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June 16, 2008

Attics of the Skies

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Last month I visited the Air Force Museum near Dayton, Ohio. No, I didn't, actually. It seems that while I wasn't paying attention, somebody re-named the place; now it's called National Museum of the United States Air Force. I suspect the renaming has to do with the fact that installations besides Wright-Patterson Air Force Base have museums and that "Air Force Museum" might cause confusion whereas National etc., etc. makes it all perfectly clear. Yeah. Sure.

Since I last visited, the museum added another large exhibit hall. This improved their ability to add more aircraft for public viewing as well as allowed better settings for some of the displays. For example, the B-25 Mitchell bomber I saw was painted to resemble the B-25s used in the famous Doolittle raid on Tokyo, 18 April 1942. Better yet, the plane was standing on a facsimile of a segment of the flight deck of the carrier Hornet.

Here are some planes that I was pleased to see. I'll tell you below why I was pleased.

Martin B-10

Seversky P-35A

Curtiss P-36A

North American O-47B

Curtiss O-52 Owl

I was pleased to see these planes because they are extremely rare; it's surprising that any examples of these types exist at all. Aside from the P-36, they were built in a few hundreds each, if that; not the thousands that were often the case for later aircraft of the World War 2 era.

Moreover these 1930s planes were constructed mostly of metal. The museum has examples of World War 2 and subsequent aircraft that were retained specifically for museum display; no problem here. It also displays pre-1930s aircraft that were built using wood, fabric and perhaps some metal for framing. Not all these are original. Because the originals were built with common materials using comparatively simple techniques, it was and is possible to build replica airplanes, especially if original plans are available. But it isn't practical to build replica metal planes. You really need an original as a basis for restoration (not replication), even if it isn't in good condition and many parts are missing.

The museum's B-10, the only one left, had been in Argentina; obsolete Army Air Corps planes were often sold to South and Central American air forces. The P-35 also is the last of its kind. The museum web page isn't clear where it came from, but I'll speculate that it was a hulk used by aviation schools for training mechanics -- a fate many aircraft suffer. The P-36 was donated to the museum by a private party, but it wasn't said how he had obtained it. P-36s and export version Hawk 75s were built in fairly large numbers for use by the Air Corps, Armée de l'Air and other air arms at the end of the 30s. The O-47 might have been from a maintenance school and the O-52's provenance wasn't given. These two "O" planes were part of a sequence of observation aircraft for battlefield use. This need was based on Great War experience, but when World War 2 got underway it was realized that they were too vulnerable and they were never used in combat.

I could have added the Boeing P-26 fighter and the Douglas B-18 bomber as other examples of 30s metal military aircraft. They're on display too, and and the whole bunch makes it "worth a detour" to Dayton, as the Michelin Guide Vert might advise if it were addressed to airplane buff such as me.



posted by Donald at June 16, 2008


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