Planes in hangar gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force (photo courtesy of United States Air Force)

Explore the National Museum of the United States Air Force

As the Dayton area’s famous museum celebrates its 100th anniversary, explore the destination’s fascinating exhibits, artifacts and stories.

A cassette tape of astronauts’ favorite wake-up music. Flight uniforms that date from the 1920s to contemporary times. The World War I diary kept by Eddie Rickenbacker, the Columbus, Ohio-born fighter pilot famously nicknamed “America’s Ace of Aces.” 

These are only a fraction of the unique artifacts featured in “100 Years of Heritage,” a special exhibition the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton is presenting this year in honor of its centennial. The exhibition’s May 21 opening approximates the date in 1923 when people were invited to view airplane paraphernalia at a Dayton airfield. That small-scale display launched what is now the world’s oldest and largest military aviation museum — think nearly 20 acres of galleries showcasing hundreds of aircraft, spacecraft and missiles.

“This museum preserves pieces of American history,” says staff historian Douglas Lantry, “and it’s free because that history belongs to all of us.”

The size and scope of the collection makes the museum a top-flight destination, but with free admission and parking, it’s also a bargain.

In 1903, Daytonians Orville and Wilbur Wright started a truly groundbreaking chapter of history by inventing the airplane, and among the treasures you’ll find in the museum is a wind tunnel that Orville designed in 1916 for aerodynamic experiments.

You can also walk through the SAM 26000 that was President Kennedy’s Air Force One, ride in a flight simulator and discover exhibits highlighting the Tuskegee Airmen and Women in the Air Force that show how these military heroes and pioneers reflected and led cultural changes. 

And to learn something about service, courage and sacrifice, stop by the Memphis Belle, the legendary and meticulously restored B-17 that embodies legions of airmen who gave their lives to defeat Nazi Germany. Memphis Belle’s name was inspired by pilot Robert Morgan’s girlfriend, and just seeing its classic pin-up girl nose art is worth a trip to the museum. 1100 Spaatz St., Wright-Patterson Air Force Base 45433, 937/255-3286,