“We are the keepers of their stories.” That’s how the National Museum of the US Air Force defines its mission. And the museum, located at Wright-Patterson AFB, near Dayton, Ohio, will soon be able to tell even more of those stories as a new fourth exhibit building will open to visitors in June 2016.
“Our job is to tell the Air Force story and to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack Hudson, the director of the museum. “This building give us the capability to better do these two things.”
The 224,000 square foot facility—about five acres under roof—will house nearly seventy aircraft and spacecraft in four galleries—Research and Development; Space; Global Reach; and Presidential aircraft—each representing an important part of Air Force history.
In addition, the new building includes three Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, or STEM, learning nodes that will serve as an important tools in the museum’s ongoing educational outreach program. These dedicated, interactive learning spaces are designed for use by museum educators leading educational programming for visiting school groups of all grade levels. The nodes also will host a variety of activities for the visiting public, including demonstrations, hands-on activities, videos, and special presentations.
Some of the historical artifacts going in the new building, like the Space Shuttle Crew Compartment Trainer, were on display in the museum’s other buildings but were out of place chronologically. Most of the aircraft, however, were previously stored in an auxiliary hangar a mile away in a controlled access area on the Wright Field side of the base, and four large airlifters were stored uncovered outside the main museum complex.
Access to that hangar was a major issue, as only a limited number of visitors could go see those aircraft at any given time. Elevated security conditions at Wright-Patterson occasionally cut off access completely.
Room To Show
“Now, with the aircraft in this new building, a million people a year can see the XB-70 and the Presidential aircraft,” noted Hudson, who among many military assignments ran the Joint Strike Fighter program. “They will be able to walk aboard a C-141. And they will be able to see a Titan IVB heavy-lift booster for the first time ever.”
Construction began in July 2014 and the US Army Corps of Engineers, which oversaw construction, formally turned the fourth building over to the museum in February 2016. But moving the aircraft from the auxiliary hangar actually began in October 2015.
“Locating the aircraft in this building is a constantly evolving 3-D puzzle,” said Jeff Duford, a curator in the museum’s Research Division. Using 1/72 scale models, the museum staff figured where to place the aircraft and in what order they needed to put them in the building. “We had to look at things like wingtip clearances or whether an aircraft could roll under the wing of another,” Duford added. “The smaller, lighter aircraft could be hung, but we made sure they were only hung near the walls to keep the center of the building clear.”
The first aircraft in was the North American X-15 research aircraft, followed shortly afterwards by the North American XB-70 Valkyrie triple-sonic research aircraft. The then-Lockheed-Georgia Company in Marietta, Georgia, was a subcontractor to North American and built the center fuselage on the XB-70 in the early 1960s. The Lockheed C-141C StarLifter was the first aircraft placed in the Global Reach gallery.
In the run-up to the official opening on 8 June 2016, the remaining aircraft, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Lockheed VC-121E Constellation and an example of the Lockheed VC-140 JetStar used by six different US Presidents will be installed.
Most of the aircraft in the Global Reach and Presidential galleries will be open to visitors. The transport aircraft, such as the C-141 and a historically significant C-130E, have floors that are designed to handle large loads and will only need clear acrylic panels installed on the fuselage sides to protect the interior. Cargo hold lighting will be replaced by low voltage, LED lighting, although in the original fixtures.
“Aircraft like President Roosevelt’s VC-54 and the VC-121 were never meant to have a million people walk through them,” noted Christina Douglass, one of the Presidential gallery curators. “The interiors have acrylic panels to keep visitors from touching the seats or the galley, but we’re replacing the carpet on the walkway with diamond plate steel in order for these nearly seventy-year old aircraft to handle that kind of foot traffic.”
One Giant Artifact
The 230-foot wingspan of the Convair B-36 intercontinental bomber makes it the “widest” artifact in the entire museum collection. However, the new building cannot accommodate displaying the Titan IVB heavy-lift space booster vertically, so, at 204 feet, it is the longest artifact in the collection.
“We acquired the Titan IVB in 2005 when the intended payload was cancelled,” said Dr. Doug Lantry, a Research Division curator. “We knew this building was coming. We knew the Titan IV was coming. But we had to figure out how to display it.”
Fully fueled and with payload, the Titan IVB weighed more than two million pounds. Even empty, just the two external solid rocket motors weigh close to 75,000 pounds each.
Picking up that kind of weight—not to mention the central booster and the eighty-six foot long payload fairing—and placing it on a huge reinforced steel stand ten feet in the air will require an extensive plan and a large commercial crane.
But raising the Titan IVB off the floor opens up nearly 6,000 square feet of display space. “The Titan IV is the latest member of a family heritage that started with the Titan I and II intercontinental ballistic missiles,” noted Lantry. “We will now have room to tell the Air Force space story separate from the Air Force missile story.”
“Our Titan IV is the last one in existence. Once it’s in place, we expect it to remain there until the end of time,” Lantry quipped.
A Lasting Legacy
The non-profit Air Force Museum Foundation was formed in 1960 to secure funds for the museum. “The fourth building was paid for in full by the Foundation,” said Hudson. “Since 1971, it has paid for ninety-four percent of the complex and 100 percent of the buildings.” Cost of the fourth building was nearly $40 million.
Fundraising for the fourth building began about a decade ago. Lockheed Martin became the lead corporate sponsor for the fourth building in 2011. This $10 million gift—to be paid over ten years—allowed the Foundation to complete fundraising and start engineering and construction of the new facility.
The fourth building resembles its two most recent predecessors, the buildings housing exhibits highlighting Korea and Southeast Asia aircraft (built in 1988) and the Cold War (2003). The new building is the same size as the Cold War Gallery, and both are somewhat larger than the building housing Korea and Southeast Asia exhibits.
The fourth building is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, Silver certified, and features LED lighting, low-flow water fixtures, and R-30 insulation. It is sized and the floor is stressed to accommodate a VC-25, the modified 747 currently used for Presidential transport when one becomes available.
“We only open a new building every fourteen or fifteen years,” concluded Hudson. “Having these facilities to showcase these aircraft and artifacts is crucial to our mission.”