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.

7E79BB8A-D9C4-4336-BCAC-42A42A414CD3

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!)

1D191CB0-CD5A-414D-BDDF-90D376447925

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!

9A2191DB-0B3F-4A09-BAF4-EAAF47D4C9E8

 

Meeting Memphis Belle

vvlk2977.jpg

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!

ULIJ6491

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

Lies Plane Spotters Tell

IMG_8816It’s a sad truth and it pains me to say this but… plane spotters tell lies.  Yes, we do.  Anyone who says they don’t is… well, probably lying. We don’t mean to lie, it’s just that when you are hanging around the airfield and watching planes come and go, it is so easy to get completely sucked in and say things that you don’t really mean.  For example:

I’m not going plane spotting today. 

IMG_9501Since I work for an airport, the temptation is always there to stop upstairs and do a little plane spotting before I head home. It seems that no matter how firm my resolve to go straight to my car after work, by the time I get to the escalators I feel that irresistible urge to head on up. At that point I move on to lie number two…

I’m only going to stay for ten minutes. 

Half an hour later and I’m still there. The problem is, there’s almost always something interesting to see. In the unlikely event that there’s nothing happening on the airfield, I listen to ATC communications on my scanner. I listen to some of the airline operations frequencies as well, which can often be quite entertaining.

It’s too wet/cold/snowy/stormy for plane spotting. 

IMG_9529

Photo by Andrew Stricker

To be fair, sometimes it really IS too miserable outside for plane spotting. But spotters learn quickly that airplanes can be very cool to watch in rainy/snowy/windy weather. Can you say crosswind landings? On a recent stormy Friday I was able to sneak outside for a few minutes between storms. Listening to the coordination between ATC and the pilots and watching flights navigate around the weather was quite fascinating.

I’ve already got several pictures of that airline/livery/aircraft type. I don’t need any more. 

Except they’re landing from the opposite direction today… and on the other runway… and the sky is amazing… and the light conditions are just right…

I’m only going to wait a few more minutes for that flight to push back and then I’m giving up.

IMG_9091

I have to thank my twitter friend Andrew for coming up with this one.  It’s so true! An hour later I’m still there, still waiting for that plane to depart. Of course when I do give up and leave that’s when the plane decides to taxi out. Doh! I swear it does this on purpose just to taunt me! (I’m talking to you, American Airlines Airbus with the America West retro livery!)

I don’t need a better camera/lens/scanner.

Actually, yes I do! I really do! And once I get that new piece of spotting equipment, then of course I have to test it out! But don’t worry – I’m only going to stay ten minutes.

So why do we end up staying even though we swear we’re going to leave? Why do we make liars out of ourselves? Well…

For Moments Like This:

IMG_8472Earlier this week I decided to do a little plane spotting on my lunch break. It was hot and muggy so I told myself I’d only stay a few minutes. I was just about to (for once) head inside early when I heard a military flight contact the tower. I didn’t recognize the call sign but assumed it was probably a KC-135 practicing approaches. They often fly over from the nearby Air National Guard base. I’ve seen them several times before, however I figured I might as well stick around and watch them fly by.

FullSizeRender (70)Then I heard ATC clear the flight for the break. At that point I realized that it couldn’t be a tanker – it had to be fighters. Before I could even begin to speculate on what kind of fighters they might be, a flight of four A-10 Warthogs appeared. I calmly and patiently watched as they circled to land… OK, I’m lying again.  The truth is, I completely lost my mind.  I let out a shriek and sprinted across the parking garage (in high heels no less) while simultaneously attempting to take as many pictures as possible. I was overwhelmed with excitement, laughing, crying, jumping up and down…

IMG_9481Then I noticed that the group of construction workers who had been working nearby were slowly backing away. I must have looked like a complete lunatic. And guess what? I. DON’T. CARE. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time then you know the A-10 is one of my all-time favorite airplanes. I’ve only seen them fly once before at AirVenture Oshkosh last summer. To see them at my airport was absolutely the most unexpected, amazing thing EVER.

So why do plane spotters tell themselves these terrible lies? Because magic moments happen without notice when you least expect them. We just don’t want to miss out. And that’s the truth.

img_9469.jpg

Author’s note: In April I attended an event at the USAF Museum commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid.  If you want to hear about it and see some pictures I took of the B-25s that participated in the flyover, please check out Episode 24 of the Flying and Life podcast.

All the Presidents’ Planes (and Potties)

img_7503As you probably know by now, I’m a big fan of aviation museums. One of my favorites is the USAF Museum near Dayton Ohio. I first made the journey a couple of years ago and as soon as I stepped inside I lost my mind over the sheer number of completely awesome airplanes. It was my first time seeing an A-10 up close. And the Blackbird. And the amazing Bird of Prey (yes, named after the Klingon ship from Star Trek). And… well, you get the idea. This time, however, it was the Presidential Airplanes exhibit that caught my attention.

img_6349When you think of Presidential Airplanes, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the current Air Force One – a Boeing 747. I’ve had the fortune of seeing it a couple of times recently. However, there have been a number of different planes used to transport the President over the years, and the USAF Museum has several of them including the Lockheed VC-121E, the Douglas VC-118 and the Douglas VC-54C. Perhaps the most well-known plane in the collection is the Boeing VC-137C that flew 8 Presidents – Kennedy through Clinton.

img_7437

OK, so not a Presidential Plane. But if I was the President it would be!

One of the best things about the Presidential Airplanes exhibit is being able to tour the inside of each plane. Some of the passageways are really narrow, but it’s worth fighting off claustrophobia for a chance to see how the Presidents used to travel. I found it quite interesting to compare cockpits and kitchens and seats and beds. Oh how things changed over the years! Take, for example, the Presidential Thrones. You know… potties. Toilets. Loos. Each one as unique as the plane it was on.

 

The Sacred Cow

img_7499

The very first aircraft built specifically for the purpose of transporting the President was the Douglas VC-54C Skymaster. It’s official name was “The Flying White House” but it was nicknamed the “Sacred Cow” (for obvious reasons). The accommodations were luxurious for its day. Actually, they’re still luxurious even by today’s standards. Sit on a couch instead of a tiny seat crammed next to a zillion other tiny seats? Yes please! I wish I could tell you about the Presidential Potty, but sadly it wasn’t on display. I did, however, get to see the elevator used to lift President Roosevelt into the plane in his wheelchair.

The Independence

img_7505

The second Presidential airplane was a Douglas VC-118 (a modified DC-6) called The Independence. I have to admit I was a bit amused to see an old-school pencil sharpener affixed to a wall just outside the cockpit. I guess the pilots and navigators needed lots of sharp pencils so they could write on the paper navigational charts in use back then. Or maybe President Truman just liked doing crossword puzzles.

img_7391

The Presidential Commode is a pretty fancy affair. It is connected to a private dressing room with comfy couches and plenty of space.

Columbine IIIimg_7500

President Eisenhower’s plane is a “Super Connie” that he named Columbine after the state flower of Colorado. The kitchen technology took a big leap forward with a very roomy and well equipped galley that includes not one, but TWO toasters. Because heaven forbid the President be without toast!

img_7369

As for the Presidential Bathroom, it is bigger and better equipped than the one I had in my first apartment! Even the bathroom for the President’s entourage was roomier than expected.

“Going” on a Boeing

img_7502

The Boeing VC-137C is largest and perhaps the most impressive plane in the Presidential collection. It carried 8 sitting Presidents and set the standard for Presidential livery in a lovely blue-and-white designed by Jacqueline Kennedy. One of the things that struck me about this Air Force One (other than the size) is the sheer number of telephones it has. There are phones everywhere!

img_7501

When it came time to view the Presidential Commode you can imagine my disappointment to discover that the bathroom doors were shut! Noooooo! Thankfully the USAF Museum website has a lovely 360 photo that will allow you to see the bathroom in all its golden glory.

Since I’ve already dragged this post into the toilet, it seems only fitting to close out with one last potty pic. Located near the Presidential Airplanes display is a C-141C which has a lavatory that is… well, let’s call it well-decorated.

img_7414