Wednesday, February 27, 2013

An Air and Space Museum in Your (Midwestern) Backyard

Last weekend I toured the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Central Ohio is not always associated with the Space Age or the technology and heritage of flight, but Dayton has been a hotbed of research, development, and invention since the days of the Wright Brothers.

The museum is located just outside the gate of the enormous Wright Patterson Air Base (As an aside, the air base is home to the mysterious "hanger 18" where foreign vehicles were dismantled for reverse-engineering. Rumor has it one such vehicle was the object that crashed in near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. One strange story I've read asserts that the Air Force hid elements of alien technology recovered at the crash site among the thousands of man-made objects displayed in the museum. Crazy, right...?).

I've visited this museum many times since my childhood, and one problem I've always run into is exhaustion. Despite the benches and chairs that the staff have helpfully left out, it is just not humanly possible to digest all the stuff that is on display here. There are four cavernous hangers, a silo-shaped building for missiles and rockets, and numerous wings, extensions and outdoor exhibits--not to mention the two special hangers that are located off site (within the perimeter of the nearby air base, so you have to take the museum's bus tour if you don't have access to the base). To give you an idea of scale, the IMAX theater that is attached to the museum's entrance is dwarfed by adjacent buildings.

They need to be that big: the museum boast some of the largest aircraft that have ever flown. And hanging from the rafters, lining the walls, and in innumerable odd corners there are many smaller exhibits and plaques which recount the history of aviation.

 The galleries are arranged according to different periods and themes: early flight, World War One and the interwar period; World War Two; the Korean War and Southeast Asia; the Cold War; and Space. But another way to approach the vast hoard of the museum is to follow different strings of technological development--from their origins early in the 20th century to the secret projects of the 1980s and 1990s.

 Take missiles for instance:
The "early years" gallery has a reproduction of the Kettering Bug, an unguided "aerial torpedo" with a payload of 180 pounds of explosive, developed by the Army Air Corps during World War I.  It is considered the first cruise missile, and was developed in Dayton, Ohio.


The Japanese Ohka (trainer version). This craft was a "cruise missile" in the sense that it was guided to its target by a suicide pilot. The trainer version featured a landing skid, flaps, and a water tank to simulate the explosive payload. They were strapped onto bombers and launched at American ships late in the Pacific War. (The significance of the suicide bomb being displayed next to the "Fat Man" and "Little Boy" atomic bombs wasn't lost on me.)


The German V-2, or A-4 rocket. This was the first ballistic missile and the direct forefather of the ICBM programs in the United States and Russia.

An early German air-to-air guided missile, the Ruhrstahl X-4. It could be controlled from the fighter cockpit using a small auxiliary joystick.

A reproduction Sputnik. When the Russian's beat the US into Earth orbit, it meant they could deliver a weapons payload anywhere on the planet.


The US response: bigger rockets based on the principles introduced by reverse-engineering German V-2s. To underline the point, there is a V-2 rocket engine on display in this area of the museum. 

The payload: MIRV-- multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle. Each of these relatively small warheads is a nuclear weapon. Each can strike a target up to hundreds of kilometers away from the others. Decoys and chaff can also arrive on such a vehicle. 

Bombers also follow a technical development tree familiar to any RTS gamer:

The Caproni Ca.3 was an early twin-engined bomber that first flew in 1916. It could carry 1,764 pounds of bombs.

The Martin B-10 was the first all-metal bomber used by the US Army Air Corps. Introduced in 1932, this ungainly (by modern standards) aircraft made all the existing bomber types obsolete. Interestingly enough, it was faster than contemporary fighters! It could carry 2,260 pounds of bombs in its internal bomb bay.

This particular B-10 had been sold to the Argentinian Air Force and flew as a trainer until the 1960s. The B-10s were obselete by World War Two. Chinese sqaudrons were slaughtered by Japanese Zeros during the opening stages of the war. In 1938 two Nationalist Chinese B-10s made a sortie over the Japanese homeland, although they dropped propaganda leaflets rather than bombs!

The tail guns of the mighty B-17. By World War II bombers were classed into light, medium, and heavy types. This aircraft, Shoo-Shoo Baby, was forced to land in Sweden and was interned during the war. The enterprising Swedes converted it into an airliner and it flew for several years for a civilian air line! The museum is currently restoring two other B-17s, including the famous Memphis Belle. The four-engined B-17s could carry payloads of 4-8,000 pounds (depending on the range of the mission). 

One of the other heavy bombers used by Allied air forces throughout WWII was the B-24. It was faster, could fly farther, and carried 2,700-8,000 pounds of bombs compared to the B-17, but was more difficult to fly successfully.

The B-29 Superfortress was the ultimate heavy bomber deployed during World War II. It included pressurized crew spaces and remote-controlled machine gun turrets. At first the wings of B-29s were designated as an asset above the normal level of Air Force operations, and were deployed directly by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They made their debut in China in 1944 and were soon used against strategic targets in China and Japan. Each B-29 had a payload of 20,000 pounds of bombs.

The aircraft on display at the museum is a specially-manufactured type, code named "Silverplate"--the bombers equipped to carry the first atomic bombs. This particular aircraft, Boxscar, dropped the "Fat Man" implosion-type nuclear fission bomb on Nagasaki. It is regarded by some as "the aircraft that ended World War II". 

A mock up of the implosion-type nuclear bomb. The "silverplate" B-29s dropped full-size conventional versions of this weapon for training on Japanese targets before deploying the real thing.

The "Little Boy" gun-type atomic bomb first dropped on Hiroshima. It is a longer and thinner weapon because a "gun" made up of explosives propels a mass of weapons grade nuclear material into another mass at the front of the bomb to create a critical mass. Apparently this type of bomb was discontinued because it was too easily triggered by accident. 

The display at the museum is the casing of an actual nuclear weapon produced in 1945 and later dismantled.


During the Second World War, American planners foresaw the possibility that Great Britain would fall to a German invasion, and called for a huge airplane that could make the journey across the Atlantic Ocean to strike targets in Europe. The Army Air Force also wanted an aircraft that could fly at extremely high-altitudes (above 40,000 feet). The war was over before a truly intercontinental strategic bomber like the B-36 "Peacemaker" could be introduced.

First flying in 1946, the b-36 dwarfed its predecessor. It had a range of 10,000 miles and a payload of 86,000 pounds--enough to carry the massive thermonuclear bombs invented in the late 40s.

The mainstay of the Strategic Air Command until the late 1950s, B-36's typically went on 40+ hour missions. The early types had crew quarters and a device for parasite escort jet fighters to hang on the wings until needed.
When viewed head-on, the extremely thick and wide wings tend to make the B-36 look like a flying saucer--at least one photo of the bomber was passed off as a UFO during the 1950s. Flying the giant plane was likened by one pilot to "sitting on your front porch and flying your house around."

The bomber was powered by a combination of six turboprop engines and four jet engines, creating the motto "Six turning, four burning". Because of problems with engine fires and reliability, some aircrews preferred to say "two turning, two burning, two smoking, two joking, and two unaccounted for."!
Although the B-36 was developed with conventional strategic bombing in mind, it was readily adopted to carry the monstrous hydrogen bombs invented after WWII.

 After they were retired in 1959, most of the B-36 airframes were scrapped. This aircraft is one of only five survivors of the 384 built.
Oddly enough, another one that the museum had on display before this specimen was dismantled and sold off to a Cleveland area farmer who kept the giant fuselage in his back yard.
The B-36 was replaced by the B-52, which began flying for the Air Force in 1955. The jet-powered heavy bomber has a slightly longer range than the B-36, but with airborne refueling can stay aloft for much longer periods of time. During the height of the Cold War flights of B-52s were kept airborne around the clock. This particular variant is painted in the camouflage scheme used during the Vietnam War.
Arc Light, the bombing campaigns against North Vietnam, dropped more tonnage of bombs than ever before in human history. The bomber can carry about 70,000 pounds of bombs.

Although I don't have a picture, other displays reflect how atomic bombs were miniaturized in the 1950s, allowing much smaller aircraft to deploy weapons with a yield exceeding that of the massive Mark 17 pictured above. Now that ICBMs have largely replaced the B-52 as a delivery method for intercontinental strikes, its conventional role continues in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are many more threads of technological development present in the museum--many of the with peaceful or scientific applications. If you go this vast collection in the unassuming heart of Ohio, you will find artifacts of a quest for strategic firepower that led eventually to the possible destruction of human civilization on our planet. If you look closely, however, you will also find that the quest to develop ever more efficient killing machines spun off by-products that allow us more mobility (jet airlines), more knowledge of the stratosphere and climate, and that even allowed us to leave Earth and travel around the moon. So amidst all this Pandora's Box debris, I suppose, there is hope...

The command module Endeavour  from Apollo 15, the fourth mission to land on the moon (which, with Apollo 10 and 13, makes this the sixth command module to carry three men around the moon and back).