The National Museum of the United States Air Force is the service’s national institution for preserving and presenting the Air Force story. Each year more than one million visitors come to the museum to learn about the mission, history and evolving capabilities of America’s Air Force.
The museum is the world’s largest and oldest military aviation museum featuring more than 360 aerospace vehicles and missiles on display amid more than 17 acres of indoor exhibit space. Thousands of personal artifacts, photographs and documents further highlight the people and events that comprise the Air Force storyline, from the beginnings of military flight to today’s war on terrorism.
Nearly a century ago, two innovative brothers from Dayton, Ohio, pursued their vision that man could escape from gravity’s constraints in their “flying machine.” This machine not only set the course for taking transportation to the skies, but also dramatically changed the way in which wars are fought and opened the door for endless possibilities for all of mankind, including the exploration of space.
The museum’s vast aircraft collection spans the range of military aviation history from the era of the Wright brothers to today’s age of stealth aircraft. A number of popular and historically significant aircraft headline the museum’s growing collection. Particularly noteworthy aircraft from the early years include a rare SPAD XIII, Caproni CA 36 bomber and an MB-2 bomber. The World War II collection includes the B-29 Bockscar that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, along with a P-51 and Japanese Zero. The F-86 and MiG-15 help represent the Korean War, with the F-4 among Vietnam standouts.
Modern favorites include the B-52, B-1, F-15, F-16, F-117 stealth fighter, the Reaper, Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles, the F-22A Raptor and the world’s only permanent public exhibit of a B-2 stealth bomber.
The museum features a world-class collection of presidential aircraft, including SAM (Special Air Mission) 26000, a Boeing VC-137C that served as President John F. Kennedy’s Air Force One.
Museum staff members go to great lengths when it comes to the accuracy and detail of exhibits. Hundreds of hours are spent in the archives researching the history of actual missions. In recent years, the staff has initiated a contemporary approach to exhibit design that incorporates sensory devices such as customized mannequins, special lighting and sound walls to create emotionally evocative habitats around aircraft on display. These dioramas help bring history to life by creating scenes that draw visitors into the moment depicted, illuminating the story of the people behind history’s aircraft and campaigns.
Items on display include military uniforms dating back to 1916 and personal mementos, such as diaries and medals. Other items of interest include an original Wright wind tunnel and a display devoted to Major Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band. A special section of the museum pays tribute to celebrities in uniform, including Brig. Gen. Jimmy Stewart, Maj. Clark Gable, Flight Officer Jackie Coogan, Capt. Ronald Reagan and Tech. Sgt. Joe Louis.
One of the most admired exhibits at the museum is the B-25B Mitchell and Doolittle Tokyo Raiders diorama, which depicts those who served during the famed World War II mission. Resting on a simulated carrier deck, the B-25B comes to life with mannequins representing Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, members of the Doolittle Raiders and USS Hornet crewmembers. The museum has been fortunate to host these aviation legends for some of their reunions.
Another popular exhibit is “Warrior Airmen,” which presents the role of Airmen in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. The exhibit features compelling first-hand accounts using more than 400 artifacts, three dioramas with fully dressed and equipped mannequins, a robot investigating an improvised explosive device, an audiovisual presentation on a 15-foot wide screen, and interactive touch-screen kiosks.
Education and Events
Animating the Air Force story, the museum offers a wide variety of special events and educational programs to connect the service with the public. Through its education office, the museum has more than 150,000 encounters each year with students, teachers, youth groups and family members through hands-on learning activities, workshops, tours and curriculum materials. In doing so, the museum helps inspire tomorrow’s Airmen and cultivates future air power advocates.
The museum manages hundreds of special events each year. Favorites include the biennial World War I Dawn Patrol Rendezvous, the annual Giant Scale Radio-Controlled Model Aircraft Air Show, outdoor and indoor concerts featuring the Air Force Band of Flight, the Wings and Things Guest Lecture Series and more.
The National Museum of the United States Air Force traces its birth to 1923 at McCook Field near Dayton; it moved to Wright Field in 1927. The museum closed from 1940 to 1955 due to urgent need for administrative space to support the war effort.
In 1960 local interest in aviation history led to the creation of the Air Force Museum Foundation, Inc., to secure funds for the museum. A nationwide fund-raising campaign resulted in the construction of a new $6 million facility in the late 1960s, with President Richard Nixon dedicating the new building in September 1971. In 1976 the foundation donated a $1 million addition to the building, and in 1988 the foundation and federal government funded equally a major $10.8 million expansion. The IMAX Theatre and atrium, a $7.3 million project funded by the foundation, opened in 1991.
In 2003 the museum opened the $22.3 million, 200,000 square-foot Eugene W. Kettering Cold War Gallery. The third building is the centerpiece of a major, multi-phase expansion. The latest addition, a $3.4 million Missile and Space Gallery constructed as a missile silo, opened in 2004.