High-flyin family fun a short trip away

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 Messenger photo by Linda Dillman

 The National Museum of the Airforce, near Dayton, houses hundreds of life-size planes, some dating back to the early 1900s.

Eighty years ago, young pilots guided war birds across the skies of Europe. Twenty years later, they returned to the heavens over Germany in sleeker and faster aircraft. Today, suspended from the ceiling and tethered to concrete earth, many of their planes rest in a trio of hangars at the National Museum of the Air Force near Dayton.

Hundreds of full-size, formerly operational aircraft from the early 1900s to supersonic jets fill four major exhibition spaces, along with static displays of aviation and Air Force history. Overhead hang WWI biplanes and an observation balloon, poised for battles fought long ago; sturdy silver steeds that once streaked across foreign skies; and support and rescue aircraft that plucked downed pilots from enemy-infested fields and ferried supplies to waiting troops. The museum, open to the public seven days a week, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day, offers free admission and tours for all ages.

Habitat displays with models in period uniform help place aircraft in historical context and accompany many of the planes throughout the four galleries. In addition, a “Nissen Hut” is located across the parking lot from the main building and houses a 1940s bar and briefing room for a fighter escort squadron stationed in England in WWII complete with music, props, and mannequins.

Preceded by a model of the Wright Brothers flyer, World War I vintage aircraft are stationed throughout the Early Years exhibition gallery. The 1909 Wright Flyer is displayed among artifacts belonging to the pioneering brothers, including two wind tunnels meticulously crafted out of wood.

In the Air Power Gallery, dozens of World War II propeller-driven planes invite visitors to learn about weaponry, uniforms, and history-making events connected with the planes and equipment from the formative years of the United States Army Air Force to the birth of the Air Force 60 years ago. Replicas of Little Man and Fat Boy, the first atomic bombs used during wartime, are chilling reminders of the power of nuclear weapons and a prison uniform worn by a concentration camp detainee reinforces the horror of war on a very personal level.

A corridor lined with flight suits from the early days of flight to the spacesuit worn by spy plane pilots leads to the Modern Flight gallery – a model-maker’s dream come to life – filled with modern jets from the Korean and Vietnam War eras. Along with the static displays, visitors can take a ride in the 14-passenger Morphis fighter jet simulator for a small fee.

In an adjoining hangar, visitors access the Cold War Gallery through a replica of a Russian checkpoint, then come face-to-face with fighters, long-range bombers, and the only public display of an authentic B-2 Stealth Bomber. Just beyond the gallery, an expansion area is dedicated to the missile and space race. An Apollo 15 command capsule is the focal point of a hallway leading to a silo-like gallery housing Titan, Thor, and Jupiter missiles.

Tours of Presidential and Research and Development/Flight Test Galleries are available off-site on an active portion of Wright Patterson Air Force Base and accessed through transportation provided by the museum. The tour features a hangar filled with former presidential aircraft. The service is offered on a first-come, first served basis and a government-issued photo identification, such as a driver’s license, is required for everyone over the age of 18.

Behind the Scenes Tours take visitors to the museum’s restoration area and are offered every Friday (with some exceptions) at 12:15 p.m. Advanced registration is required. The museum shuttle bus transports visitors to the restoration hangars, located on the Wright Field flight line in Area B of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, about one mile from the main museum complex.

Participants must be at least 12 years old, and an adult must accompany those between 12 and 18. As with the Presidential tour, a current government-issued photo ID (i.e. driver’s license) is required of all individuals 18 and over. For security purposes, bags are subject to search, and backpacks, packages and large camera cases are not permitted on the shuttle bus. To register, call (937) 255-3286, ext. 302.

Visitors can take a break at the Valkyrie Café, a 325-seat aviation-themed cafeteria with views of the museum grounds and a memorial park. Soups, salads, pizza, wraps, and hot sandwiches are available, in addition to desserts and beverages.

The national museum also houses a souvenir shop and bookstore stocked with shelves of aviation-related books for all ages, apparel, model aircraft, collectibles, patches, toys, and jewelry, in addition to a six-story IMAX Theatre. Admission to the theatre is an additional charge. For rates and movie schedules, call 937-253-IMAX or visit the museum foundation’s Web site at www.afmuseum.com. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week.

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