Flight Path

Take a closer look at iconic pieces of space and aviation history at these five Ohio destinations.

The Lockheed SR-71A was known as the "Blackbird" and its flight crew had to wear basic spacesuits due to the high altitudes and speeds it could achieve.

Skylab 3 Apollo Command Module

NASA Glenn Visitor Center, Cleveland

The weathered capsule rests askew in the center of the gallery with one side tilted up and its door open, beckoning visitors to consider the extremes of space travel.

A set of stairs allows for a look inside the cramped module that carried three astronauts to the Skylab space station on July 28, 1973, and the angled display shows off the scorch marks left behind during the capsule’s trip home 59 days later.

The Skylab 3 mission involved space station maintenance and scientific and medical experiments, but it was additionally significant because the astronauts spent double the amount of time in space than their Skylab 2 counterparts.

“Each of these efforts really built on one another,” says Kirsten M. Ellenbogen, president and CEO of the Great Lakes Science Center. “We learned a lot of things through Skylab that we now apply to the International Space Station.”

Great Lakes Science Center put the final touches on its 12,000-square-foot NASA Glenn Visitor Center, which was previously housed at the NASA Glenn Research Center in the Cleveland suburb of Brook Park, over the summer. The new lakefront home offers a more accessible location for visitors to learn about Ohio’s contributions to space exploration, including NASA Glenn’s work with the Mars rover program. The prototype for the airbag landing system that cushioned the Mars Pathfinder’s touchdown on the planet’s surface was tested at NASA’s Plum Brook Station near Sandusky and hangs above one of the science center’s main escalators.

Don’t Miss: Want to experience a small fraction of the challenge NASA encounters when trying to remotely pilot a Mars rover? An interactive exhibit lets kids and adults try to guide a miniature rover over a replica Martian landscape from across the room. 601 Erieside Ave., Cleveland 44114, 216/694-2000, greatscience.com

Gemini 8 Capsule
Armstrong Air and Space Museum, Wapakoneta

A large screen sits high above the exhibit room that houses the Gemini 8 capsule. On it plays a montage of failed launches, exploding rockets and fireballs — a testament to the danger and uncertainty that was a staple of the early days of America’s space program.

Encased in a plastic shell, the capsule that Ohio native Neil Armstrong piloted during the first-ever docking of two orbiting spacecraft in 1966 sits tilted on one side with its hatch removed. A closer look reveals a cramped two-seat cockpit and an array of analog controls that would appear more at home on a simple airplane of the time than a craft that orbited more than 150 miles above the earth.

The capsule also experienced America’s first critical in-space system failure that threatened the lives of its crew.

“The Gemini 8 mission was considered a successful failure, but it was a trial that made the astronauts better,” explains Chris Burton, executive director at the Armstrong Air and Space Museum. “It only lasted 11 hours due to the system failure, but they were able to dock with the other craft, which was a vital part of eventually making a successful moon landing.”

An elevated walkway inside the museum winds upward, leading visitors to other artifacts from Armstrong’s early days, including the plane that the first man to walk on the moon flew as a teenager growing up in Wapakoneta. (As a boy, Armstrong took his first plane ride in the northeast Ohio city of Warren, where a half-scale replica of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing Module is on public display to commemorate the moment.)

Don’t Miss: Museum visitors can try their hand at the Gemini 8 landing Armstrong and co-pilot David R. Scott had to execute during the mission by way of simulators that mimic the spacecraft’s controls. 500 Apollo Dr., Wapakoneta 45895, 419/738-8811, armstrongmuseum.org

Roscoe Turner’s 1932 Wedell-Williams Model 44
Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland

Cleveland industrialists Fred Crawford and Charlie Thompson traveled to Los Angeles following the 1928 National Air Races to make the case that the annual event should be moved to Cleveland. A year later, the competition was relocated and made the city synonymous with air racing for the next two decades.  

“More spectators showed up than ever before [in 1929], and a lot more entrants of aircraft came for the races,” explains Derek E. Moore, curator of transportation history at the Western Reserve Historical Society. “It was a boom, and it really made it an event.”

The Thompson Trophy was the National Air Races’ coveted prize and Roscoe Turner was the only man to win it three times. The plane Turner piloted while claiming his first Thompson Trophy — a 1932 Wedell-Williams Model 44 — is installed against the far wall of the Western Reserve Historical Society’s main first-floor gallery, banked as if making a turn. The attention-getting installation is an adequate reflection of the man who once sat inside its cockpit.

“[Turner] was a larger-than-life character of the National Air Races,” Moore says. “He would actually fly with a lion cub. For Roscoe Turner it was all about the sense of adventure and the lion was an exotic animal, and it evoked the idea of the wild of Africa. He was a showman.”

A trip to the Western Reserve Historical Society’s Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum also offers visitors a look at Benjamin Howard’s 1930 Howard DGA-3 “Pete.” Built in an age of biplanes and constructed specifically for racing, the one-seat plane was sleeker, smaller and faster than the two-seaters aviators flew in competition at the time.

Don’t Miss:
Keep an eye out for the wooden propeller that once hung in the home of National Air Races promoter Cliff Henderson. When a famous pilot would stop by, he’d have them sign a piece of paper and later adhere it to the propeller. Look closely, and you’ll spot the signature of legendary American aviator Charles Lindbergh. 10825 East Blvd., Cleveland 44106, 216/721-5722, wrhs.org

Lockheed SR-71A  
National Museum of the United States Air Force, Dayton

A jarring shift in the technological advances made in the United States’ quest for military air superiority hits visitors as they enter the Cold War Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

The bulky fighters and bombers of the Korean and Vietnam wars give way to aircraft that have more in common with spaceflight than dogfighting, signaling a shift in the country’s approach to air warfare and information gathering.

Few planes illustrate this as well, and attract as much attention, as the Lockheed SR-71A, a long and sleek reconnaissance aircraft that has more in common visually with science fiction than military might. A tactical solution to the country’s loss of a U-2A spy plane to a Russian missile, the “Blackbird,” as it came to be known, entered the Cold War in 1966 with the ability to reach heights of more than 85,000 feet and speeds of more than 2,000 mph.

“This plane was as close to stealth as we could get in the 1960s and was the first ever with a titanium skin,” says David Donahue, a volunteer docent with the museum. “The flight crew had to wear basic spacesuits due to the high altitudes and speeds it could achieve. With its height and speed, it could outrun surface-to-air missiles and other aircraft. The U.S. never lost one due to enemy action.”

The fleet was retired in 1990, just as the Air Force was introducing the next wave of stealth bombers and fighters, ending its 24-year career as the fastest and highest-flying military aircraft in the world.

Outside of the enormous hangar that houses the aircraft of the Cold War, the expansive museum also features other large galleries highlighting the early years of military air power, World War II, Korea and Southeast Asia.

Don’t Miss: Look for the B-29 Bomber fuselage that’s been modified to allow visitors to walk through it, getting an up-close view of the pilot’s cabin and bomb bays. 1100 Spaatz St., Dayton 45431, 937/255-3286, nationalmuseum.af.mil

Wright Flyer III
Carillon Historical Park, Dayton

A sign outside the brick building bears the name Wright Cycle Co. — the Dayton-based bicycle shop started by Ohio aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright. Inside, displays of vintage bicycle gear and antique tools gradually give way to propellers and early aircraft-wing designs.

Ultimately, visitors find themselves in the large room that houses the Wright Flyer III, the first practical airplane that could repeatedly take off, fly under pilot control and land undamaged. The plane spans 40 feet and its simple design — two chains attached to a small engine mounted on the lower wing powered the propellers — makes it easy to see the influence bicycle design had on the 1905 flying machine.

“This is the most complete Wright Brothers plane in existence, with about 70 percent of it original,” says Steve Lucht, lead interpreter for the museum. “It’s the only airplane that’s designated as a National Historic Landmark, and the initial reconstruction was supervised by Orville Wright.”

More than 30 buildings and structures throughout the park house other artifacts from the Dayton area’s history of industry and aviation innovation including some of the first mass-produced bicycles and the massive Corliss Engine steam electrical generator that powered the National Cash Register Co. in Dayton until 1948.

Don’t Miss: The Carousel of Dayton Innovation, a full-scale, hand-carved carousel that features some of the area’s icons such as Orville Wright’s dog and a 38-foot-long mural charting the Wright Brothers achievements opened in 2011. 1000 Carillon Blvd., Dayton 45409, 937/293-2841, daytonhistory.org