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By Lou Washington

Last Saturday I took a trip up to Dayton, Ohio and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Wright-Pat is the home of the National Museum of the United States Air Force. For a fellow like me, one who loves aircraft; this is the ultimate museum experience. If it ever flew, or even if it didn’t fly but was supposed to fly, there is a good chance they have it here at Wright-Pat.

The museum spans virtually the entire history of powered flight. Starting with the Wright Flyer and other examples of those fragile machines that first took people into the sky under the control of the occupant; the displays continue through the years of Worlds War 1 and 2 and finally move into the Cold War era and into present day.

For the most part, each machine is displayed within the context of the world in which it existed. For this reason, the museum offers a vivid history of the assorted conflicts that troubled our world over the last century. Yes, it was a bloody and horrifying century for humanity, but, it was also a century of incredible innovation and technological growth. At least, much of that war inspired innovation also drove vast improvements in the everyday lives of many people.

When you look at the time line that links aviation advancements and innovations together over the course of past 110 years, you can’t help but be amazed at the rapid and dramatic rate that this technology has developed. In less than twenty years, airplanes went from being constructed of wood and fabric to aluminum and sheet steel. It took less than fifty years for airplanes to raise their top speed from less than 10 MPH to exceeding the speed of sound.

Capacity and size also changed with equally dramatic increases.

The museum does not restrict its collection to US Air Force aircraft. You will find a fabulous assortment of aircraft from Germany, France, England, Russia, Japan, Canada and others. There are a few UAVs, missiles and historical spacecraft available for viewing as well.

A museum annex houses some of the more exotic pieces in the collection. One gallery houses aircraft that played an important role in R&D and experimental aircraft. An adjacent hanger house several presidential aircraft from the Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Nixon administrations.

The weight of history is a palpable force felt upon entering almost any of the seven galleries making up the museum. So many of these aircraft became icons associated with the most significant events of the twentieth century.

Viewing the Huey chopper or the F4 Phantom brings the Viet Nam era back to life. One can almost hear the rotors thropping and feel the heat and humidity of Southeast Asia. A scarred project Apollo capsule makes you wonder incredulously at the thought that this device actually orbited around the Moon and brought three guys back to their families here on planet Earth.

For me, there are two aircraft that always stand out above the others. In the World War 2 Gallery, the B-29 dominates a substantial percentage of the display. Even more impressive from the stand point of sheer size is the humongous B-36 with its wing span the extends fully from one side of the hanger to the other.

The B-29 will of course forever be associated with the end of the war with Japan. The bomber served as the


The Boeing B-29

delivery vehicle for the only two atomic weapons ever used in war. In some ways that is too bad because this plane played a huge role in the development of aviation technology.

The B-29 program did not get off to a great start. In Warren Kozak’s excellent biography of Curtis Lemay, the magnitude of the program to develop this airplane is thoroughly examined.

Unlike other bombers, or heavy transports, the B-29 would feature a pressurized cabin. The size of this plane was magnitudes larger than anything currently in service. The plane was designed to operate at much higher altitudes than other aircraft of that era as well. All of that complexity, new technology and the politics of the time combined to make the B-29 program an ongoing, never-ending crisis.

Kozak quotes Army historian Irving Brinton Holley, Jr stating that there were nearly 1,200 engineering changes made to the design before the first plane rolled off the assembly line. The plane was supposed to have something on the order of 55,000 individual parts. All together, the cost of the B-29 program exceeded the cost of the Manhattan Project itself.

In building the B-29, Boeing laid the foundation for the modern airliner. Design elements and techniques developed for the B-29 are found in virtually all heavy transport aircraft flying today.

The other airplane that always takes my breath away is the Convair B-36. This airplane was developed as the first intercontinental bomber. It was deployed early in the cold war years, but, it was initially envisioned for use against Germany in the event that British airfields would not be available to stage bombing missions against the Nazi state.

Convair Vultee B-36

The B-36 was also unconventional. It was, like the B-29 much large than any previous aircraft. It employed six 28 cylinder Pratt & Whitney radial engines. These engines were reverse mounted on the trailing side of the wing in a pusher configuration. To provide additional power on take off and during bombing runs, the airplane boosted an additional four pure jet turbine engines from General Electric. All of that power gave the plane an incredible payload capability.

In its final production configuration, the B-36 was a cold war machine. An incredible cruising range, a ceiling making it nearly immune to the threat of fighters and surface to air missiles, a bomb bay capable of handling the huge nuclear age weaponry that was used in that era; the B-36 was truly the first strategic bomber.

There are, of course, other aircraft that are just as fascinating in their own right. These two are the ones I’m always drawn to when I visit.

If you are ever in the vicinity of Dayton, Ohio I hope you will take a day, at least a day, and drop in to this wonderful monument to flight. It is open to the public and admission is free. You really can’t beat that.

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