When planning their annual vacations, most American families don’t normally top their lists with Dayton, Ohio. While there are probably some sights to see in Dayton, arguably the most enticing reason to visit is the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
With notable examples of aircraft from before powered flight to the present day, the museum also includes slices of history from the U.S. and its Air Force. Watching the Avengers in IMAX is cool, but so is flying a fighter mission or buzzing through the skies on D-Day.
The exhibits aren’t limited to aircraft and wars. The museum documents air history from the balloons of the Civil War to the first powered flights (the Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics from Dayton). It also takes visitors through exhibits on the Holocaust all the way through Cold War tensions and its nuclear armaments, as well as a tribute to Bob Hope and his dedication to the USO.
You can’t ride the bombs, though. They’ll ask you not to do that.
It was terribly difficult to narrow this list to a few items, considering the extensive Air Force and U.S. Military history contained here. Notable runners-up include a very visual walkthrough of Checkpoint Charlie, an explanation of POW tapping codes in the Hanoi Hilton, a graphic description of MiG Alley during the Korean War, a Boeing Bird of Prey, and an F-22 Raptor.
1. The First Presidential Jet
Though the President’s plane began its designation as Air Force One during the Eisenhower era, the first jet aircraft to fly with the distinctive blue and white pattern as we know it today was President Kennedy’s Special Airlift Mission (SAM) 26000. It was the first aircraft specially designed for the President of the United States. President Johnson was sworn in as President on it. It was also the plane that flew President Kennedy’s body back to Washington after his assassination in Dallas and the plane that flew Nixon to China.
2. An SR-71 Blackbird
You might wonder why the Air Force fly this plane anymore. My guess is the Blackbird just wasn’t fair to America’s enemies, so we stepped back a little bit. It was the first stealth aircraft, and paved the way for later stealth technology. It holds the record for fast aircraft not destined for orbit and from 1966 to 1998, it was the Department of Defense’s go-to for high altitude reconnaissance. The SR-71 was capable of Mach 3 speeds and was never lost in combat because the Blackbird would just fly faster than any missile launched at it. Peace out.
3. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. All of them.
Ok not ALL of them, but one each of many kinds. Officially called The Missile Space Gallery, it houses Thor missiles, Titan I and II, Minuteman, Peacekeepers and Jupiter missiles. It also contains Mercury and Gemini spacecraft as well as the command module from Apollo 15, the fourth mission to land on the moon. You can see the missiles from the ground or go on a raised platform and see them from the nose cones — the last thing Nikita Khrushchev would have seen if Curtis LeMay had his way.
4. The Doolittle Raiders’ Toast
Eighty small silver goblets commemorate the 80 men who joined together to blacken Japan’s eye after the sucker punch at Pearl Harbor in 1941. In less than six months after the sneak attack, 16 B-25 Medium Range Bombers took off from aircraft carriers (a then-unheard of feat) to bomb Tokyo undetected, without fighter escort. The attack had little military value beyond boosting U.S. morale and hurting Japanese morale, but it set the tone for the war in the Pacific as an all-out street fight.
The surviving raiders met annually on Doolittle’s birthday and in 1959, were presented by the city of Tucson with the silver goblets, each engraved twice with the name of a Raider. The case they’re in was built by Richard E. “Dick” Cole, Doolittle’s copilot during the 1942 raid. At every Raiders’ Ceremony, the surviving Raiders toast the deceased and then turn the recently deceased goblet’s upside down, where the engraved name can be read that way. When there are only two left, the two will share the final toast.
5. The Beginnings of an Iraq War Exhibit
I don’t know about how any other post-9/11 veterans feel about seeing themselves in museums. For me, museums have traditionally held stories from faraway places and some very old things. So it’s a strange feeling to see your own war already immortalized in a museum. Though admittedly, there isn’t much to this exhibit save for what a tent city DFAC looks like from the outside and the wall of the Air Terminal Operations Center from al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar from 2003. What’s interesting about the wall is that many of those who deployed in support of Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom went through this passenger terminal, and many of those wrote and drew on the drywall supporting the tent. It’s interesting to think of how the wars our current troops are fighting will be remembered in the future.