U.S. Air Force Museum offers military stories to go along with classic aircraft
DAYTON, Ohio — As aviation buffs celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight this year, a lot of attention is focused on a facility that’s taking off in its own way — the United States Air Force Museum.
This month, the museum — on the grounds of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, with more than 300 planes in its collection — opens its third exhibition hangar. The expansion isn’t just physical, though; the nature of the museum is changing, too.
“Today’s visitor is more interested in people and events” than in the past, according to retired Maj. Gen. Charles D. Metcalf, the museum’s director since 1996. “The hardware becomes a backdrop to the stories.”
One big factor is that a lower percentage of the population — about 6 percent — now has served in the military than was the case years ago, when veterans might visit Dayton to see the planes they flew in wartime. So a little context — courtesy of the museum’s research and exhibits divisions — is now used to get the point across.
For instance, instead of a P-36 against a drab backdrop, a visitor now sees a diorama showing a famous moment in the aircraft’s history: Lt. Philip Rasmussen, still wearing his pajamas, climbs into the cockpit as the attack on Pearl Harbor begins.
“If you put it in the context of [the 9/11 attacks],” said Metcalf, “they get it. They understand the  lack of preparedness, the obsolete aircraft.”
The first hangar is divided into the Early Years Gallery (up until World War II) and the Air Power Gallery (World War II). With this month’s expansion, the second hangar is now mostly devoted to Korea and Vietnam, while the F-15s and most of the other other modern planes have moved to the new building, which will soon include a restored B-2 Stealth bomber.
A shuttle-bus ride away is a hangar featuring presidential and experimental aircraft. Those will eventually be moved to a planned fourth hangar at the main site, which will adjoin a missile gallery that’s scheduled to open next year.
“We have three different roles,” Metcalf said. “The first is a traditional museum, looking back, talking about the wonderful accomplishments of the U.S. Air Force, its rich tradition. The second role is talking about what the Air Force does today, getting the elements of esprit de corps. The third role is [dealing with] the future of the Air Force, where we are going.”
“The motto of the museum used to be ‘where eagles rest,’” Metcalf said. “That was becoming very static. Now ‘we are the keepers of their stories.’”
Preserving the past
Behind the scenes, the keeping of those stories is a multilayered process. To pave the way for the work of the restoration and exhibits divisions, researchers have to use a variety of resources to ensure accuracy. Photographs are the main resource.
“Most of the time, the aircraft come to us in poor condition,” said Wes Henry, chief of the research division. “Without photos, which are like hand-held time machines, there would be no way to paint them accurately.
“People come to the museum expecting to find the truth. We can say ‘wouldn’t it be neat to put pinstripes on this P-51.’ But we preserve the Air Force’s factual history, and we couldn’t do that without photographs.”
But when the actual planes or photos of them aren’t available, “you rely on oral history,” Henry said. “Talk to the veterans, or get their thoughts through diaries and letters home. But the thing with that is, especially with oral history, memories can be faulty. Our job is to do the most accurate job with the best knowledge available. We try to use oral history to back up the evidence.”
Still, at times the spoken word does quite nicely. “We don’t have a photo of [Rasmussen] climbing into the airplane in his pajamas,” said Henry, “but he came to the museum and spoke to our historians at length.”
And sometimes discrepancies can’t be helped. “A lot of times planes are in operational use for months, if not years; in peacetime, even decades. When an aircraft is first delivered, it was painted like this, and two months later additional markings might be put on. Regulations change. You can have one airplane that had several kinds of markings on it. The problem is, the crew only crewed that airplane for a month, so they’ll remember those markings.” So, when they come to the museum and take note of the difference, Henry says, “you pull out a photograph and they’ll say, ‘I’ll be darned. Didn’t have it on there when I flew it.’ ”
Also, pilots often don’t remember the markings as well as members of the ground crews do, Henry noted.
One advantage the researchers have is that Wright-Patterson stored samples of the paint used on planes back to the mid-1930s. Samples were kept on cardboard or metal in a dark place, so they can be brought out as needed when old planes are being restored.
The photos aren’t just used as guides for painting planes, either. The museum’s photo archives are constantly growing, and donations from veterans and their families play a great part in that.
“What we’re interested in is anything that helps relate the story of the Air Force — aircraft, bases, their mission, personal shots of people in uniform. Basically, we’re trying to preserve a broad slice of Air Force life down through the years.”
According to Henry, the museum gets about 300 donations a year (and the collections division accepts about the same number of nonphoto artifacts such as medals and uniforms).
“I think it kind of shows that as the museum gets more and more well- known, people are more willing to donate material to us,” he said. “They understand we’re going to be around, with professionally trained people to take care of their materials.
“We’re having people donate diaries, letters home, personal photo albums … things that are very important to them. When you accept something like that, it’s a big responsibility. We don’t take that lightly. It’s a part of their personal life that they’re entrusting to us, not just now, but for future relatives who will come to the museum 50 years from now to see what granddad donated. They’ll expect to find it in excellent shape.”
One thing that will help in that area is the museum’s new state-of-the-art film vault, which keeps material at 50 degrees Fahrenheit and 45 to 50 percent relative humidity, year-round.
“The problem with photographs is a slow process,” Henry said. “All of a sudden they deteriorate. The good thing is, the old photos are for the most part black-and-white, which really has much better long-term stability than color. But even with black-and-white, you get silvering of the emulsion, and we have a little of that.”
The archive includes 95-year- old World War I photos, and “what saved us is that they were in files kept in the dark, not handled that much. Now, with the museum going strong, they’re having a much higher usage rate; it’s good that we have this film vault.”
Henry hopes a multiyear, painstaking effort to digitize the material will further reduce wear and tear, but a project like that moves slowly.
“General Metcalf has been very farsighted with insisting on the proper facilities for a national museum. He understands the importance and significance of these materials. Once you stabilize them, they’re going to be available for generations to come.”
Something for everyone
Out in the galleries, visitors circulate through a vast collection of aircraft, memorabilia and dioramas that can make a one-day visit to the museum seem incomplete.
Robert Hagmeier, a Korean War veteran and retired newspaperman from Kansas, had been in the museum for five hours one afternoon in April, and had been through only one of the galleries. “It’s the first time I’ve been here,” he said. “I’m really impressed.”
Elsewhere in the Early Years section, families took in the displays — over here, an early Wright Brothers plane; over there, a diorama of a cadet pilot being chewed out by an angry instructor after driving the nose of his BT-9B into the ground. (According to Metcalf, a lot of veterans’ reaction to the scene is that the instructor looks familiar.)
The museum features a collection of memorabilia from some of the pioneers of military aviation, such as Eddie Rickenbacker and Billy Mitchell. Metcalf notes with quite a bit of pride that with the donation of the Medal of Honor presented to Lt. Harold Goettler, the museum now has all four such medals earned by aviators during World War I.
Over in the Air Power gallery, one diorama shows a crew working on an A-20 on an airfield in New Guinea. Another features then-Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, personnel from his Raiders, and USS Hornet crew members at work. Others honor Seabees and African-American airmen. In one scene, captured pilots are led from a rail car by a German guard. A display remembers bandleader Glenn Miller, lost during World War II.
This gallery is also a showcase for the inimitable art — usually something to do with attractive women — that World War II crews placed on their planes. As one story goes, an airman who flew one of the planes noted that the logo was placed wrongly during restoration; he knew this because it didn’t match the original location of a shrapnel hit on the model’s anatomy.
In a hallway is a collection of flight jackets, custom-decorated. The displays in areas like this and along the walls would probably be sufficient to stock a good, interesting museum, even without the planes.
A particularly somber exhibit is Bock’s Car, the B-29 Superfortress used in the atom-bomb attack on Nagasaki. Several displays offer perspective on the second use of a nuclear weapon in warfare.
In the second hangar, a visitor begins to realize the size of the museum’s structures. At one end is a C-124C Globemaster II cargo plane. Toward the middle is an enormous B52-D Stratofortress, with a 185-foot wingspan that doesn’t threaten to scrape the sides of the hangar. “Airpower” takes on added meaning in the context of what it takes to get these huge, heavily-laden objects off the ground and keep them there.
The third hangar — the Eugene Kettering Building — will feature Cold War aircraft, notably the B-2 bomber. Museum officials note that the expansion allows a more chronological display of the aircraft, and the third hangar has also taken advantage of some new ideas in lighting for a more dramatic impact.
Scheduled for opening early next year is the Hall of Missiles, and fund-raising is in the works for a fourth hangar.
Away from the main complex — accessible only by shuttle bus due to force-protection issues — are some of the museum’s most intriguing displays, the presidential and experimental aircraft.
The most recognizable plane in this area is the Boeing VC-137C (number 26000), the former Air Force One used regularly by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, and kept in the fleet until 1998. Visitors can walk through the area where Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Nearby is the Douglas C-54C Skymaster that carried Franklin Roosevelt to the Yalta conference; it includes a special elevator to lift the president’s wheelchair on and off the plane.
Next door is a collection of R&D planes, with the XB-70 Valkyrie suspended above and dominating the room. Designed in the 1950s as a Mach-3, high-altitude bomber, only two were made; the other crashed in 1966.
Other aircraft are located around the museum’s grounds, and hundreds from the collection are on loan to other museums around the world.
There’s also an IMAX theater, and a bookstore featuring a wide array of flight-related material. Between the hangars are several special exhibition areas, one of which is an art gallery that has an international focus on aviation this month. (The works of James Dietz will be there in August and September, and depictions of future flight are on the schedule for the rest of the year.)
Some people think of museums as stuffy, static places. Greek and Roman artifacts, for all their importance in the educational process, are still thousands of years old. But at Dayton, the ever-changing nature of military aviation adds an extra layer of work. Stealth jets that were on the drawing board just a few years ago are museum pieces now, and new campaigns provide new material.
Recently, according to Deborah Csutoras of the public affairs staff, several servicemembers who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom “presented the museum with artifacts like flight planning maps, boots, uniforms. History is happening today. If you don’t proactively gather it now, you won’t have it [later] to tell the tale.”
And there’s the need to find and attract an audience now, and down the road. “The most elusive thing in the world is to try to find out why these visitors come today," said Metcalf. "It could be as simple as free time and a rainy day,” or a planned weekend trip. Either way, “it’s up to us to give the visitors a worthwhile experience.”
That includes, he said, filling in the educational gaps for those — military and civilian — who might not be getting a solid background in world history, military history and geography. But that doesn’t have to be a boring process; thus the dioramas and updated text on the exhibits. “Once they’ve been introduced to it, they do come back,” he said.
Metcalf calls his museum a “drive-to” place, as opposed to “fly-to” facilities such as the Smithsonian. Dayton’s location puts it within a convenient drive of major cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and even Chicago and St. Louis. So a family that isn’t inclined to fly to Washington might opt for the highway. And plenty of people have been hitting the highway — 1.5 million people visited the museum last year (up from 800,000 when Metcalf came aboard), and museum officials expect the numbers to be even higher this year amid the centennial activities.
How does the Air Force Museum differ from, say, the Smithsonian? From a research point of view, “we have a good working professional relationship with the Smithsonian, but their job is different from ours,” Henry said. “We are the national museum for the Air Force. Their mission is all of aviation, including civilian. We wouldn’t care about a Pan-Am 707 photo, but they would. They have a much broader scope than we do. Our story goes back to 1909, with the first military aircraft.”
The Internet has added an important way to tell that story. “We have a very successful Web page [www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/index.htm],” said Metcalf. During the Iraq war, “we could tell what’s been in the newspapers by what was hit [on the site]. If gunships were in the news, we’d see that the hits on the gunships page have skyrocketed.”