By Scott Daniels
It was a matter of perfect timing: I found myself in Dayton, Ohio, with an unscheduled morning ahead, and I’d just finished up my copy of David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers. It’s a book in keeping with the rest of this author’s extraordinary work, telling the story of the first powered, heavier-than-air flight by Orville and Wilbur Wright at the opening of the 20th century. I had hopes of visiting the Wright's bicycle shop downtown somewhere, but Henry Ford made off with the whole thing decades ago, in his odd strike at historic preservation vis-a-vis moving everything to Dearborn. There's a Wright home, but it's not generally open the public.
So here I was, dodging a steady rain, trotting head down across the parking lot of the National Museum of the United States Air Force. It was my third visit in 15 years, but this time it was just me, with time to kill.
I had hopes of visiting the Wright's bicycle shop downtown somewhere, but Henry Ford made off with the whole thing decades ago, in his odd strike at historic preservation by moving everything to Dearborn. There's a Wright home, but it's not generally open the public.
The museum is almost impossibly vast, housing aircraft in the hundreds. Imagine hangars in which planes, balloons and rockets from a century of human flight are housed, with examples of everything from the Wright glider to the stealth bomber.
The story unfolds in chronological order. Entering through the gift shop, one can branch off toward the early years of flight or toward the museum’s extensive WWII era collection. I chose the former, and turned the corner onto a Wright Flier hanging in the air. The very first, original plane, having served its purpose in proving the possibility of fight, was broken into pieces before the brothers departed Kitty Hawk, North Caroline for home. Part of the fabric used to cover the flier’s lightweight framework became clothing for the family of the fellow who assisted the brothers in preparing for the first flight. Some pieces were saved; when John Glenn orbited the earth just a few decades later, a bit of fabric from the first Wright Flyer wing went with him.
The flier on display is a later one, representing some of the brothers’ earliest improvements.
Continuing through the early flight exhibits, two things were striking to me: Once people were in the air, things progressed remarkably quickly, from proof of concept to recognizable planes in the span of a child’s life up to kindergarten. The other remarkable realization is the rickety, flimsy nature of those early aircraft. It is hard to look at anything up through and including WWI without thinking the pilots and passengers were unbelievably courageous, if not flat out insane. Prewar seating for pilots in many of the frightening contraptions amounted to little more than a lawn chair fastened with leather strapping to toothpick rails, the enormous, wheezing, feeble, smelly engine roaring hot only inches from the poor fellow’s face, with a couple of simple levers to control the whole business as he took his life into his hands to climb above the trees. The exhibits make clear that the learning curve made for many, many casualties.
Moving on, a large amount of floor and overhead space is devoted to the fighters and bombers of the First World War. The romantic end of Quentin Roosevelt, son of President Theodore Roosevelt, shot down over enemy territory by the Germans, is well documented. The Germans, knowing who he was, gave him a respectful battlefield burial, carefully marked with a makeshift cross of branches and wire.
The interwar period saw relative inactivity, low funding and the scramble to find aircraft for training. Then visitors begin the enormous collection centered on Word War Two.
This is a museum of planes, but also of a remarkable collection of associated memorabilia. There are numerous exhibits to bring smiles to leather jacket collectors, from the very rare survivors from the 1905-1920 period onward. There are arctic flight ensembles, tropical bits and plenty of uniforms, map cases, blood chits and POW art throughout the exhibits. There are literally A2 summer flying jackets at every turn, and plenty of jacket art to go with.
Once arriving in the WWII section, entered through a moving exhibit devoted to the Nazi death camps (with the stories of several Dayton area jews who had survived), a visitor is forced to slow down and take the time to see the broad, deep collection.
The single exhibit which brought me to a full stop was the silver goblet collection memorializing the Doolittle Raiders. Doolittle created a large, mobile case containing a silver goblet for each man of the famous post Pearl Harbor raid on Tokyo in April, 1942. Each goblet is engraved with a man’s name twice; to be read right side up and upside down.
Each year, the survivors gathered to toast those who had passed away in the previous one, and each deceased man’s goblet was turned upside down. Of the 80 cups representing 80 pilots, one remains (as of May 7, 2018), that of 101 year old Lt. Colonel Richard Cole, who served as Doolittle’s copilot. To see all those upended silver cups, with just one standing upright, is a startling visual experience which brought tears to my eyes. At a glance, I was reminded how the number of surviving WWII veterans is dwindling very rapidly around us.
Other WWII era wonders are the A2 worn by pilot Jimmy Stewart in the famous 8th Air Force, the ragged remnants of pacific war POW uniforms after rescue, and story after heroic story carefully explained throughout.
The remainder of the museum walks visitors through the Cold War era and into Korea and Vietnam. Here, the startling thing is another Wright Flyer, hanging overhead, completely dwarfed by the bombers, heavy equipment movers and other planes housed close by. Again, it is almost unsettling to realize that after hundreds of thousands of years of dreaming of taking flight with the birds, flight went from zero to jet propulsion in less than half a single human lifetime.
Growing tired after several hours, I skimmed the remaining exhibits, which were very popular with other visitors and quite busy. The final segment of the huge collection allows you to stare up the length of missiles and rockets several stories high.
The National Museum of the United States Air Force is free of charge to tour, and highly recommended. I’m grateful for the free time to really engage with much of this remarkable story.