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Touring the ultimate aviation museum: The National Museum of the United States Air Force

A look inside one of the greatest aviation museums in the world.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
3 min read
Geoff Morrison/CNET

There are a ton of great air museums all over the world, from the Royal Air Force Museum in London to the Pima Air & Space Museum in Arizona and the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, DC. There's a case to be made, however, that the best of them all is in Dayton, Ohio. There on the grounds of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the National Museum of the US Air Force has a massive collection of rare and important aircraft from the entire history of aviation.

With fragile World War I bombers, supersonic Cold War fighters and experimental aircraft that touched the edge of space, every era is represented. Most have impressive histories as well. You'll see the Memphis Belle is here, so famous they made a movie about her and her crew, and Bockscar, the B-29 that dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. And best of all, the planes are immaculately restored and maintained.

It's spread across five hangars, with hundreds of aircraft, and I spent an entire day exploring the museum during my 10,000-mile road trip. Honestly, I could have spent another day or three. Here's a look in and around some of the highlights of the museum.

Endless incredible aircraft at the National Museum of the United States Air Force

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Legends of the skies

I've visited a lot of air museums, and this one has been on my to-do list for years. But the timing never seemed to work out. To be honest, Dayton isn't exactly a tourist hotspot. But I'm glad I finally made it. The museum's massive collection spills outside, with a C-17 and an A-10 on display before you even enter the museum. Once inside, it's logical to start chronologically. The Early Years Gallery has the oldest aircraft, many of which are over 100 years old at this point. The fabric, cable and wood machines from World War I are so open and delicate-looking it doesn't seem possible they could fly.

Moving up a few decades, the World War II Gallery has the Memphis Belle B-17 and the Bockscar. There's also early jet aircraft like the Me 262 and the rare rocket-powered Me 163. The Southeast Asia War and Cold War galleries feature huge bombers like the B-52 and B-36, as well as stealth aircraft like the F-117 and B-2.


Looking out from a C-124.

Geoff Morrison/CNET

The final hangar, the Research & Development Gallery, is perhaps the best. It features experimental aircraft like the X-29 with its forward-swept wings, the dart-like Douglas X-3 Stiletto, and my favorite aircraft at the museum, the only remaining XB-70.


Experimental aircraft in the Research & Development Gallery.

Geoff Morrison/CNET

The XB-70 Valkyrie was a Mach 3-capable bomber. It resembles a Concorde drawn with right angles, or something out of a cartoon. The delta wings are all straight lines and razor-sharp edges. The six huge GE YJ93-GE-3 turbojets look like they could launch the massive craft into space. Even standing still it looks fast. Only two were built, and the other tragically crashed. 

Flying high

The National Museum of the US Air Force is an incredible place to visit, and I had an absolute blast. To give you an idea how much there is to see, during one of my normal photo tours for CNET, I'll take around 400 photos. Here, I took over 1,000. I got there when they opened and left when they closed and I still feel like I rushed it.

Perhaps most amazing, it's completely free. The museum is open every day but Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. If your own road trip plans don't put you near Dayton anytime soon, check out the gallery above for a closer look at some of the highlights of the museum. I couldn't feature them all, but I got a close look at a few dozen of my favorites. 

As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castles, epic 10,000 mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.

He wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines, along with a sequel. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and his YouTube channel.