Like Wright-Patterson Air Force Base itself, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is unmistakably Dayton-bred and born.
The museum celebrates its 100th anniversary with a special exhibit that opened Sunday.
The exhibit offers a detailed look at the museum’s history, complete with rare photos and the citation of little-known facts.
If you think the museum’s story began with President Richard Nixon’s dedication of today’s campus on Wright-Patterson Area B in September 1971, think again.
“There’s more to the story,” said Doug Lantry, historian and curator with the museum. “There’s a backstory to the backstory.”
The origin of what is still called the “Air Force Museum” easily predates the 1947 birth of the Air Force itself.
Born on McCook Field
McCook Field was a modest flight experimentation station just minutes north of downtown Dayton, operated by what were then the U.S. Signal Corps and the Army Air Service.
The Army chose Dayton as a place to experiment with airplanes and aeronautics as the nation entered World War I. The location was chosen (among other reasons) for its connection to the Wright Brothers, the Dayton brothers who invented, built and flew the first motor-operated airplane.
That field, roughly between today’s Keowee Street and the Great Miami River — still easily visible while driving on Interstate 75 — became home to early American military aviation research and development work, where Americans taught themselves to build and fly combat planes.
It was as part of that effort that the Army gathered motors, airplane parts, wings and more.
“It started small,” Lantry said. “It started as a collection of engines, instruments and air-frames that were basically an engineering study collection. And these things brought from Europe during World War I, so we could learn to make airplanes better.”
Initially, these components were grouped together in a way that would allow McCook Field technologists to easily find and study them. Engines were often grouped with other engines, propellers with propellers and parts in general were grouped with similar parts.
The nascent engineering collection attracted attention.
“This area was a center of industrial and technology innovation and invention,” Lantry said. “A lot of people who were interested in aviation were here. And they gravitated to look at this.”
It occurred to Army officers that the public may be interested as well.
Americans had just emerged victorious with their European allies from what was called “the Great War.” “Airplanes had captured the public’s imagination,” Lantry said. “Especially combat aircraft.”
The small museum was opened to the curious in May 1923 — a century ago. According to Lantry, members of the public could simply show up at the McCook Field gates and say, “I’m interested in looking at the airplanes.”
“That collection, and that first effort at a museum, is the nucleus of this gigantic institution that we have now,” he said.
Today, the museum has nearly 100 federal civil service employees, four large hangar buildings, more than 350 aerospace vehicles and missiles, tens of thousands of artifacts, all spanning 20 indoor acres with outdoor air and memorial parks. Pre-pandemic, the museum attracted close to a million visitors a year.
All of this is still growing. A retired F-15C Eagle flown to Wright-Patterson by a Massachusetts Air National Guard pilot April 25 was being prepared for inclusion in the museum’s Cold War gallery in early- and mid-May.
‘The newest, most exciting thing’
McCook Field — a small field to start with, nestled amid hundreds of homes and businesses — was soon seen as a less than ideal place to learn to fly. In 1927, that early aviation study effort, with the museum collection, moved to Wright Field, roughly congruent with today’s Area B on Wright-Patterson.
Drive east on Springfield Street away from Riverside, and you can see stone gates to the right, off to the side of a now-closed entrance to Area B. Those were some of Wright Field’s original gates.
A bit further to the east along Springfield, before reaching the railroad overpass, drivers can see on their right a building adorned with art-deco flourishes close the road — building 12.
“That was the first purpose-built home of this institution,” Lantry said.
The building opened in 1936. Other parts of the collection were scattered across Wright Field, but here was the core, curated and overseen by a small staff.
World War II shut the operation down as wartime needs took precedence. The museum became dormant for more than a decade.
But staff continued to look after and even grow the collection, sometimes quietly offering private tours.
In 1954, another building on what is today’s Area A was devoted to engine work. A large air park was outside, right off Main Street in the growing community of Fairborn. (The building is long gone, but a semi-circular road that was outside that structure is still visible behind a base gate.)
“That became the museum that many, many people know from their childhood,” Lantry said.
Some may remember the Atlas missile outside the building that was dressed up as Santa Claus around Christmas.
While the building may be remembered fondly by those growing up in the 1960s, Lantry said it wasn’t suited as an aviation museum. Poles spaced as regular intervals within made parking airplanes “a huge headache.”
“In the end, it was a losing proposition,” he said.
Steps toward correcting the situation were already being taken. The Air Force Museum Foundation was created in 1960.
By 1971, the foundation had raised $6.5 million for a new museum home.
But the design for that home needed to be right. Lantry said an early vision for the museum by Eero Saarinen Associates — designer of JFK International Airport and the gateway to the St. Louis arch — was seen as “super modern and really visually stunning.”
Plans from Cleveland architects Dalton, Dalton & Little pointed in a different, more familiar direction. Enormous hangars were relatively easy to build and replicate, more practical, and, importantly, less expensive.
It was that first hangar attached to a larger hangar, with some offices, which Nixon dedicated in 1971 — the nucleus of today’s campus.
‘This is the mothership’
Compared to previous decades, growth happened with relative speed.
By 1976, $900,000 was gifted for a two-story addition. With $10.8 million gifted by 1988, along with a $5.4 million federal grant, an additional building opened.
The IMAX theater opened its doors in 1991, aided by gifts totaling more than $7 million.
In 2003, another building was opened, with the Missile Gallery following the next year. And in 2016, another building again, fueled by gifts of nearly $41 million.
In the early 2000s, the Air Force Museum officially became the “National Museum of the United States Air Force.”
That eliminated some confusion, Lantry said. With a dozen service-related field museums and scattered collections across North America, the name signals that this museum, at this location in the Dayton area, anchors it all.
“This is the Department of the Air Force’s main museum,” he said. “It’s a big system. And this is the mothership.”
‘I always learn something new’
Mike Fitzsimmons, 68, of West Milton, is a retired GM machinist and a 36-year volunteer at the museum. What keeps him volunteering after nearly four decades?
“I’m just interested in history and aviation,” Fitzsimmons said. “It’s nice to come to a place where I can be around other people who are interested” in the same things.
“I always learn something new,” he added. “It’s been interesting to see how the museum is involved over those years.”
Oakwood resident Jason Wysong, 46, started volunteering just four months ago.
Wysong is a veteran who served as an Air Force maintenance crew chief.
“I’m an aircraft fan, historian, wanna-be, just being here, it fills all the blocks that I need to fill,” Wysong said.
With hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, Wysong and fellow volunteers see visitors from across the United States and the world.
“I think it’s amazing,” he said. “Getting to talk to people from Europe and Asia, and you hear all the different languages of people coming in. It’s pretty fantastic.”
May 1923: Engineering study collection at McCook Field in Dayton opens to the curious.
1936: The first purpose-built museum for the Army Air Corps and combat aviation opened on Wright Field, today’s Area B on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
1960: The Air Force Museum Foundation is created to secure funds for a new museum home.
A nationwide fund-raising campaign resulted in the construction of a new facility in the late 1960s, with President Richard Nixon dedicating a new building and campus in September 1971.
In 1976, the foundation donated an addition, and in 1988 the foundation and federal government funded a second exhibit building.
The IMAX Theatre and atrium opened in 1991.
In 2003, the museum opened the 200,000 square-foot Eugene W. Kettering Cold War Gallery.
A Missile and Space Gallery constructed as a missile silo, opened in 2004, and the theatre underwent an $800,000 renovation in 2012 as part of its conversion to a 400-seat digital 3D theatre.
Implementation of the third phase of the museum’s expansion plan, privately financed by the foundation, was construction of a 224,000 square-foot fourth building, which opened to the public in 2016.
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