Flights of fancy

Hidden away in Ohio is one of the world's great museums - a spectacular celebration of the successes and failures of aviation history. Rupert Cornwell takes off to visit

It was, to be honest, not exactly the Washington correspondent's dream assignment: an open-ended Balkan peace conference at a heavily guarded air base in the middle of the American nowhere, at which there was to be no contact whatsoever with the participants. And so it proved for the three mostly news-less days I stuck around. But unlike most other people, I have reason to be profoundly grateful to Slobodan Milosevic.

I like to think of myself as a connoisseur of museums. And but for the talks to end the Bosnian war which Milosevic had unleashed, and the desperate need to while away the time before I could decently return home to Washington, I would never have found myself inside one of the greatest museums on Earth. That, at any rate, was how it seemed in 1995.

Years later, along with my wife and 11-year-old son, I returned to Dayton, Ohio. We were travelling out to visit her parents near St Louis. And I couldn't resist the temptation to discover whether my memory had been playing tricks. Was the United States Air Force Museum, on a corner of the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base where the Dayton peace agreement was hammered out, really that good?

The answer, by unanimous family consent, was: no, it's even better. The hangars which house it are aerospace's equivalent of the National Gallery, Louvre and Prado rolled into one mind-blowing whole. Think of air museums, and the National Air and Space Museum in the US capital instantly comes to mind. And in the sense of star exhibits such as Lindbergh's Spirit of St Louis and the Apollo XI lunar module, the great attraction on the Washington Mall is unsurpassed. But in terms of quantity, and sheer breathtaking quality, the US Air Force Museum knocks it into a cocked hat.

There is something about military aircraft - their raw power, speed and streamlined beauty - to stir the most committed pacifist. We men, aggressors of the human species, are especially vulnerable to their charms, but even my normally unmechanically-minded wife confessed to feeling like a kid in a candy store.

The only problem of course, is getting to Dayton. Unless you're sent to cover a Balkan peace conference, or you're looking for a spot to break the 850-mile drive down Interstate-70 from the East Coast to St Louis, the place doesn't make the radar screen. It's a north-eastern Anywhere, USA, whose unremarkable downtown reflects the classic 20th-century Rust Belt cycle of prosperity, decay, and now hi-tech renewal.

Dayton, it should be said, made its mark on history long before the peace conference. In terms of inventions which changed the world the city is up there with the best -- as the name of its air force base testifies. The "Wright" signifies Orville and Wilbur, the local brothers who pioneered flight; while the Patterson is John Henry Patterson, founder of the National Cash Register company. The place is also a bell-wether of US political trends - so much so that a book was once published about the voting habits of the Dayton housewife. But these days, you go there for just one thing, the USAF museum.

The collection is not for inveterate anti-Americans. True, there's the odd Spitfire, Messerschmitt and MiG on display, to remind you other countries made war planes, plus a stunning collection of First World War aircraft. But from 1945 on, the museum is a paean to American invention and power. And no invention is more fabulous than the XB-70 Valkyrie, named after the warrior maidens in Norse mythology who escorted slain heroes to Valhalla.

This Valkyrie transcends myth. It has to be the most otherworldly aircraft ever built, a swooping white bird with a swan's neck fuselage curving forth from vast delta wings that could drop 65 degrees from the horizontal. When it flew at supersonic speed, the plane was literally carried on the shock wave of sound.

The XB-70 was built in the early 1960s by the now defunct North American company at the demand of General Curtis LeMay, the Cold War super-hawk who was model for the manic General "Buck" Turgidson in Dr Strangelove. LeMay wanted an intercontinental bomber that could fly at Mach 3, or around 2,000mph, and carry enough nuclear bombs to leave the Soviet Union a smoking hole in the ground. And that's what North American came up with - a plane dating back almost 40 years, but which still looks like a visitation from the future.

In fact, only two were ever constructed. The shooting down in 1961 of Gary Powers's high altitude U-2 spy plane showed how vulnerable manned bombers were, however high and fast they flew. The two Valkyrie prototypes were converted into research aircraft. One crashed in 1966 after a mid-air collision. Three years later the other was flown to Dayton, where we Earthlings still gawp at it.

But the Valkyrie is just the icing on the cake. We strolled among prize historical specimens such as "Bockscar", the B-29 Superfortress which dropped the second atom bomb on Nagasaki. We admired the experimental Douglas X-3 "Stiletto" of which only one specimen was ever built in 1952, and contemplated in amazement the monster B-36 "Peacemaker" strategic bomber with propellers at the back - not the front - of wings whose 230ft span exceeds that of a modern Boeing 747.

What I love about the Dayton museum is that it chronicles failures as well as successes; not just the B-52s and stealth bombers, but aberrations such as the weird part-jet, part turboprop, Republic XF-84H, nicknamed "Thunderscreech" because of the way it caused headaches and nausea among ground crew. Of its 12 test flights before the project was scrapped in 1956, you are told, 11 ended in emergency landings.

Still, it's an amazing beast. Then there are the craft, manned and unmanned, with exotic code names such as Enforcer, Thunderceptor, Compass Arrow, Hound Dog, and my own favourite, Tacit Rainbow, an experimental mini-drone. For aerospace buffs, this is as good as it gets.

History is everywhere, from the B-29 to the collection of presidential aircraft. You can see the first purpose-built Air Force One, on which President Roosevelt travelled to Yalta in 1945, complete with an elevator so that FDR could be hoisted aboard in his wheelchair. More poignantly still, there is the Boeing 707, known as SAM 26000, which carried John Kennedy to Dallas on 22 November 1963 and then returned to Washington with his corpse. You can still see the saw marks where they removed a bulkhead to allow Kennedy's coffin to be carried in the passenger section of the aircraft.

And, in its small way, the museum did perhaps contribute to the Dayton peace settlement - though we reporters had no idea of it at the time. On 3 November 1995, the day after I left town, the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke hosted a getting-to-know-you dinner for participants beneath the wing of a giant bomber suspended from the ceiling.

Milosevic was there, singing along to a rendition by the base's band of the Andrews' Sisters "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy". A brass plaque in the floor to mark the spot and the United States Air Force Museum would be complete.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Dayton is tricky to reach from the UK; the nearest significant airport is Chicago, served from Britain by Air India, American Airlines, British Airways and United. From here, you can drive in around eight hours, or take a Greyhound bus for about $30 each way.

The United States Air Force Museum (001 937 255 3284, www.wpafb.af.mil) is at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, on Springfield Pike, six miles north-east of Dayton. It opens 9am-5pm daily, admission free.

Dayton offers other Wright Brothers connections. At the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery at 2600 DeWeese Parkway (001 937 275 7431, www.boonshoftmuseum.com), a new multimedia presentation called "The Wright Way to Fly"shows the trials and triumphs of the pioneering Brothers.

Tickets cost $1 in addition to the museum admission charge of $7.50.

The museum opens 9am-5pm from Monday to Friday, 11am-5pm on Saturdays and noon-5pm on Sundays.

Kitty Hawk, on the coast of North Carolina, has become popularly known as the birthplace of aviation - although the Wright Brothers actually flew from a site four miles south from here, at the base of Kill Devil Hill. This is the location for the Wright Brothers National Memorial and Visitor Center (001 252 441 7430, www.nps.gov/wrbr). Admission to the Visitor Center is $3, and is valid for a week; open 9am-6pm daily.

Suzy Strong

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