Museum Mayhem (Part 1): Air Mobility Command Museum

9C8601B3-1F51-4CAF-9434-9C5D9F140320In my part of the world, winter means lousy weather, cold temps and very little plane spotting. It also means I go through serious aviation withdrawals. Ugh! So how do I combat the winter doldrums? Aviation museums! They allow me to get my aviation fix and keep my camera from getting too dusty. Recently I got the opportunity to visit a museum I hadn’t been to before: the Air Mobility Command Museum in Dover, Delaware.

0A24DAAA-7EFD-4D75-879E-3DF1A13F577EI’ve been wanting to check it out for quite some time. As the name suggests, the museum focuses on military transport and aerial refueling airplanes. In other words, the big planes. And you know how much I love the big planes! As if that weren’t cool enough, the museum is located right next to Dover AFB, home to the 436th Airlift Wing which flies both the C-5 Galaxy and the C-17 Globemaster. From the moment I saw those tails in the distance I was already completely in love with the place… and I hadn’t even parked yet!

First thing to know if you plan to visit is that most of the airplanes are outside. It rained the morning that I went, but fortunately it had stopped before I got there. The gloomy weather meant that there weren’t many people around so I practically had the museum to myself! I started by exploring the indoor exhibits. Even though the space is somewhat small, there was still plenty to see, including an exhibit on the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots), a mock-up of a C-5 flight deck and a refueling boom from a KC-135. There are also several airplanes including a C-47A Skytrain and a B-17G “Sleepy Time Gal.”

Then I zipped up my jacket and headed outside. Oh my goodness they have some amazing airplanes! I was thrilled to see a few of my favorite heavy haulers including a C-5, a C-130, a KC-135 and TWO C-141 Starlifters – an A model and a B model. They also had several planes that I am less familiar with, including the C-119G Flying Boxcar and the C-124A Globemaster II. And there were a few planes I didn’t expect at all, like the F-101B Voodoo and the F-106A Delta Dart.

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A Pakistan Air Force Ilyushin Il-78 parked at Dover AFB

The entire time I was outside enjoying the exhibits, I was also keeping an eye on the AFB on the other side of the fence. I have never seen so many C-5s and C-17s all in one place! I just couldn’t stop staring at them!  Then much to my surprise another one of my favorite airplanes appeared – an Atlas 747! It taxied onto the apron, parked and began unloading cargo.  Want to make a 747 look small?  Park it next to a bunch of C-5s!

Next stop was a visit to the ATC tower. It used to be the active tower at Dover AFB. When a new tower was built they brought the old tower over to the museum. They lowered the height a bit to make it easier to climb up, but the view is still spectacular. Some of the old ATC equipment was left in place so you can get a feel for what it looked like when it was operational.  The tower is definitely one of the best parts of the museum.

The only person in the tower while I was there was one of the museum volunteers. We chatted for at least half an hour about the various planes in the museum’s collection. I learned that the C-141B was originally destined to be scrapped. However, a hard landing at Dover AFB damaged the landing gear so rather than risk flying on to the boneyard, it was moved over to the museum instead. (Now that’s what I call a good bad landing!)

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Saved from the boneyard! This is one lucky “Lizard.”

My time at the museum flew by and all too soon it was time to head home. I plan to return on one of the open cockpit days which are held the third Saturday of the month between April and October. Did I mention there is no charge for admission or parking? I put some money in the donation box, though, because the Air Mobility Command museum is definitely worth supporting. I hope you’ll go and see for yourself!

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Meeting Memphis Belle

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My first exposure to military aviation came when I was a teenager. I was digging through my brother’s bookcase when a book on the battle of Midway caught my eye. I figured I’d read a page or two but didn’t expect to like it. Several hours later I couldn’t put the book down. We can launch airplanes from ships? Hell yeah! I read as much as I could find about the Pacific battles during WWII. Sure, I knew about the European theater, but the Pacific campaigns captured all my attention.

img_4821.jpgThat changed in 1990 when a movie called Memphis Belle was released. Have you ever had a crush on a movie star? Well that’s kind-of how I felt about the Belle.  I was completely captivated by it, especially when I learned that it was based on a true story. Like any good aviation enthusiast, I wondered what had become of the plane. I was very pleased to discover that it was undergoing restoration nearby and I hoped that one day I’d have the chance to see it in person.

ERTY4430That opportunity came just a few weeks ago. On what was the 75th anniversary of its last mission, the Memphis Belle exhibit opened at the USAF Museum in Dayton. It’s hard to put into words how I felt when I saw the plane for the first time. I had read so much about the Belle and about what the bomber crews went through… So many incredible stories. So many sacrifices. And at long last there she was right in front of me!

The ribbon-cutting ceremony included the USAF Museum director as well as the Air Force Director of Staff. I was surprised, however, that a couple of kids also participated. One was a 13 year old boy from England who completed his first model of the Belle at age 7. Another was a boy who had won a contest for a poster he created. It’s amazing to think that this plane has already made such a big impact on two people who weren’t born until long after the completion of her military service.

While the Memphis Belle was definitely the star of the show, she is just one part of a much bigger exhibit that tells the story of the U.S. Army Air Forces Strategic Bombing missions in Europe.  I learned about the members of her crew, who actually flew their first five missions in different airplanes. Similarly, the crew’s 25th mission was actually the Belle’s 24th. The plane flew one more time with another crew before finishing her tour. I also learned about her iconic nose art and the process that the restoration team went through to determine the best way to display her.

After spending an hour or so exploring the exhibit, we turned our attention to some of the special activities being held that weekend. We started off with a visit to the WWII reenactment camp. Then we took a shuttle over to the runway behind the museum where four WWII planes were parked, including a P-51 and another B-17. Some other planes were scheduled to be there as well, including the movie version of Memphis Belle, but unfortunately the weather kept them away.

Of course, some of the best aviation moments are ones that aren’t planned and happen completely unexpectedly. In this particular case the unexpected came in the form of Air Force One.  Actually, since the President was not on board, it would be more appropriate to refer to it as the VC-25. It was practicing approaches into nearby Wright Patterson AFB. As a result it flew low over the Air Force Museum over and over and over again. Also practicing approaches at the same time was a C-17. We sat and watched them for an hour while we ate lunch. It. Was. AMAZING! I could have watched them all day.

If you weren’t able to attend the opening of the exhibit I have some good news for you – the Memphis Belle is on permanent display! If you are anywhere near the Dayton area, you MUST stop in. I promise you won’t regret it! And if you love B-17s as much as I do, check out the Plane Tales episode: The Luftwaffe Pilot and Ye Olde Pub. It’s the story of a badly damaged B-17 that completed its mission against incredible odds and the unlikely friendship that developed as a result.

Authors’s note: A big thanks to JET (a retired airline employee and current airport ambassador) and his friend Jim for attending the exhibit opening with me!

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Did I mention that there was a C-17 and it was completely awesome?  Just checking…