Five ‘Must See’ Museums

Ask any pilot and he will have his own list of favorite museums.

A recent informal poll by General Aviation News asked our columnists and the industry’s movers and shakers to list the “must see” museums for anyone interested in aviation. These five topped the poll.


The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, near Washington Dulles International Airport, is the companion facility to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Together, the two showcase the world’s largest collection of aviation and space artifacts.

The center, named in honor of its major donor, features the Boeing Aviation Hangar, in which aircraft are displayed on three levels. Visitors can walk among aircraft and artifacts in display cases located on the floor, and gaze upward at aircraft hanging from the arched ceiling or downward from elevated skywalks. Many engines, helicopters, ultralights and experimental airplanes are on display, as well as the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest jet in the world; the Boeing Dash 80, prototype for the 707; the B-29 Superfortress “Enola Gay”; and a deHavilland Chipmunk.

“There are many great collections around the world. I would have to put the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (both the Mall and Udvar-Hazy Center) as No. 1,” says Jack Pelton, Cessna chairman and CEO. “It really is a great treasure to our industry with a very comprehensive collection.”

For general aviation pilots, Pelton continues, “it is hard to beat the EAA AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh.”


The EAA AirVenture Museum was founded in 1962 when Steve Wittman donated his famous air racer, “Bonzo.”

Since then, its collection has grown to more than 20,000 historic aviation objects, including 250 aircraft, ranging from a Wright Flyer replica to a P-38 Lightning to a replica of Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne.

The museum also boasts a library collection that began with the founding of EAA in 1953. Efforts to catalog the collection began after the new museum was built in 1983 and room was created for the library, which contains more than 9,000 books and more than 100,000 photographs. The museum also has five movie theaters that run a variety of films for visitors, as well as Hangar X, an interactive gallery for “children of all ages.”

Behind the museum is Pioneer Airport, a working aerodrome out of the “golden age” of aviation.

“I think that the EAA museum in Oshkosh is the best general aviation museum,” says GAN columnist Ben Visser, “and the Wright Patterson Museum in Dayton is the best military aviation museum.”


The National Museum of the Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton is the world’s largest and oldest military aviation museum and the official museum of the U.S. Air Force.

The museum, which has free admission, gets about 1.2 million visitors each year. Its galleries document flight from the Wright brothers to space vehicles. It boasts more than 300 aircraft, including a rare SPAD XIII, the B-29 “Bockscar,” which dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, an F-86, an F-22 Raptor, and nine presidential aircraft, including Franklin Roosevelt’s C-54C “Sacred Cow” and the “Air Force One” that flew John F. Kennedy’s body back to Washington, D.C., from Dallas.

The museum also has thousands of historical items and special exhibits, such as those that honor the Doolittle Raiders, and the first permanent public display of a B-2 stealth bomber.


The Wright Brothers memorial, which is administered by the National Park Service, commemorates the Wrights’ first flight on Dec. 17, 1903, after three years of glider experiments from nearby sand dunes. Visitors can walk along the actual lines of the Wrights’ flights that day, with small monuments marking their starts and finishes. Two wooden sheds, based on historic photographs, recreate the world’s first airplane hangar and the brothers’ living quarters.

The Visitor Center includes a museum that features models and actual tools and machines used by the Wrights, as well as a replica of the Wright brothers’ 1902 glider.

A 60-foot granite monument, dedicated in 1932, sits atop 90-foot-high Kill Devil Hill. It is inscribed: “In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright conceived by genius achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.”


Planes of Fame, which has locations in Chino, Calif., and Valle, Ariz., was founded in 1957 by Edward Maloney, who recognized the importance of preserving World War II aircraft at a time when most of them were being cut up into scrap metal. The first permanent air museum west of the Rocky Mountains, Planes of Fame began with just six airplanes, but has grown to about 150 aircraft, ranging from an 1896 Chanute hang glider to P-51 Mustangs.

Planes of Fame is a “living history” museum, where the aircraft not only are preserved, but are kept flying. The warbirds are flown regularly, participating in air shows, military base open houses, and the making of television programs and motion pictures. About 30 of the museum’s airplanes are airworthy, including two P-51 Mustangs, a B-25 Mitchell bomber, a Grumman F6F Hellcat and a Chance-Vought Corsair.

Museums such as Planes of Fame — and others that have airworthy aircraft — are particular favorites of pilots.

Visser perhaps sums it up best: “To look at a Mustang in a hanger is like looking at a Stradivarius in a case. It is nice, but to hear it played by a great violinist is fantastic. I would prefer to go to the Reno Air Races, a Commemorative Air Force show or the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome. To hear an R-4360, a Merlin, or just to watch Patty Wagstaff or Sean Tucker put an airplane through its paces, now that is truly a great symphony of sights and sounds.”

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