Traveler: Air Apparent

A high-flying museum upgrade gives Dayton more than the Wright stuff.
Exhibition hangar at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

“There it is.” My husband, an aerospace engineer, caught his breath, awestruck. He’d just spotted the XB-70 Valkyrie, an experimental bomber. “The world’s fastest,” he said. It was discontinued in the 1960s, when he was a kid. But a budding rocket scientist never forgets.

We were on a tour of the new exhibition space at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, which opened in June. In addition to the XB-70, the 224,000-square-foot expansion houses 10 presidential aircraft, including “Sacred Cow,” fitted out for wheelchair-bound FDR, and the Air Force One that carried JFK to Dallas and brought his body home. There was no way my engineer husband was going to miss this trip to the final resting spot for so many famous aircraft—an easy glide from the Wright brothers’ historic testing grounds. And he was not disappointed.

Wright flyer replica at Dayton's Air Force museum
Wright flyer replica at Dayton’s Air Force museum

Located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, this is the world’s largest (and oldest) military-aviation museum, with artifacts, art, and literally tons of planes. A replica of a 1909 Wright flyer looks as fragile as a dragonfly, but it evolved into legendary World War I fighters like the Sopwith Camel and Fokker Triplane—both displayed here, suspended in midair with one inverted above the other in a death-defying maneuver.

More than eye candy for engineering geeks, the museum offers fun sorties into history and pop culture. The WWII gallery has displays devoted to Bob Hope, the Tuskegee Airmen, and Walt Disney. Vintage flight jackets are decorated with figures like buxom “Ice-Cold Katy.” (A museum historian admitted some in storage are too risque to exhibit.)

Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park encompasses a scattering of sites, including Huffman Prairie, where the Wright bros made test flights, and Carillon Historical Park, which houses the restored 1905 Wright Flyer III. The Wright Cycle Company, a tiny restored bike shop, helped fund the invention that changed the world—a feat even more awesome than the XB-70.

Lily’s Bistro in the hip Oregon District keeps up on farm-to-table trends, while The Pine Club stays down with (and is loved for) old-school steakhouse ways.

The handsome Mills Park Hotel in nearby Yellow Springs is modeled after a prominent former resident’s (sadly, demolished) Victorian home, but the amenities are 21st-century.