Last summer, while watching television news coverage of preparations for Hurricane Bonnie, I began to laugh. Not that there was anything funny about a hurricane on the way, but what they were showing was Navy fighter planes taking off as part of the evacuation.
What started me laughing was the announcement of their destination for a safe haven–Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. "I know where they’re going," I knowingly chuckled to the assembled ears. "They’re heading to Wright-Patt so they can go the the Air Force Museum!"
What sparked my outburst was a vivid recollection of doing the same thing nearly 40 years ago when I was flying Douglas C-124 Globemasters based at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., in the late 1950s. A hurricane was on the way, and we were ordered to evacuate our airplanes to locations away from the storm’s path.
The aircraft commander of the plane in which I rode right seat had selected Wright-Patterson as our place to wait out the storm. He answered my "Why there?" question with, "So we can go to the Air Force Museum." Mecca beckoned–the depository for the military flying memorabilia I had been greedily soaking up ever since I was 6 years old.
Our safe haven was wonderful. The museum then was in its infancy. Oh, there were plenty of planes–today referred to as artifacts–but they were mostly outside, spread all over the landscape. There were identification signs by each one (Who needed them? I knew and loved them all) and a few wooden stepped platforms so visitors could look into the Boeing B-36 Peacemaker and a few others.
I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. Sure, there was a building that housed smaller planes, engines, armament, and other exhibits, but it was all hardware, the stuff that delighted the die-hard aviation nut.
When I finished chuckling at the TV last August, I reflected on my second visit to the United States Air Force Museum–now a vastly different place–only a month before. What a difference a "few" years makes. First of all, most of the artifacts are now inside four huge, modern, clean and spacious buildings, with more expansion on the way. The nuts and bolts of airplanes are still there for us hardcore aviation enthusiasts who only have eyes for hardware.
But now there is something here for the rest of the visitors, too. The kids, the adults who are interested in learning about our military aviation heritage, the casual, dragged-along sightseer, even the "show-me" doubter will find plenty here of interest other than aluminum and steel. I am tired of using the term "world class," so I won’t–but you get the idea.
The latest new feature I was shown is what the museum calls "habitats" but what I would call a more contextual type of display. Museum Director Charles D. Metcalf, a retired major general in the U.S. Air Force, wanted to create a more dynamic display for the aircraft that would place them in their proper historical context.
I viewed the first of these, a full-size diorama that you can walk all around and gawk at, of a North American B-25 Mitchell on a simulated section of the flight deck of the carrier USS Hornet, with life-size mannequins of crewmen loading up the plane. Standing right in front of me were Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and Admiral Marc Mitscher (carrier captain), discussing the need to get the Tokyo raid underway fast because their task force had just been spotted and reported by the enemy on April 18, 1942.
This is the kind of realistic display that even we hardware nuts can also appreciate, and from which others can learn more about our aviation heritage. Dyed-in-the-wool aviation nuts, myself included, often fail to recognize that not everyone is turned on by just seeing historic airplanes. Giving them a display that puts the aircraft into a recognizable perspective–how they fit into our heritage (and our country’s freedom)–can generate an appreciation for these artifacts that have given us much more than a faster means to go from point A to point B.
The curator’s awareness of what interests today’s casual visitors as well as aviation history buffs makes the Air Force Museum a fascinating place for everyone to visit.
Arthur H. Sanfelici, Editor, Aviation History