Published: February 23rd 2012May 26th 2011
The bomber that droped the nuclear bomb on Nagasaki.
I woke up today in Dayton, Ohio
Dayton is famous for one thing, aviation.
The Wright brothers were based here when they created the first airplane.
They flew it at Kitty Hawk (see April 8th
) but they designed and built it here.
Their house and workshop no longer exist in town (more on that later) but several remaining sites have been turned into a National Park
Since I saw their history earlier at Kitty Hawk, I decided to focus on other things.
The military really didn’t believe in airplanes until the Wright brothers did a demonstration for a group of army generals in 1910.
Soon after, the army started buying airplanes
and testing them for combat.
An Army lieutenant, Thomas Selfridge
, became the first aviation casualty a few months later when a plane he was testing crashed and killed him.
The aviation department of the army eventually evolved in the US Air Force.
They are based in a huge base near Dayton now called Wright Patterson.
Museum of the United States Air Force
The base contains an enormous museum that tells the story
First jet fighter
The world's first jet fighter used in combat, the Messerschmitt 262
of military flying in the US, the Museum
of the US Air Force.
It has the largest collection of military flying machines in the world.
All the lethal hardware can feel almost pornographic after a while.
The museum also describes the lives and deeds of the people who flew them.
Almost by definition, it presents their actions as a good thing.
No matter what the combat situation, from World War I to Vietnam to Iraq, the soldiers and airmen were good people doing their jobs and many were heroes.
Surprisingly, the museum kept recruiting activity to almost zero (contrast this with the Raptor team at Thunder Over Louisville [see The Few, The Proud, The Freezing to Death
] where recruiting is a large part of their job).
World War II
Since the museum is huge, I concentrated on areas of particular interest.
The first of these was World War II
Air combat existed during World War I, but it was in the Second World War that it became essential (as Pearl Harbor
made perfectly clear).
Roughly one sixth of the museum is dedicated to this one conflict.
The hanger is filled with planes
Some of the currency belts created by soldiers in World War II, from the places they were stationed.
of all sorts, from small propeller fighters to huge bombers.
It contains Bockscar
, the B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, along with a model of the bomb.
It has a B-25 bomber
, the type used by James Doolittle used on his Tokyo air raid.
It has antisubmarine planes
used by the US, Britain, and (surprisingly) Brazil against the Nazi U-boats.
The selection goes on and on.
This area also has two very special foreign planes.
The Japanese Zero
was the terror of World War II until US designers finally caught up with its technology.
The display discusses what made it so formidable.
The secret, it turns out, was weight.
The Japanese navy designed the plane to be as light and maneuverable as possible.
For example, the only armor plating on the plane is around the fuel tanks.
The designers figured the plane would be so fast in a dogfight, it wouldn’t need any.
They were right.
The US navy finally defeated it by designing planes with high powered guns that could attack it from a distance.
Naturally, the museum has
The Doolittle Cups
The cups presented to the members of Doolitte's Raiders for their yearly toast.
The other foreign plane is the Nazi Messerschmitt 262
Historians of technology know that the Nazis developed the first jet fighter.
They deployed the planes near the end of World War II in a desperate attempt to fend off the Allied advance. Chuck Yeager
, who became famous later as a test pilot, actually shot one down with a propeller plane.
The museum has one, along with a detailed discussion of how the engine worked.
It was really primitive by modern standards, but a staggering advance for the time.
The section also discusses the lives of the soldiers who ran the planes.
One of their pastimes was collecting currency
from the countries where they were based.
They taped them into long belts.
Many bases had a drinking game where everyone would bring their belts, and whomever had the shortest had to buy a round.
It’s not well known, but women
did fly combat planes during World War II.
The dirty secret is that they did not fly them in combat.
Factories in the US were turning out new planes
SR 71 Blackbird
The world's ultimate spy plane, it can fly faster and higher than almost any other plane in existence.
by the hundreds throughout the war, and the army needed some way to get them to the front.
A female flight instructor, Nancy Harkness Love, convinced the generals that the best way to do so was to train women to fly them there.
Several hundred eventually qualified for the job.
They were known as the WASPS.
Of course, the famous Tuskagee Airmen
get a mention.
The army took African Americans only reluctantly, and forced them to serve in segregated units (which was true throughout the service, not just the air wing).
Many served with distinction despite the racism they faced.
The display talks about two who stayed in the service after integration in 1947 and rose to the rank of general, Benjamin Davis Jr. and Daniel James.
The museum has one of the most important World War II artifacts in the Air Force.
After the war, the members of Doolittle’s Raid
team would get together yearly to toast their daring accomplishment.
After a decade, someone presented the group with a set of silver cups, each one engraved with the name of a different participant.
B2 Stealth bomber
The famous stealth bomber.
When one dies, the remaining men toast his memory and turn the cup upside down.
The toast is still held yearly.
In between, the cups are on display at the museum.
Only five cups are still right side up.
The other major part of the museum I visited is the hanger dedicated to the modern era
It’s filled with planes that the Air Force has used in recent decades, including many still in use.
Military and technology fanatics could spend the entire day here; I limited myself to a few hours.
Some more notable examples included: SR 71 Blackbird
: Near the entrance is a long, thin, completely black plane with a bizarre silhouette.
The Engines are built directly into the wings.
The tail fins above the jets are angled inward.
Anyone who knows history instantly recognizes this plane.
It was developed at the height of the Cold War in complete secrecy to spy on Russia.
To this day it holds the record for highest sustained flight, and it held the speed record for decades.
The workhorse of the American Air Force fleet
Air Force retired the last one in the mid 1990s when they became too expensive to maintain (rumor has it they still have several hidden somewhere in case a major conflict breaks out). B 52 Bomber
: This bomber is the backbone of the Air Force fleet.
It was developed in the 1960s to drop nuclear weapons over Russia.
The plane is absolutely huge.
It has twelve jet engines underneath its wings.
The bottom of the plane was covered in paneling, probably to protect some secret. B2, the invisible plane
: Roughly a decade ago, the Air Force made a showy unveiling of a bomber that was supposed to be nearly invisible to radar.
It used high-tech materials to absorb radar impulses and a triangular silhouette with flat wing flaps to disguise its heat signature.
Of course, it lost some of its luster after Serbian insurgents showed that good old visual identification was still effective by shooting down
its tactical companion, the F-117A stealth fighter.
The museum has the plane used for test flights.
Tellingly, visitors are allowed to see every part of it, unlike the
One panel of grafitti from a Quatar base (warning: enlarge at your own risk!)
B52. F-22 Raptor
: This plane is the most high tech fighter currently used by the Air Force.
One was demonstrated during Thunder over Louisville (see April 16th
The plane is suspended in the air and the control surfaces are covered.
The most poignant artifact in this section is a series of hangar walls
from a base in Qatar.
During the Iraqi war, soldiers who passed through the base wrote on the walls.
The graffiti gives an unusual window on the men and women who serve.
Most of it is just names, but there is also longing for home, surprisingly good poetry, and some really dark humor (One of the cleaner examples: “Murphy’s Laws of Combat #1: It’s not stupid if it works”)
Driving out of Dayton, I had a rite of passage moment of sorts.
It started to rain.
The sun was shining at the same time.
As most people know, sun plus rain equals rainbow
Double rainbows in particular have meaning to burners, thanks to both an infamous YouTube video about one [which I’m not
My first double rainbow of the trip. The second arc is pretty faint. What does it mean???
going to link], and one that happened
during the first day of the event several years ago.
I pulled over and, sure enough, a glorious double rainbow filled the sky.
This was the first one of my trip.
Dinner tonight was another glorious example of chain road food.
I was driving along late at night and saw a sign for “Steak N Shake
I like shakes enough that I figured it was worth a try.
That is an understatement.
The chain is a sit down restaurant where the name accurately describes what they serve
: hamburgers made from ground steak, and shakes (they also have fries).
The secret to their success is that both of these items come in dozens of variations, all tasty.
Their prices are easy on the wallet (I’ve had fast food that was more expensive) and many locations are open 24 hours.
I suspect they will become a trip favorite now that I’m in an area of the country without Waffle House.