Seattle might not spring to mind when you think of important locations in the history of aviation. Kitty Hawk probably, Paris maybe, Edwards Air Force Base for sure. But when it comes to the history of airplanes themselves, Seattle belongs on the list for one big reason: Boeing.
Fitting, then, that the massive Museum of Flight is not only located adjacent to Boeing Field, right down the road from one of the company's massive factories, but also features several historically important Boeing aircraft. It's not just a Boeing museum, though. Through its multiple hangars and galleries, there are stunning examples of aircraft from the entire history of aviation. Even better, you can go inside several of these meticulously maintained aircraft.
Want to stand underneath the only surviving M-21 variant of the A-12 spyplane, the predecessor to the SR-71 Blackbird? How about rare and restored WWI and WWII aircraft like the Pfalz D.XII and Yakovlev Yak-9? You can even walk through the first 747, the first 727, one of the 787 prototypes, the first jet-powered Air Force One and more.
Here's a look inside.
Wood gliders to composite spaceplanes
No matter where you put it, an A-12 (top of the page) just dominates the space it's in. Visually similar to the even more advanced SR-71, the model still looks futuristic now nearly 60 years after its first flight. This is one is even rarer, the M-21 variant that was built to carry an autonomous drone, which is currently sitting on top.
Oh, right, I'm in a museum. The Museum of Flight is just south of Seattle, and I arrive on a cold February day and the museum is packed. There's an event happening on the floor below the M-21: a model faire with tiny versions of many of the aircraft you can see in this very space. That space is aptly called the Great Gallery, and it has floor-to-high-ceiling windows on two sides, letting in a lot of light. Aircraft sit on the floor and hang from above, creating a certain energy that most air museums lack. There's an impressive mix of aircraft here, from WWI biplanes to Cold War jets, to the aforementioned M-21.
Though there's no specific order you need to visit the museum's many spaces in, I follow the route recommended to me at the ticket desk. From the Great Gallery I head down to the Red Barn, an odd sort of annex with wood floors and walls. It's a mockup of what the first Boeing manufacturing plant would have looked like, with era-appropriate tools and machinery. The structure itself is original, but it was moved here in the 1970s. As mentioned before, the Museum of Flight isn't a Boeing museum per se, but its location certainly lends itself to having a slight Boeing focus.
There are no planes in the Red Barn, and that's what I'm here to see, so I head down the corridor to the Personal Courage Wing. The first floor is all about WWII aircraft, and there's a great mix of expected and unexpected planes. A perfectly preserved P-51, P-47, P-40 and P-38 sit on the floor or hang from the ceiling, along with a Spitfire, Bf 109 and several others. The Yak-9 is exceptionally rare, and this is the only one in North America.
Upstairs goes back in time a few decades to WWI. Fabric-covered, wood-framed biplanes and triplanes are a mix of reproductions, restorations and replicas.
Outside and across a covered bridge are the Space Gallery and huge outdoor-but-covered Aviation Pavilion. The Space Gallery has a Space Shuttle trainer, and for an extra fee you can get a tour inside. (Due to time constraints, I wasn't able to take the tour during my visit, but I was able to walk through the cargo bay.)
The Aviation Pavilion is probably the best part of the museum. Not only are there some jumbo jets here, including the original 747, but you can go inside most of the aircraft. This includes the first jet-powered Air Force One from the late '50s, a 727 and even the ultramodern 787. There's even a Concorde.
I've visited a lot of air museums all over the world, and while size isn't always an indication of quality, how many aircraft you can go inside is. To me, at least. The Museum of Flight has a great combination of variety, rarity and airplane accessibility. The $25 fee for adults is on the high end for an air museum, but I don't think you'll feel like you didn't get your money's worth. The museum is open every day 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Check out the gallery above for even more photos of what it looks like inside.
As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, epic 10,000 mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.