Air Force Museum - February 17, 2012
On Friday, I finally got around to visiting the National Air Force Museum for the first time in decades. I believe I'd last been there in the 1980s and the place has grown and improved. Although I started with a look inside, after learning that a guided tour would be starting in less than an hour, I decided to join the tour and also decided that my pre-tour time would be spent best outside. When I was last here, the outside Air Park held a lot more planes than it does now. Many of the airplanes and rockets that once sat outside are now inside the greatly expanded buildings. The first plane pictured is the "Hanoi Taxi", a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter that got its nickname from two 1973 flights to Hanoi, North Vietnam, to retrieve 78 newly released prisoners of war. Beyond the Starlifter's covered engine sits a Northop YC-125B Raider. Even with three engines, the 1948 airplane was underpowered and all were retired by 1955. The "Snoopy Nose" plane started out as a Boeing C-135 Stratolifter but was modified to carry radar and other telemetry equipment in support of the Apollo Program. This one, the last of the breed, was retired in 2000.

Then it was back inside for the start of the tour and a picture of what our guide called "Air Force One". That's not quite true not only because Air Force is an official designation for the plane carrying the president but also because this is an exact replica of the very first airplane purchased by the U. S. Army. The original is at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. That guide, by the way, was Don Myer, a retired flyer with lots of knowledge and good stories. The photo is of the 1918 McCook Field wind tunnel and the 1916 Wright Brothers wind tunnel is also on display. That upside down Fokker Dr. I replica is suspended overhead. The aircraft in the group shot include a Kellett K-2/K-3 Autogiro, a Boeing P-12E, and a Curtiss P-6E Hawk. All are from the 1930s.

The mannequin in pajamas represents Lt. Phillip Rasmussen who was one of just eight U.S. pilots to get aloft during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. There was no time to get dressed. Rasmussen shot down one Japanese plane before landing a badly damaged Curtiss P-36A Hawk with more than 500 bullet holes. That's a womannequin standing in the cockpit of the Beech AT-10 Wichita. Women did not fly in combat during World War II but they did an awful lot of under-recognized and under-compensated flying back in the states. That's a Curtiss P-40E Warhawk in Flying Tiger garb with lots of other WWII aircraft behind it then a shot of our tour group heading towards a British built De Havilland Mosquito. "Bockscar" was named for its regular pilot, Captain Frederick C. Bock, but another crew, headed by Major Charles W. Sweeney, was on board when the Boeing B-29 Superfortress dropped the second and last atomic bomb ever used. When the "Enola Gay's" dropping of the "Little Boy" bomb on Hiroshima failed to bring about Japan's surrender, the decision was made to send off "Bockscar" and "Fat Man". The original target was Kokura but clouds and smog saved that city and "Bockscar" headed for the backup target, Nagasaki. A "Fat Man" replica sits next to the plane that delivered the real thing.

The last row starts with what I believe was the first thing I wanted to see on my very first visit to the museum. It's the MIG-15 that was flown out of North Korea in 1953 in exchange for $100,000 and a new life. I recall hearing the story as a kid -- maybe it was a hot topic for folks living within 50 miles of Wright-Patterson AFB -- and being fascinated by it. As a somewhat older kid, I remember hearing stories and rumors about the plane in the next picture, the SR-71A Blackbird. It could fly faster and higher than anything in existence and it was a secret for a long time. It seems, however, that most of those rumors were true. I don't have any information on the pictured rockets but can tell you they're in a very tall building. I do know that the Apollo 15 command module is here because that was the only Apollo mission with an all Air Force crew (Scott, Irwin, & Worden). The last picture is of the only B2 Stealth bomber on permanent display anywhere. The museum doesn't get anything until the Air Force is done with it and they got this non-flying airframe only after it had cracked in stress testing at 161% of design specifications. But, as Bruce says, "a little touch up and a little paint"

There are a total of six galleries at the museum. I compressed the first two, "Early Years" and "World War II", into five photos each and the other four, "Korean War", "Southeast Asia War", "Cold War", and "Missile & Space", into five photos total. That is high compression indeed. Hours could be spent in each gallery and we spent just two and a half jam-packed informative and entertaining hours on the whole place. Plus there's the National Aviation Hall of Fame, which I barely peeked into, and the IMAX theater, which I didn't even think about. This place deserves a day and could justify a whole lot more. And it's free.

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