This is a great time to be an aviation buff. The end of July will bring the annual EAA AirVenture Oshkosh show in Wisconsin, a weeklong extravaganza expected to draw more than 10,000 aircraft and an estimated half-million aviation buffs from around the world. If that’s not enough, this month marks the one-year anniversary of the final flight of the space shuttle, and the three remaining space shuttles, trainers and associated hardware are currently being distributed to museums nationwide. But fans of flight don’t have to wait for these special occasions to indulge themselves, as there are numerous air and space museums nationwide, open year-round. Here are 10 aviation museums commonly listed among the best in the U.S.
10. Pima Air & Space Museum
The Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona, is the largest non-government-funded aviation museum in America. Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base is also home of the enormous aircraft boneyard, which can be seen from local roads. Tours of the boneyard can be arranged via the museum. Highlights at the museum include President Kennedy’s Air Force One aircraft, an SR-71 Blackbird, and a rare captured German V-1 Buzz Bomb, a forerunner of the cruise missile.
9. United States Army Aviation Museum
Located on Fort Rucker, Alabama, the U.S. Army Aviation Museum boasts the largest museum display of helicopters in the world. Established in 1956, the Army Aviation Museum has over 160 aircraft on exhibit as well as an aviation hall of fame. Must-see attractions include some very early Sikorsky helicopters, a replica of a Wright Brother’s Model B military flyer, and a McDonnell XV-1 Convertiplane. Best of all, admission is free.
8. San Diego Air & Space Museum
Established in 1963, the San Diego Air & Space Museum has interior and exterior exhibits spanning from World War I era aviation to the Space Age. The museum also traces the history of aviation pioneers with displays on dirigibles, early barnstormers, and more. Top draws include the Apollo 9 command module, an A-12 Oxcart (forerunner to the SR-71) and vintage Spitfire and P-51 Mustang aircraft.
7. Air Force Armament Museum
This museum located near the sprawling Eglin Air Force Base complex in the Florida panhandle is a unique blend of aircraft and weaponry. Opened in 1976, the Air Force Armament Museum is the only museum dedicated to aerial weapons systems. One-of-a-kind exhibits include GBU-28 bunker-buster bombs developed at Eglin for the first Gulf War, AC-130 gunships, and Special Operations exhibits.
6. Museum of Aviation
This facility on Robbins Air Force Base, Georgia, is the second largest U.S. Air Force museum behind the one at Wright-Patterson (see below). The largest in the southeastern United States, the Museum of Aviation more than 90 aircraft spread over 51 acres. In addition to aircraft, the museum also houses POW and Tuskegee airman exhibits. Watch for SR-71 tail number 61-7958 on display, which holds the air speed record of 2,193.2 mph.
5. Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum
The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum features an unforgettable backdrop aboard the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier, which is docked in the Hudson River on Manhattan’s west side. In addition to numerous aircraft located on Pier 86, visitors can tour the carrier and the adjacent submarine, the USS Growler. Intrepid is also now the home of the space shuttle Enterprise, used in flight tests early in the program and formerly housed at the Smithsonian.
4. Strategic Air and Space Museum
Located in Ashland, Nebraska, just southwest of Omaha, the Strategic Air and Space Museum is dedicated to the military and nuclear-capable aircraft and missiles of the Cold War era and more. The location is ideal, as the headquarters for the Strategic Air Command was located at nearby Offutt Air Force Base. Must-see items include the Boeing EC-135 Looking Glass aircraft, which was designated as a flying command post in the event of an all-out nuclear war, a rare British Avro Vulcan bomber, a U.S. B-36J Peacemaker and an XF-85 Goblin aircraft, one of only two ever produced.
3. Seattle’s Aviation Museums
The Seattle area features two fine aviation museums. The first is the Future of Flight Museum in Mukilteo, Washington, which coordinates tours of the nearby enormous Boeing aircraft facility. In Seattle, the Museum of Flight attracts 400,000 visitors annually and has a fine collection of vintage aircraft, including a former Air Force One aircraft and several spacecraft mockups. Recently, NASA’s Full Fuselage Trainer (FFT) for the space shuttle arrived at the museum for future display in the new Charles Simonyi Space Gallery.
2. National Museum of the United States Air Force
This museum on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, dates to 1923 and is one of America’s oldest aviation museums. The museum houses over 360 aircraft and missiles on its grounds both inside and outside, and admission is free. Probably the greatest thing about this facility is the numerous one-of-a-kind experimental aircraft displayed, including the Bell X-1, X-3 Stiletto and Grumman’s swept-wing X-29 aircraft. A hard-to-miss highlight is the enormous tri-sonic XB-70A Valkyrie bomber aircraft, one of only two produced and the only one remaining.
1. Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum
Established in 1946, the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, including the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy complex at Dulles International Airport, has the largest collection of display aircraft in the world. The main museum on the Washington mall includes 51 spacecraft and 61 aircraft, including Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis, the original Wright Flyer and Scaled Composite’s Space Ship One. Fittingly, the space shuttle Discovery was put on public display at Udvar-Hazy on April 19, 2012.
David Dickinson retired from the USAF in 2007 at the rank of E-7 Master Sergeant. He was an Aircraft Armament Systems Specialist for over 20 years, serving in the 1st Gulf War, South Korea, Somalia, and the global war on terror. He’s worked on F-16, F-15, and A-10 airframes, as well as AC-130H gunships with Special Ops and PA-200 Tornadoes with the Italian Air Force.