Students connect with heritage at National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jason Fields
  • Air Force Institute of Technology

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- On a crisp fall Saturday morning, 22 students from the Air Force Institute of Technology’s Joint Intermediate Cyberspace Operations Course arrived at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force for a tour specifically curated for them.  

Led by volunteer museum docent Mike Ries, the students embarked on a 90-minute walking tour Oct. 28, 2023, which included stops in the Space Gallery, Research and Development Gallery, Missile Gallery and Cold War Gallery.

As the group walked and talked, Ries used his passion for history to educate students on various vehicles and displays and the context of their significance to Air and Space Force history. 

The emphasis on education, and not just the visual appeal of interesting aircraft, is evident when you talk to anyone working for or volunteering at the museum. 

“The National Museum of the United States Air Force has vast educational capabilities to offer to today’s warfighter,” said Mike Brimmer, the museum’s Education Division chief. “This capability stems from the museum’s earliest days as a small engineering study collection established to further American airpower in 1923. The history, technology and people that have made today’s Air and Space Forces are on full display here and can serve as a source of both the inspiration and the information needed to meet the mission challenges of today”.

There were many highlights from the visit and one of the students’ favorites was the Lockheed Martin Titan IV-B rocket. The rocket, measuring 204 feet in length and lying on its side, is a formidable visual anchor for the Space Gallery.  The Titan IV-B was the Air Force’s largest and most powerful expendable single-use rocket and could launch payloads to geosynchronous orbit using specifically designed upper stages.

In addition to the Titan IV-B, Ries provided other insight into America’s space program with a discussion of the Apollo 15 command module, Gemini B orbiting laboratory spacecraft and creation of the Space Force.

The North American XB-70 Valkyrie was also an impressive stop on the tour. Located in the Research and Development Gallery, students were able to walk around, under and behind, and get up-close views of the 185-foot aircraft. They learned about the original design concepts and challenges that engineers discovered about aerodynamics, propulsion and large supersonic aircraft from testing XB-70s.

Ries called the view from behind the XB-70’s six massive engines, each capable of 30,000 pounds of thrust, possibly the best at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

In the silo-shaped 140-foot-tall Missile Gallery, students saw the Boeing LGM-30G Minuteman III, Thor Agena A and Martin Marietta LGM-118A Peacekeeper up-close. Dwarfed by these vertical giants, Ries discussed the history of the missiles on display, future of America’s missile program and what it takes to build, transport and maintain America’s arsenal.

“I thought the tour at the museum was great,” said Daniel Poll, Cyberspace 200 student. “The tour guide was very knowledgeable and had a lot to share. I especially liked the insight he shared in the Missile Gallery about the Minuteman missiles.”

One of the newest displays, a Russian Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker fighter aircraft, moved from restoration into the museum only three days prior to the tour. Tucked into the Cold War Gallery’s eastern corner, it is one of only a handful of known Flankers in the U.S.

Entering Soviet air forces in 1985, the Su-27 was designed to be a direct competitor for Grumman American F-14 Tomcats and McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagles. The Su-27, along with the secretive Lockheed F-117A and YCGM-121B Seek Spinner, are part of the museum’s unique aircraft collection. 

The Seek Spinner is an unmanned aerial vehicle designed in the early 1980s to seek out and attack the radars that control enemy anti-aircraft artillery or surface-to-air missile defenses. Using computer-programmed guidance, the aircraft would loiter over a target until sensors detected an enemy radar signal and then follow it to the source and detonate.

The YCGM-121B program was canceled after its last test flight in 1989 and never became operational. Due to its lack of operational use, this unique vehicle was unfamiliar to most people.

Lt. Col. Jason Fields, AFIT’s Department of Cyberspace Studies director, presented Ries with an AFIT School of Strategic Force Studies coin to thank him for leading the tour. 

“Many of the docents are Air Force veterans, and we all appreciate the opportunity to share our experiences and the history of the Department of the Air Force with another generation of Airmen and Guardians,” said JP Clarke, museum volunteer and docent. “The museum’s motto is: ‘We are the keeper of their stories. And as docents, we are the narrators of those stories.”