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Great aviation museums—Central US

Pilots and aviation museums fit together like a hand and glove. Why not visit one soon? Here are some of the best in the Central United States.

  • The Presidential Gallery of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. The gallery displays several Presidential aircraft, including those used by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Its centerpiece is SAM 26000, a modified Boeing 707. This aircraft took President and Mrs. Kennedy to Dallas on November 22, 1963, the day of the president's assassination. Vice President Johnson was sworn in as president aboard it shortly after the assassination, and the aircraft then carried Kennedy's body back to Washington. It became the backup presidential aircraft after President Nixon's first term. U.S. Air Force photo by Jim Copes/Ken LaRock.
  • Front of the Wright Flyer III inside Wright Hall at Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio. Built in 1905, it was the first practical airplane, and it has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Photo by Nyttend via Wikipedia.
  • A pilot flies over the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio during a “WWI Dawn Patrol Rendezvous.” U.S. Air Force photo by Victoria Thomas.
  • A North American Aviation XB-70 Valkyrie dominates this gallery of experimental U.S. Air Force aircraft. Designed in the late 1950s, the six-engine Valkyrie was capable of cruising for thousands of miles at Mach 3+ while flying at 70,000 feet. Only two of these aircraft were built; one crashed after colliding with a T-38 chase plane and the other is displayed here. U.S. Air Force photo by Ken LaRock.
  • A McDonnell XF-85 Goblin “parasite” fighter sits outside the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. It is normally displayed inside, beside the XB-70 Valkyrie. Note the three vertical stabilizers and tall winglets. Only two of these were built; the other is on display at the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum in Ashland, Nebraska. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.
  • This B-17G Flying Fortress flew 24 WWII combat missions in 1944, receiving flak damage seven times. In 1968 the aircraft was found abandoned in France, and the French government presented the airplane to the U.S. Air Force. After a massive 10-year restoration by volunteers of the 512th Antique Restoration Group at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the aircraft was flown to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in October 1988. Photo by D. Miller via Flickr.
  • At the EAA Aviation Museum, the panels of this Acro Sport aerobatic airplane have been removed to allow visitors to look inside. Photo courtesy EAA.
  • This Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird is on display at the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
  • This Lockheed U2C Dragon Lady hangs at the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum. Developed in the early 1950s as an ultra-high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, later versions remain in use. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
  • The Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum displays a rare British Avro Vulcan bomber like this one, shown flying with the Royal Air Force (RAF) Red Arrows demonstration team. The bomber was operated by the RAF from 1956 to 1984. RAF photo by Cpl. Steve Buckley.
  • At the Space Center Houston, the Space Shuttle Independence mockup rests upon the retired Shuttle Carrier Aircraft NASA 905. Visible in the background is the enormous hangar built to house a restored Saturn V rocket. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
  • At the Space Center Houston, the Starship Gallery displays the Apollo 17 Command Module flown by Gene Cernan, Ronald Evans, and Jack Schmitt during the final Apollo mission in December 1972. Also on display are a Lunar Module replica; Mercury 9 capsule (Faith 7) flown by Gordon Cooper; Gemini 5 capsule flown by Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad; Lunar Rover Trainer; Lunar Samples Vault; Skylab 1-G Trainer; and Apollo-Soyuz Test Project docking module trainer. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
  • Part of the gigantic Saturn V rocket on display at Space Center Houston. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
  • The Cosmosphere SciEd Center & Space Museum in Hutchinson, Kansas, focuses on the “Space Race” between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The Cosmosphere also hosts summer camps for all ages, and co-curricular applied STEM education programs for field trips, groups, and scouts that meet Next Generation Science Standards and common core, focused on college and career readiness. Photo by Randy via Flickr.
  • A replica of the Bell X-1 “Glamorous Glennis” in which Gen. Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound. This airplane was used in the film “The Right Stuff” and is displayed at the Cosmosphere. The Cosmosphere also built roughly 80 percent of the artifacts and props for the film “Apollo 13.” Photo by Patrick Pelletier via Wikipedia.

Dayton, Ohio, overflows with aviation heritage, from the Wright Brothers to the U.S. Air Force. Fly to the Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport and then head to the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center and Aviation Trail Visitor Center, where you can get an overview and pick up a free aviation trail driving map and an aviation passport that lists 16 aviation sites. Get your passport stamped at seven or more and you can redeem it for a Wilbear Wright aviator teddy bear. The Carillon Historical Park is a living history museum and a must-see for its unique Wright artifacts: the original 1905 Wright Flyer III (the only airplane recognized as a National Historic Landmark); the camera used to capture the iconic photo of the Dec. 17, 1903, flight; and one of only a few remaining bicycles that the brothers manufactured. But the granddaddy of museums in Dayton is the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, the world’s largest and oldest military aviation museum. The XB-70 Valkyrie alone is mind-blowing, but there are over 360 additional aerospace vehicles and missiles, plus thousands of artifacts throughout 19 acres of indoor hangar space. You’ll need at least a day for this museum, or else grab one of the free guided tours offered five times daily.

The huge EAA AirVenture fly-in lasts for only one week in July, but you can visit the EAA Aviation Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, year-round. You’ll see over 200 aircraft that demonstrate the breadth of innovation in aviation. Galleries include homebuilts (including EAA founder Paul Poberezny’s original Pober Sport), air racing and aerobatics, antiques and classics, pioneers of flight, innovations, and the Eagle Hangar, filled with warbirds. The onsite Pioneer Airport’s grass runway is closed to the public, so land at Wittman, where Basler Flight Service offers a free shuttle to and from the museum.

The Dayton International Airshow is held each summer at Dayton International Airport. The U.S. Navy Blue Angels are the featured performers for 2018. When in town for the airshow, be sure to visit the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Ryan J. Courtade.

The Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum boasts a comprehensive collection of military and nuclear-capable aircraft and missiles of the Cold War era. You’ll find the museum in Ashland, Nebraska, between Omaha and Lincoln (land at Lincoln for the shortest drive). This places it near Offutt Air Force Base, the Strategic Air Command headquarters. A sleek Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird is displayed inside the museum’s glass atrium; a Lockheed U2C Dragon Lady hangs inside one of two large hangars. Other must-see items include the Boeing EC-135 Looking Glass aircraft, which was designated as a flying command post in the event of an all-out nuclear war, a rare British Avro Vulcan bomber, a U.S. B-36J Peacemaker bomber (the largest mass-produced piston aircraft ever built), and an XF-85 Goblin aircraft, one of only two ever produced (the other is in Dayton). This tiny “parasite fighter” was designed to be dropped from the giant Peacemaker bomber to defend against interceptor aircraft.

A young visitor gazes at a Moon rock at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas. Photo courtesy Kansas Tourism.

Fly to Ellington Airport to visit Space Center Houston, the official visitor’s center for NASA's Johnson Space Center. You’re first greeted by an exquisite pair of T-38 Talons, at Talon Park. On Independence Plaza, the Space Shuttle Independence mockup rests upon the retired Shuttle Carrier Aircraft NASA 905. A tram tour of the Johnson Space Center includes Building 30 (location of Mission Control Centers); Building 9 (location of the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility); and Rocket Park with its restored Saturn V,  one of the giant Apollo-era rockets that propelled U.S. astronauts to the moon. The Astronaut Gallery contains the world's largest collection of spacesuits, a space simulator, and much more. The Starship Gallery displays a Lunar Module replica, Mercury 9 capsule, Gemini 5 capsule, Apollo 17 Command Module, Lunar Rover Trainer, Lunar Samples Vault, Skylab 1-G Trainer, and Apollo-Soyuz Test Project docking module trainer. Touch a Mars rock or have lunch with an astronaut. Several theaters, a science show, galleries, a full-scale mockup of the shuttlecraft Galileo from Star Trek: The Original Series, and the lectern from which President John F. Kennedy repeated his goal of a manned moon landing round out the collection.

Fly to Hutchinson, Kansas, to visit the Cosmosphere SciEd Center and Space Museum, which focuses on the “Space Race” between the United States and the U.S.S.R. You’ll see the largest collection of Russian/Soviet space artifacts outside Moscow, including Sputnik 1 and 2 and a Russian Vostok spacecraft. Other artifacts include the Liberty Bell 7 Mercury Spacecraft and a Titan II rocket. The Cosmosphere has four venues: The Hall of Space Museum, The Justice Planetarium, The Carey Digital Dome Theater, and Dr. Goddard's Lab (a literally explosive live science presentation on the history of rocketry).

A P-51, Grumman Duck, and other warbirds fill the Eagle Hangar at the EAA Aviation Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy EAA.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: U.S. Travel

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