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

Check out one of the greatest air museums in the world.

Geoffrey Morrison
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
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National Museum of the US Air Force

The National Museum of the US Air Force near Dayton, Ohio, is one of the largest and most impressive air museums in the world.

In multiple hangars at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the museum presents a roughly chronological history of aviation. All the aircraft are in impeccable condition, even this 100-year-old Caproni Ca. 36 bomber from World War I.

For more about the museum its aircraft, and our tour, check out Touring the ultimate aviation museum: The National Museum of the United States Air Force.

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The legendary, or perhaps infamous, Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero was one of the most important aircraft of World War II. Japan built more 10,000 of them. This example was found in Papua New Guinea in 2004. 

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Air Jeep

This odd-looking aircraft is a Curtiss AT-9 Fledgling. Also commonly known as a Jeep, it was a difficult-to-fly twin-engine trainer used during World War II. This is the only surviving intact example.

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Big Beau

I think there's something especially epic about aircraft with huge radial engines. This is a Bristol Beaufighter, used as a night fighter during World War II. This particular example first flew in 1942.

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Combat Liberator

This is one of just a handful of B-24 Liberators that survive to this day. The museum's plane flew combat missions in North Africa in 1943 and 1944.

On the right is an even rarer Macchi MC.200 Saetta, an Italian fighter-bomber that first flew in the 1930s. It was fairly rugged, with some decent flight characteristics, but was largely outclassed by the start of World War II.

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German hunter

Easily one of the best fighter aircraft of the Second World War, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190D terrorized the skies over Europe. The museum's example was captured and used for flight testing in the US toward the end of the war.

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Another German hunter

The Messerschmitt Bf 109 was Germany's other main fighter aircraft of World War II. Initially it flew as an advanced interceptor, but later models were used as fighter-bombers and air superiority fighters, on reconnaissance and more. 

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Rocket fighter

One of the many weird experimental aircraft built by Germany near the end of the war, the rocket-powered Messerschmitt Me 163B Komet had incredible intercept speed but limited range and flight time. 

The museum's example was likely sabotaged in production by one or more of the forced laborers building it.

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The Memphis Belle

The actual Memphis Belle, the B-17 so famous they made a movie about it. It was the first bomber to successfully fly 25 missions over Europe.

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Medium Martin

The Martin B-26G Marauder was a medium bomber used throughout World War II. It had the lowest loss rate of any Allied bomber.

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The De Havilland DH 98 Mosquito was an incredible aircraft. Made mostly of plywood, it was extremely fast with impressive range. The museum's example was built right after World War II, and flew under its own power to Dayton in 1985. 

I've also toured the De Havilland museum outside London to get a closer look at that company's other remarkable aircraft.

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Defector's Junkers

The Junkers Ju 88 was a versatile aircraft used by the Luftwaffe in World War II as a dive bomber, night fighter, interceptor and more. The pilot of this example defected to British forces in Cyprus from his home base in Romania.

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First jet fighter

The Messerschmitt Me 262 was the world's first operational jet fighter. It offered incredible performance, but only 300 ever saw combat. By the time it was ready at the end of World War II, Germany lacked the infrastructure and pilots for the 262 to be a real threat.

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Night fighter

The stacked cockpit, twin-tail P-61 Black Widow is one of the odder Allied designs of the war. It was the US' first purpose-built night fighter. The pilot sat in the lower forward cockpit, the gunner sat above and behind. The radar operator sat in the rear in his own section.

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My beloved Catalina

It's an inside joke of mine, funny to literally only me, but I have to take a picture if a museum has a PBY Catalina. It's easily my favorite aircraft of the World War II era. 

The museum's Catalina was flown by the Brazilian Air Force until 1981. Not bad for an aircraft built in the early 1940s.

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The second-most famous B-29 Superfortress, Bockscar, dropped the second atomic bomb, nicknamed Fat Man, over Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945. 

I recently got a closer look at Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb, at the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

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Fat Man

Nearby is a replica of the 10,000-pound Fat Man atomic bomb.

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Nom nom nom

The welcoming (or maybe eerie?) maw of a Douglas C-124 Globemaster II sits in a hangar featuring mostly midcentury aircraft.

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Old Shakey

Pilots and crew nicknamed the C-124 "Old Shakey" due to (I'm sure) its robust and rigid fuselage.

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Cargo and more

The double-decked cargo hold could carry tanks, jeeps and up to 200 soldiers.

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Rare Tornado

You don't see many B-45 Tornados in museums. There are only three on display anywhere, and I've gotten up close to all them. The others are at the Castle Air Museum in California and the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum in Nebraska. The B-45 was America's first production jet bomber.

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This plane doesn't look real. It's like someone took two P-51 Mustangs and welded them together. Technically, that's more or less what manufacturer North American did. This is the F-82 Twin Mustang, which saw service in the Korean War. It was the last piston-engined fighter built for the US Air Force and bridged the gap between World War II aircraft and the Jet Age.

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Big 50

Much as the F-82 bridged the gap between World War II and the Jet Age for fighters, the B-50 did a similar thing for bombers. Largely an updated and upgraded B-29, the B-50 was the last propeller-driven bomber for the Air Force. They were replaced in 1954 by the jet-powered B-47.

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Get your hustle on

Not very well known, the B-58 Hustler was a pretty remarkable aircraft. It was the Air Force's first operational supersonic bomber. (Yep, a bomber capable of Mach 2.) It first flew in 1956, only nine years after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in a rocket-propelled experimental aircraft.

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Fast hustle

Ten years after it entered service, the B-58 was already obsolete and retired from use. This particular aircraft broke three speed records between New York and Los Angeles.

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The Peacemaker

Another of the hybrid aircraft so common in the middle of the 20th century, the enormous B-36 Peacemaker was powered by six rearward-facing propellers and four jet engines. This is one of my favorite aircraft. You can read more about it over at Six turning, four burning: A closer look at the enormous 10-engine B-36.

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Last of its kind

Like so many other propeller-driven aircraft developed during and right after World War II, the B-36 was quickly replaced by the all-jet B-52. This aircraft was the last B-36 to fly, landing here in 1959. Three other B-36s have survived, one at Castle Air Museum, one at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum, and one at Pima Air & Space Museum in Arizona.

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Early Cold War

The B-47, or in this case, the RB-47H Stratojet was an early Cold War medium bomber, replacing B-29s and B-50s. It carried the same bomb load, but was 50% faster. This aircraft was the reconnaissance variant. In its 11-year service it flew missions over the Soviet Union from bases in Turkey and Japan.

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Combat search and rescue

Sikorsky HH-3Es were CH-3 transport helicopters modified with defensive armament, self-sealing fuel tanks and armor plating. They were used for combat search and rescue missions in Vietnam and up until Desert Storm in the early 1990s. 

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Fins and blades

On the left, this CH-3E amphibious transport helicopter flew classified special missions during the Vietnam War. On the right, the extremely versatile Douglas B-26K is a modified version of a World War II-era A-26. These saw combat service not just in that war, but in Korea and Vietnam as well. Above is the iconic triple tail of a Lockheed Constellation.

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Need for speed

The legendary SR-71 Blackbird is the fastest military aircraft ever. Top speed was over Mach 3, or more than 2,000 mph.

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The museum's aircraft was the first to fly an operational sortie, followed by 941 more, the most of any SR-71.

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Soviet stunner

Even 40 years on, the MiG-29 is a gorgeous aircraft. Originally designed as a counter to American F-15s and F-16s, it's now more of a multirole combat aircraft and is still in production. This early A-variant was stationed near Moscow. 

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RAF in the desert

This Panavia Tornado was flown by the RAF during Operation Desert Storm, or Operation Granby as they called it, in 1991. The Tornado was a joint effort among the United Kingdom, Italy and West Germany starting in the late 1960s. 

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Angles of stealth

The first operational stealth aircraft, the F-117 Nighthawk, had a radar profile a fraction of the size of a comparable aircraft. The museum's aircraft was the second Nighthawk built and was used for testing.

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I love the weird A-10 Thunderbolt II in all its chunkiness. This is a great display as it shows how massive the GAU-8 Gatling gun is compared to the size of the aircraft. 

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Stealth bomber

This is the only B-2 Spirit bomber on display anywhere. Technically it wasn't a full B-2 since it never had engines or electronics. It was used for structure and fatigue testing. 

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Still, seeing one of these in person is quite a thrill given how rare they are and alien they look. It's arguably the most sci-fi looking aircraft still in service.

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Next-gen fighter

Moving forward in time, or at least to the modern era, this is one of nine F-22 Raptors built for engineering and other testing. The F-22 is the Air Force's next-gen air superiority fighter. Nearly 200 are already in service.

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Fly me to the moon, or at least nearby

A collection of ICBMs and other launch vehicles brings us to the final hangar, which has some of the rarest air and space craft.

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Shuttle trainer

This is the the Space Shuttle Crew Compartment Trainer, used by NASA to train astronauts from the first shuttle mission to the last. I recently got up close to the Space Shuttle Discovery at the the Udvar-Hazy Center.

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Oddball of the future

This weird looking aircraft is the Chance-Vought/LTV XC-142A. It was an early experiment into vertical/short takeoff and landing, or VSTOL, transports. The tiltwing aircraft never made it to production, but it certainly foretold the tiltrotor V-22 Osprey that would come 25 years later.

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In the 1980s and '90s the Air Force ran the Advanced Tactical Fighter program to find its next-generation fighter. The F-22 eventually won, but it's hard to argue that the Northrop-McDonnell Douglas YF-23 wasn't a gorgeous aircraft. Only two were made. I got a closer look at the other one at the Western Museum of Flight in California.

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Vertical launch

In the mid 1950s the Air Force experimented with launching interceptors vertically. They'd theoretically land this way as well, negating the need for long, easily-targetable runways. This Ryan X-13 Vertijet launched from a mobile launch trailer, transitioning to normal horizontal flight before landing vertically. The program was canceled due to the aircraft's limited range and payload and the improvement of ground-to-air missiles.

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Tacit stealth

Stealth designs didn't end with the F-117. Northrop's Tacit Blue was an experimental aircraft used during the early 1980s to test curved surfaces and reduced heat signature. It was also exceptionally weird looking. You can see aspects of its design in Northrop's later B-2 Spirit.

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The Bell Textron XV-3 was the world's first successful tiltrotor aircraft. It was ahead of its time. Testing ended in 1965, and Bell's V-22 Osprey wouldn't fly until 1989. The flying saucer next to it is an Avro Canada VZ-9AV Avrocar from the early 1950s. A scale model for a supersonic aircraft that could hover, it was dangerously unstable.

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Forward sweep

I had a toy of this as a kid. Using parts from F-5s and F-16s, Grumman designed the X-29 to test forward-swept wing performance. It was also a testbed for carbon fiber construction, canards (the small forward wings), computer-assisted flight controls and more. The theoretical performance possible with the wing design was never realized, and the project was canceled.

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The Air Force and Navy wanted an aircraft with the speed of a jet, but the better range and shorter takeoff/lower landing speed of an aircraft with a propeller. This is the monstrosity Republic created, the XF-84H Thunderscreech

It's the loudest aircraft ever made. The propeller spun faster than the speed of sound, causing deafening noise and a shockwave powerful enough to knock someone over. One test pilot was reported to have said "You aren't big enough and there aren't enough of you to get me in that thing again." The YouTube channel Real Engineering has an excellent video about this bizarre aircraft.

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Forgotten Fisher

I pride myself on my aircraft knowledge, but I have to admit I'd never heard of this Fisher P-75A Eagle. Designed as an interceptor in the early days of World War II, it had several uncommon features like an engine mounted amidships, contra-rotating propellers and a variety of parts and panels from other aircraft to save money. It wasn't particularly good, however, and the project was canceled with only 14 built. This is the only survivor.

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In a museum of incredible and rare aircraft, this might be the rarest and the most incredible. Born from the bonkers early Cold War race for faster and more capable aircraft, the XB-70 Valkyrie is an enormous, six-engine, Mach 3 bomber. It might have been the ultimate high-speed, high-altitude attack aircraft. Think of it as an armed SR-71 Blackbird. 

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Ultimate thrust

As ICBMs became cheaper and more capable, the need for an ultra-high-speed bomber waned. Two Valkyries were built before the program was canceled, and those were only used for testing. This is the only surviving example, after the other prototype had a tragic midair collision. 

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The diminutive and unassuming Convair XF-92A was the first jet aircraft with a delta wing, similar to the XB-70 that looms over it.

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The X-3 Stiletto was a radical design to test Mach 2 performance of tiny wings and a dart-like shape. It influenced aircraft like the F-104 Starfighter.

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The rocket-powered X-15 is still the fastest manned aircraft ever built. It let the Air Force and NASA test the limits of machine and man. One X-15 pilot, Neil Armstrong, went on to become the first human to step on the moon. This is the X-15A-2, the second built and the fastest. Its top speed was Mach 6.7, or about 4,250 mph.

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Speaking of fast

The first aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight was the Bell X-1. That aircraft is in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. This, the third X-1, studied aerodynamic heating at high speeds. It also was the first aircraft to use reaction rockets for directional control. This technology was later used on the X-15.

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Lifting body

The Martin X-24A (middle) and X-24B (foreground) were experimental aircraft designed to study if an aircraft's fuselage could generate lift on its own. This "lifting body" design was considered for the space shuttle orbiter.

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Into the wild blue yonder...

It's a remarkable museum when a YF-12, the predecessor to the SR-71, isn't the most interesting vehicle in the room. 

The National Museum of the US Air Force is easily one of the best air museums in the world, and I've been to a lot of them. Budget at least a full day for your visit. For more about the museum, its aircraft, and our tour, check out Touring the ultimate aviation museum: The National Museum of the United States Air Force.  

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