The world’s fastest plane. A spy plane. A MiG jet.
All within a 20-minute drive from Omaha.
The Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum near Ashland offers these and 30 more aircraft as part of the collection open for public viewing.
The SAS also offers a look at NASA’s successes, with a Mercury and Apollo command module. It has an exhibit recognizing Nebraska’s only native born astronaut – Clayton Anderson.
A lot of effort, time and money have gone into developing an outstanding museum for the public. The museum is operated by a non-profit group and cost about $35 million to build and operate.
The original Strategic Air Command (SAC) Museum opened in 1958 and was located near Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue. The planes on hand were located on an outdoor ramp. I remember taking my daughters there once when they were little kids. The planes were beat up; weathered looking and rusting from the weather conditions.
An indoor museum was built along Interstate 80, near the Ashland exit in 1998. It is located next door to the Mahoney State Park. A couple miles south is the newer Lee Simmons Wildlife Park (part of the Henry Doorly Zoo). The name SAC Museum gave way to the Strategic Air and Space Museum in 2002, as the museum expanded its mission. The name was changed to include SAC in 2016.
The museum is quite a step up from its Bellevue forerunner.
As you enter the museum, a SR-71 greets you. The spy plane, long the fastest plane in the world, was decommissioned in the late 1990s. The plane was known to have flown at least mach 3.5 (3.5 times the speed of sound).
The SR-71 was used to record pictures over enemy territory. Imagine how technical the equipment had to be in order to get a clear picture of a subject from 80,000 feet above the surface traveling more than 2,000 mph. Our tour host, Chris Chapman (morning show co-host on Star 104.5), told us a story of a SR-71 flying over Yankee Stadium in New York. It recorded a picture of the baseball in mid-air after a pitch. The analysts were able to count the threads in the baseball. Wow!
Thirty-two SR-71s were built. About 20 remain. None were shot down, but not for the lack of trying. The plane could just outrun any missile launched against it.
Since the SR-71 was sooooooo fast, hawks thought, “What if we armed it?” Well, apparently, plans were developed to arm the Blackbird. However, it was determined that the SR-71 (the YF12 was the bomber model) would likely shoot itself down because by the time it launched a missile, the plane would probably be in its path. Thus, the plane remained a reconnaissance plane.
The plane was so good at spying that the Soviet Union demanded that the US not use it to take pictures over any of its territories. Thus, a drone was used over the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) – later Russia, after the fall of the Eastern Bloc in the late 1980s. The MD-21 was attached to the top of the SR-71. As the Blackbird entered Soviet airspace, the drone was released. The drone took pictures. Then, the camera was ejected once over safe territory and the drone crashed.
The SR-71 on a west coast to east coast flight flew over Nebraska. From the Nebraska-Colorado border to the Nebraska-Iowa border, it took the plane three minutes to cover the state.
A note that Chris mentioned to us that I found interesting (since I had no idea) was that the SR-71 would get so hot; the plane would actually expand six inches. Special designs allowed for that to happen, so the plane could operate safely. Outside the plane, temperatures could increase 900-1,000 degrees.
The SR-71 was made mostly from titanium. Since the United States doesn’t have a lot of titanium sitting around, the Central Intelligence Agency set up a front company to buy titanium internationally. Russia has the most titanium in the world, and that’s where it was primarily purchased. So, in essence, Russia sold us the material used to spy against it. Brilliant!
The aircrew had to wear special uniforms during flights. They wore “Gold Suits,” because gold was used in the visor. It was the right material for the range of temperatures that could be involved during flights. They resembled astronaut uniforms. The uniforms cost about $90,000 each. Crew members were required to have at least two at all times. Today, the same uniform would probably cost at least $1 million.
A funny story that Chris relayed involved checking speeds with a Los Angeles air traffic control tower. A small airplane called in for a speed check. 80 knots, was the response. A twin engine plane called in for a check. His speed? 120 knots. So, then a Navy pilot came on the radio. His speed check? About 680 knots. So, the seaman went about his way, thinking he was top dog in the air.
The pilot of a SR-71, finishing the crew’s 100 hours of training for certification, wanted to grab the microphone and call in a speed check. That would have been an unauthorized act, Chris said, and would have negated the training. Only the Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO) could handle the radio.
The pilot was getting antsy, when, suddenly, he heard his call sign on the radio asking for a speed check. “1800 knots,” was heard over the radio. The RSO replied “I show 1900 knots.”
“Your equipment is better than mine,” the traffic controller responded.
The pilot was satisfied knowing that the Navy pilot had to be “upset” when he landed his jet, thinking he was the fastest bird in the air, only to learn he was one-upped by an Airman, Chris joked.
The second spy plane we took a look at was the U-2.
This plane was used a lot during the early days of the Cold War – spying on communist countries, such as the USSR, Vietnam, China and Cuba. It is still in use.
In 1960, a plane was shot down over enemy territory. Gary Powers, the pilot, survived the crash and was held by the Soviets for almost two years. Only three U-2 planes have been shot down. In a bit of irony, Powers died in Los Angeles, while flying helicopter during a traffic report.
The U-2 didn’t have standard landing gear. Instead, it had bicycle type of gear. A front and rear wheel would come down. With long wings, that posed danger in landing. So, in the early days, there would be a chaser car that –when the plane landed on the runway, speed after, two guys would jump out and run up beside the plane. They would put on “pogo sticks” to the wings. This would allow the wings to be balanced and not hit the ground.
When the U-2 took off, the pogo sticks were supposed to disengage and fall to the ground. If they didn’t, the flight was scrubbed and the plane had to return to base.
Today, according to www.lockheedmartin.com, the current U-2S uses a lighter engine, but still requires a chase car. Now, the chase car gives the pilot directions to ensure the plane stays on a straight path. No more running up and adding the pogo sticks.
Another plane we looked at was the F101B. The plane was supposed to be the F109, but the pentagon made it a bomber, as well as a fighter. The F101B could not only drop bombs, it could also fight the enemy.
Sidenote: For people not aware, F = Fighter; B = Bomber, and C = Cargo.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming: The F101B was designed to drop nuclear missiles. During one-on-one combat, rather than have to fire a missile for a direct hit on an enemy plane, the nuclear blast from a missile would be enough for a kill.
Let’s now take a look back to the days when the Air Force belonged to the Army. Yes kids, we are traveling back to World War II.
Close your eyes and relax. Hey, wake up!
Never mind closing your eyes.
It was a Sunday unlike any other Sunday in American history. While people on the mainland of the United States did whatever they did on December 7th, 1941, the Japanese launched an attack that would change the world.
The Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. More than 2,400 Americans died in one of the worst attacks in our history. It also woke up a sleeping giant, so the Japanese soon learned.
In order to respond the act of war, American politicians and military leaders plotted an attack on Tokyo. It was going to be a difficult mission, our guide told us. The Japanese controlled the air and sea in the Pacific theater.
Lt. General Jimmy Doolittle was selected to lead a raid on Tokyo.
The final plan was to have B-25s loaded onto carrier ships and launched from the sea, without the Japanese learning about the raid.
B-25s had to be lightened in weight. Pilots had to be trained to take off in 500 feet, instead of the longer runway they were used to.
How it was kept a secret is amazing. Thousands of people watched the planes fly over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco on their way to meet up with the USS Hornet in the Pacific.
On the day of the attack, a Lincoln pilot – Richard Joyce – was to fly his plane toward Tokyo to check resistance. Doolittle decided against that mission and had the pilot join the other 15 teams in attacking Tokyo.
The attack was on! The mission was successful. Tokyo was attacked! Though, it was considered a minor hit on the Japanese war industry, the attack was a morale-builder for the Americans.
The plan after the attack was to land in Chuchow, China. Unfortunately, the crew there did not turn the radio on to serve as a beacon for the 16 teams. Most of the pilots then flew on to Chunking, where the plan was to turn the planes over to the then-ally Chinese Air Force.
A couple of planes were shot down and crews captured. Those men never made it home. Another crew landed in Russia.
Overall, the mission was a success. Most of us know that the US and allies went on to score major victories in the Pacific Theatre and eventual surrender of Japan.
Doolittle’s Raiders, as they were known, have celebrated the victory over the years. The remaining 2-3 veterans used to meet annually. This is the last year for their meeting, since they are elderly and not in the best of physical well-being.
They carry a case of glasses with each crew member’s name inscribed on the glasses. As members die, their glasses are turned upside down. The plan was to have the last two remaining pilots open the champagne they have and toast their brothers. The plan currently is for the remaining men to get together and open the bottle this year.
The C-47 was used during World War II. It flew over Europe during the D-Day invasion in June 1944. The Allied invasion occurred on June 6th. The day before, planes were ordered to pain black and white stripes under their wings.
Normally, American planes would have had stars and stripes there. However, allied leaders thought that the Germans may have camouflaged some planes with the stars and stripes to maneuver in and out of our planes, allowing for easy attacks.
Instead, planes on that day with stars and stripes were considered hostile and should be shot down.
Another WWII era plane that enjoyed success was the B-17. About 1.5 million tons of bombs were dropped on Germany during the war. Of that total, about 640,000 tons came from the B-17. Sadly, 291 B-17s were sent into Germany. Only 33 made it back.
We fast forward a few years, to the early 1950s. North Korea and South Korea are fighting. Since, China is an ally of the North, it stands behind its friend. Since the US is allies with the South, we take up arms for it.
The F-86 Sabre was used by the Americans during the war. China, who didn’t want the war to escalate to nuclear with the US, suggested that the US and Chinese pilots merely fly against each other, rather than engage. The US agreed.
The Sabre had two types of camouflage. Looking down from above, the plane was camouflaged to look like ground, with the green, black and brown paint job. From the ground looking up, the bottom was painted gray, to resemble the clouds.
Another of my “favorite” planes is the B-52. The Flying Stratofortress – also known as a BUF (Big Ugly “Fellow”). It was amazing to watch the plane take off when I assigned to Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota. You were surprised that it could actually take off.
Along with that, airmen who were assigned to the northern tier (Air Force code for freaking cold weather states) were used to wearing lots of layers of clothing. An example is a Security Policeman (of which I proudly admit I was one) could wear a parka, snow pants and mukluks during their shift.
The B-52 entered the inventory during the late 1940s. It was supposed to be phased out several times over the years, but it continues to survive. It currently is scheduled to retire in 2040. If it does, it will have served for about 90 years. Imagine anything made today lasting that long.
Another plane that I guarded as a youngster was the F-4 Phantom. The Vietnam vet served in West Germany during my first assignment (at Spangdahlem Air Base). It was a loud jet on takeoff. During alerts (war games), they would take off every few seconds. Try sleeping during the day in the barracks with that going on. Fun times, indeed.
We checked out the B-58. This bomber could reach mach 2. It served the nation for a decade. A neat factoid – John Denver’s dad piloted one of these planes.
Flash forward to the 1980s. Big hair. Acid wash jeans. John Mellencamp was little Johnny Cougar.
And the B-1A Lancer was launched (1986). The bomber was to replace to the B-52. That didn’t happen. The B-1A is one of my favorite planes because of its design. However, the B-1A has served its nation. A neat thing about the plane is its wing structure. The wings can be moved for better maneuvering at high or low altitudes. The plane now greets visitors as they enter the museum’s grounds.
We visited the restoration hanger. There is a C-54 being refurbished. The restoration project takes about five years for this plane.
The C-54 was used during the Berlin Airlift in the mid-1940s.
Following the end of World War II, Germany was divided in half. West Germany was a free state under the guidance of the United States and its allies. East Germany was under the control of the Soviet Union. Berlin was also divided in half. West Berlin was under the control of the American allies.
The Soviets wanted West Berlin to be absorbed by the Eastern bloc nations. The thought was if West Berlin failed, West Germany would soon move to become part of the East.
However, President Harry Truman and our allies had a different thought.
The Berlin Airlift then happened. C-54s were used to drop supplies into West Berlin. Supplies, such as clothing, food, and water, were dropped from the planes every 6 minutes for almost a year. The airlift proved successful and the Soviets abandoned their blockade of the city and their efforts to unite the cities.
Now, back to that MiG I mentioned earlier.
Apparently, the fighter was found in Indo-China and taken to Area 51 in Nevada. It was researched for secrets to help the US during the Cold War.
Chris told us that one recent year, a delegation of Russian generals visited the museum during a trip to StratCom in Bellevue. The plane was immediately recognized. They joked that they would take it home with them that day. It’s still here.
The museum has a permanent exhibit regarding the holocaust during World War II, as well as the current holocausts taking place around the world today.
We saw a glimpse of StratCom’s role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack against the United States. The desk that President George W. Bush used while he was at Offutt that day is on display. He addressed the nation from that desk. I remember seeing Air Force One fly over my home at the time as it was en route to Offutt.
The Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum offers a lot for people to see and learn. A public tour is offered daily at 11 a.m. You can get more information from a tour guide than you may on your own.
I could go on, but, I want you to visit the SAC Museum, if you haven’t. If you have, go back. It’s worth multiple trips. The museum is open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily.
While there, take time out for a quick meal at the Plane Café. It offers concession food – hot dogs, burgers, etc. – at reasonable prices. The gift shop is a must stop. The items are very reasonably priced. I picked up a new pen, thinking it would be about $10. Nope. Much cheaper. I bought two.
For more information about the SAS Museum, please visit its website at www.sasmuseum.com.