Air Force Museum history at 99 years: From McCook Field hangar to massive Dayton attraction

The museum that would become The National Museum of the United States Air Force was founded in 1923 and has grown into one of the Dayton area’s biggest attractions.

The museum’s first location was at McCook Field, where it was primarily an engine museum in the corner of a hangar before growing to display World War I planes and equipment.

Do you love learning about area history?

The Dayton Daily News has a new weekly newsletter looking back into the colorful, twisting and hidden history of our city, including this story. We'll dig deep into our archives to deliver a new theme each week to your inbox.

During the 1920s, Wright Field was established as a research center to replace the outgrown McCook Field. The museum moved to Wright Field from 1927 to 1935.

A new facility was built in 1935 at Wright Field, and the collection grew to more than 3,000 items.

In 1941, the museum closed after the start of World War II. The collections were moved into storage.

The Air Force reopened the Air Force Museum in 1947. The collection was open by appointment only until 1955, when it was opened to the public.

In 1956 the Air Force Technical Museum, as it was known at the time, was renamed the Air Force Central Museum, and in November 1957 the museum was renamed again, this time as the Air Force Museum. The museum was placed in a World War II-era structure, and many of the aircraft were put outside in a parking lot.

Having outgrown its World War II-era space, the Air Force Museum Foundation was founded in 1960 to raise funds for a new facility.

The transfer of historic aircraft from Patterson Field to the new museum took place in shifts over several days starting with the smaller planes in the fall of 1970.

A new $6.5 million museum building opened in 1971 with 19 acres of exhibition space on a 400-acre site at historic Wright Field.

Richard Nixon spoke at the museum’s dedication ceremony on Sept. 3, 1971. He said, “It should be a particularly proud moment for the people of Dayton and for those who contributed to make it possible for this museum to be erected.”

During the 1980s, a Memorial Park was created at the museum that not only reminds those of the machines used by the Air Force, but also of the people who served and gave their lives to the cause of freedom. The museum has more than 600 memorial pieces placed throughout the park.

Credit: Bill Reinke

Credit: Bill Reinke

The Air Force Museum opened an IMAX theater in 1991. The theater underwent an $800,000 renovation in 2012 and was converted to a 400-seat digital 3D theater.

The museum was renamed as the National Museum of the United States Air Force in 2004. It now features more than 360 aerospace vehicles and missiles, many rare and one-of-a-kind, across four hangars, and plenty of outdoor exhibits.

The museum has four buildings that house numerous galleries. They include: The William E. Boeing Presidential Gallery, the Allan and Malcolm Lockheed and Glenn Martin Space Gallery, the Maj. Gen. Albert Boyd and Maj. Gen. Fred Ascani Research and Development Gallery and the Lt. Gen. William H. Tunner Global Reach Gallery.

Several of history’s most important planes have been restored at the museum, including the legendary Memphis Belle. It was displayed to the public in May 2018.

About the Author