Travel: 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
Cornwell, Rupert, The Independent (London, England)
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. …