neat stuff.
Louis Bleriot flew his creation across the English Channel in 1909. It was used in a two-seat configuration by the British and French as a reconnaissance craft at the start of WWI. It was reduced to training duties in 1915, once more advanced designs went into production. It weighed 700 pounds wet, and maximum speed was a blistering 45 MPH. Got courage?
Overwhelmed and cutting short hanger one, I staggered into hanger two to find some jaw-dropping WWI-era airplanes (both civilian and pre-war developmental) and dirigibles, plus an early wind tunnel. I was pretty tired by this point and could only shuffle to what especially caught my eye before the museum closed at 5 PM. It was difficult to figure out where the connecting passageways were between buildings, but I made it out through the lobby with 5 minutes to spare. I hadn’t thought to use the True North compass function on my iPhone, though I don’t yet know if that works inside buildings anyway.
This Caproni CA.36 heavy bomber was introduced near the end of WWI as the final evolution of a line of similar models by Italian Gianni Caproni. They were manufactured in Italy as well as France, Great Britain, and the United States. Its wings disassembled into 5 sections to enable surface transportation. This is one large aircraft!
Incredibly, this museum and its parking are both free, and it’s basically just a mind-boggler to visit. There’s a reasonably-priced cafeteria up a stairway in building one. Lots of families were visiting, and what I thought especially notable were occasional groups of three or more teenage girls wandering about looking interested instead of bored. That has to be some kind of testament as to the museum’s breadth of content. Not a soul, young or old, was playing with their cellphone.
A detail worth noticing on the Caproni is the pilot’s seat backrest, which is a gasoline tank. This kept the craft’s center of gravity from shifting as fuel levels changed, but one shot from an incendiary round could make for exciting times. This was an accepted hazard at the time, since similar fires onboard fighter aircraft were fairly common, and forced the pilot out of the cockpit to ease the agony up until the moment of crashing into the ground. Parachutes were used by the crews of observation balloons in WWI, but had mixed results when used by German airplane pilots. They were stowed in a compartment behind the pilot. Allied forces did not use them, since it was thought at the time that if a pilot had a parachute he would jump from the plane when hit, rather than trying to save the aircraft. Their space and weight also compromised fuel capacity and performance in the small craft.
By the time I came out of the place, I couldn’t think of anything there could be left to see, but buildings three and four still awaited unobserved. They’d had a few wheelchairs available in the lobby, which made me wonder about the practicality of grabbing one, pulling a Guy Cabellero, and hiring some family’s 10-year-old kid to ferry me through next time. But sooner or later, he’d probably exclaim something like “Oh, cool!” and run off, never to be seen again.
I don’t know what this is, but it’s typical of aircraft used for aerial mapping. Gathering such intelligence became crucial to executing land wars, since knowing where your opponent’s troops and cannons were or were not deployed had been a critical need since Day One.
One note on the photos – two, actually: One is that the museum’s lighting – somewhere between tungsten and fluorescent – is of a color temperature that both my camera and my software were unable to fully compensate for. I would have had to carry a grey card for initial setup, which goes against my principles of winging it and just living with what you get. Or, worse, learning how to properly use the software. It can do it, but at the cost of an effort unacceptable to a lazy person such as myself. I’ve adjusted what I could, and stopped. Two, it’s either difficult or impossible to get anything other than a close-up without a wide-angle lens, which I do not own. Many of the shots are fuzzy, a result of shooting handheld in dim light, with the lens opened up to get all the light it can. Newer cameras have more light sensitivity available, and can capture at absurdly low light levels. But that’s them. In short, this is a visiting place, not a photogenic place. Someone who actually knew what they were doing would get the results they hoped for. In the past, it was not at all unusual for me to take a full ten minutes to set up a tripod shot I wanted, but that was outside with a big film camera for a final print several feet wide. Not no more. Since this is just a blog, then you, like me, simply get what pops out, good and bad. And that’s okay.
The Martin MB-2 was the first American-designed bomber produced in large numbers, and was first ordered in 1920. They served until the late ’20s. With a crew of 4, they could reach 99 MPH and carry a bomb load of 3,000 pounds. Its wings fold back for storage. Since no originals exist, this is a replica completed in 2002 from the original Martin drawings.
The 1937 Seversky P-35 is the forerunner of the P-47 Thunderbolt. It was America’s first all-metal single seat pursuit plane with retractable landing gear and fully-enclosed cockpit. The Japanese Navy ordered 20 of these in a two-seat version in 1938, making it the only American-built plane used operationally by a Japanese squadron during WWII.
The famed Japanese Mitsubishi carrier-based A6M2 Zero, which first flew in 1939. On the upside, it was designed for speed, maneuverability and range. This resulted primarily from exceptionally light weight, which became a requirement when interservice rivalries resulted in mediocre engine power. The drive for low weight also resulted in no armor protection for the pilot, no self-sealing fuel tanks, and a wing root design with less reinforcement. It could never be beaten in a dogfight, so American tactics eventually changed to avoid them. The new goal became a diving hit and run attack, to which they were very vulnerable, often simply exploding apart.
My personal favorite, the Curtiss P40E Warhawk. When WWII broke out, the P-40 was America’s best fighter that was already available in large numbers. Though fast at 362 MPH and maneuverable, it was still no match for newer German aircraft that could easily best it at high altitudes. In all other theaters however, it became a highly desirable fighter because of its suitability for bad conditions. It was comparatively cheap to produce, tough and reliable, comparatively easy and quick to maintain, and so tended to stay operational in situations that grounded other more sophisticated designs. Often viewed as a mediocre design after the war, later operations analyses showed that the P-40 was one of the only designs to get much better real-world results than its performance specs promised. P-40s stayed in production throughout the entire war, the E models replacing the Allison engine with the Packard version of the superior Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.
The P-39 Airacobra by its 1940 delivery had had several years of promising but meandering development. For whatever reason, Bell dropped the turbocharger which left it with just a supercharger, limiting best performance to just 12,000 feet. The spiritual predecessor of the current A-10 Warthog, it was one of the first airplanes to be designed around a single large cannon in the nose. The pilot sat behind, and the engine was behind him. Despite its very low drag, the Airacobra was plagued with shortfalls in performance, and many operational quirks. Due to timing, many were built and used by Allies. The British turned them away since their own Hurricanes and Spitfires were superior at high altitudes, but the Russians loved them, achieving exceptionally high low-altitude kill rates against a variety of German aircraft, including Bf 109s, Focke-Wulf Fw 190s, Ju 87s, and Ju 88s.
The German V-2 ballistic missile, an alternative to outlawed super-range artillery, was designed by Werner von Braun and was more of a late-war terror weapon than a strategically effective one, since its guidance system was sloppy and produced a target error rate averaging 9 miles. Launching one took an assortment of 32 trailers and vehicles, 100 people, several hundred soldiers, and 4-6 hours. Its rocket engine burned for only a minute, yet it reached 50-60 miles altitude. Once launched, it was so high and so fast that nothing could stop it, and it reached the ground before its sound did. 1,115 fell on England, while 1,524 were launched against civilian targets in Europe, Antwerp Belgium being the hardest-hit city. About 9,000 civilians were killed or severely wounded in England alone by these rockets. Their build rate was hampered by Allied mass bombing as well as the problems inherent in using forced labor. Many blew up or broke up in the air, and about 15% could not be successfully launched.
This Me-163B rocket-powered interceptor was a defensive airplane late in the war. Rocket powered for a 7.5 minute flight time, it could reach 600 MPH and climb at 18,000 feet/minute to reach a ceiling of almost 40,000 feet. Intended for use against Allied bombers, they were credited with 9 kills for a loss of 14 their own. Their fuel was extremely hazardous, killing several pilots in spontaneous explosions. Assembled with forced labor, this one had a stone wedged between the fuel tank and a mounting strap, as well as contaminated glue in one wing. Scrawled on an inner panel were “Factory closed” and “My heart is not occupied”, written in French. Considering the murder and starvation death rate of forced labor camps, being discovered as a saboteur “merely” risked speeding up the process by months.
The German ME-262A Schwalbe (sparrow), was developed from a 1938 design, and first flew in 1942. It is the world’s first operational turbojet aircraft. Development was slowed by its temperamental engines, cautious Luftwaffe leadership, and Allied bombing. Fully operational in 1944, it proved a serious threat to Allied bombers, downing many. Then again, by war’s end, the bombers had reduced the count on German airfields from 1,400 to just 300. Many if not most of those remaining were grounded from lack of fuel and spare parts, as well as trained pilots. Me-262s could reach 540 MPH and a service ceiling of 38,000 feet. That performance made them nearly impervious to even the P-51D. The tremendous losses suffered in Allied bombers and their air crews can appear callous to us today, but the continued reliance on them turned the tide of the war, negating the production of Germany’s superior equipment.
This B-29 Superfortress dropped the nuclear device nicknamed Fat Man on Nagasaki Japan three days after the Enola Gay dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima. Postwar investigation revealed that, in cooperation with Germany, Japan had been working on its own nuclear weapons programs, dubbed “Ni-Go” and “F-Go”. They had two cyclotrons, but progress was slowed by a shortage of materials and financial support once a report surfaced that success was deemed unlikely before the end of the war, and that the U.S. was also unlikely to succeed within that time frame. At the time, all the Americans knew was that an invasion of Japan would be extremely prolonged and costly in lives, owing to the cultural Japanese outlook on defeat, and that both of the towns targeted followed the common practice of scattering weapons production within civilian centers to obtain a moral shield from bombing.
I have many, many more photos of more familiar WWII aircraft on display, but such a post would be overwhelming for us both!