Aviation and space museums on the must-see list

Aviation museum Pima Air and Space

(Hanging planes at Pima Air & Space Museum, Tucson, AZ)

I am an idiot.

At least that’s what some fans of Dayton, Ohio’s United States Air Force Museum and many other aviation museums were calling me today.

They read my msnbc.com column – Aviation and space museums that soar – and were pissed that their favorite museum wasn’t among the six museums featured in the story.

I’m not surprised. The museums I included in the story are great. But there are around 600 other aviation and space museums around the country and each has its own unique collection and incredible team of supporters and volunteers.  So it was a good bet that a lot of people were going to be disappointed with the short list in my story.

United States Air Force Museum, Dayton

(Northrop B-2 Spirit on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force: U.S. Air Force photo)

What did I miss?

The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio for sure.  According to Bobby Schlein, a self-described aviation enthusiast “with a degree and a job in the field,” the museum has“the most extensive collection of defense aircraft… from a replica of the Wright flyer to the F-22 and most in between; as well as a presidential and experiential hangar with many iterations of Air Force One and several very rare (some one of a kind) experimental vehicles including the X-70B Valkyrie.” Another huge plus …no admission fee.

What else?  The Air Zoo in Kalamazoo, MI, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL, the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, WI, and Kennedy Space Center in Florida were just some of the other “must-see” places people wished were on the list as well.

They are all certainly worth a visit. And in this day and age, when so many art and history organizations are hurting for money and support, they’re all lucky to have such devoted fans.

So apologies if I overlooked your favorite aviation or space museum on this list of six:

Everett, Wash.

What you’ll see: On Boeing’s 90-minute tour through the Everett factory, visitors go inside the world’s largest building (by volume) and see the production line for the 747, 767, 777 and the new 787 airplanes. The adjacent Future of Flight Aviation Center displays airplane engines and other giant airplane parts and offers a wide variety of interactive exhibits, including the knob and dial-encrusted flight deck from a 727 airplane.

McMinnville, Ore.

What you’ll see: The museum houses the infamous, huge Howard Hughes Flying Boat HK-1, better known as the Spruce Goose, and more than 50 aircraft from various eras, including a Wright 1903 Flyer replica, a Russian Photon space capsule and a Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird.

Fighter jets Pima Air & Space Museum

(Fighter jets outside the hangar dedicated to World War II Aircraft at the Pima Air & Space Museum; Courtesy Arizona Aerospace Foundation)

Tucson, Ariz.

What you’ll see: The collection at this 80-acre museum includes more than 300 aircraft and spacecraft, 125,000 aviation-related artifacts, a relocated WWII barracks and a space gallery with a moon rock and a training version of an Apollo space capsule. The museum also displays President John F. Kennedy’s Air Force One, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, and hundreds of other rare, important and restored aircraft.

New York

What you’ll see: Located on and in the 900-foot-long ESSEX class aircraft carrier Intrepid, the museum is itself a national historical landmark with a collection that includes a Concorde as well as aircraft from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and Coast Guard. The submarine USS Growler, the only submarine still in existence that fired nuclear missiles is also part of the museum and is open to the public.

San Diego, Calif.

What you’ll see: Housed in a 1930s-era Ford Motor Company Exposition building, the museum presents science, aviation and space history in a series of themed airplane, spacecraft and artifact-filled galleries that include a 1928 Ford Tri-Motor passenger plane, a working flying replica of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 9 command module and many other one-of-a-kind private, military and commercial artifacts and aircraft.


What you’ll see: The world’s largest collection of historic air and spacecraft includes a planetarium, an IMAX theater and thousands of artifacts, including the original Wright 1903 Flyer, Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 command module Columbia from the first lunar landing mission, and a moon rock that you’re allowed to touch. And that’s just at the building on the National Mall. The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located near Dulles International Airport, contains many of the museum’s largest objects and artifacts, including the Space Shuttle Enterprise, a deHavilland Chipmunk aerobatic plane and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay.

Have I missed your favorite aviation or space museum? Please share the details in the comments section below.

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5 thoughts on “Aviation and space museums on the must-see list

  1. Sarah says:

    The Glenn Curtiss Museum in Hanmondsport, NY is a must visit. Curtiss was an early aviation pioneer who developed the Navy’s first aircraft and trained their first pilot, for which he is remembered as the Father of Naval Aviation. The museum features antique and reproduction aircraft and a wealth of information about Curtiss and his accomplishments.

  2. Ben says:

    re: John’s comment

    It’s a regular SR-71 with a GTD-21b UAV on top.

  3. Cassivella says:

    You’re not an idiot, you just missed the best museum in the country the first time around!

    But seriously, the National Museum of the United States Air Force has the largest selection of planes and other aviation-related things (surveillance balloons, space capsules, missiles, etc) on display. The main museum consists of at least 3 full size hangers, a missile silo, plus some auxiliary areas.

    The museum has such a better layout than the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian. The Air Force Museum is organized chronologically by flight era/world conflict. And it does an excellent job of placing the planes in the context of what was happening in the world during that time period.

    There are exhibits that will make you laugh (Vittles, the parachuting dog) and exhibits that will make you cry (the toasting cups of the Doolittle Raiders). It is a great celebration of our American heroes, without ignoring the contributions of aviators in other countries.

    If you plan ahead, you can go onto Wright-Patterson AFB and see the Presidential and Experimental hangers, where you can see several “Air Force Ones” such as the plane that brought Kennedy’s body back from Dallas, and FDR’s plane with a wheelchair elevator. You can also see plenty of one-and-only test planes that never made it to production.

    Right now, if you really plan ahead, you can get access to the restoration hanger where the Memphis Belle is currently being re-assembled after a several year cleaning and repair job. The tours literally are almost hands-on – you get close enough to the planes to see the flak damage.

    Additionally, the museum hosts several events, such as Dawn Patrol Rendezvous, a WWI (yes, ONE) fly-in, and several RC events. There are always plenty of speakers and air services reunions going on year-round.

    I’m sure I sound like a PR person for the museum, but I’m not LOL. I did, however, spend my honeymoon at the museum, and every year since our marriage (we are on year 11) we have returned for our anniversary.

  4. I loved the list. Like you say there are so many of them, no way to cover them all (or is there hmmmm….).

    Maybe this can be an on-going series?

  5. John says:

    This is list is an epic fail without the Museum of Flight in Seattle WA. Besides the first 747, 727, and 737s, there is President Nixon’s Air Force one and a BA Concorde.

    On the military side there is a three-engine SR-71 prototype, all manor of modern military aircraft, and a B-47. There are some incredibly rare WW1 fighters from Europe, and WW2 Me-262 engine.

    Don’t forget the original Boeing factory is incorporated into the museum as well.

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