Thoughts by Richard Bleil
With my father in Hospice, a lot of feelings have been coming up. Readers might think that my entire life was pretty miserable, but there were bright points as well.
Near Dayton, Ohio is the Wright Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB). The WPAFB is the central command for the air force branch of the US military, so, as one might imagine, it’s very large, and quite impressive. On the base is the WPAFB Air Force Museum which is among the best such museums in the world. I remember my parents taking me there but only a few times. None the less, the visits were burned into my memory.
I remember walking from the parking area (before they moved it), across the tarmac and past many of the aircraft that were on display even before entering the building. My favorite “bird” was the XB-70, designed to be the world’s first supersonic bomber, painted in white and gleaming in the sunlight was we approached it. The aircraft was designed as a “lifting body”, meaning that the undercarriage was flat, with six huge jets pushing her forward. To see a photo of her, you’d realize that she’s not dissimilar to the Concord, which has many similar design features. At supersonic speeds, the edges of the wing would fold downwards to improve stability. The pilots who were fortunate enough to fly her absolutely loved how she flew and maneuvered, but unfortunately, she was developed just as the ICBM was coming out. The Air Force decided that an unmanned missile could deliver nuclear payloads without putting pilot lives at risk and therefore canceled their contract for the XB-70.
I almost got to see the cockpit of this beauty. Teaching in Ohio, several of our students were in the air force, one of whom worked at the museum. She spoke with her superior, and they had agreed to let me inside of the XB-70, but she seemed to have forgotten as it just never materialized.
So close, and yet so far.
Today, there are at least two “annexes” to the museum. Built in hangers, they simply keep outgrowing their space, so they have a shuttle bus system to take interested visitors to the annex buildings. The aircraft are amazing. It includes the first German jet developed in WWII, and, interestingly, designed to run on liquefied coal. The jet was developed late in the war, and with Germany losing ground it was low on oil. As such, they developed a way to treat coal, powdering it so thoroughly that it flows as if it is a fluid.
The US was no slouch in development. One of their jets was from about the same era, and was a jet designed to be carried in the belly of a bomber. Probably one of the smallest jets I’ve ever seen, the allies were having a problem with their bombing runs and fighter accompaniment. As the Germans lost ground, targets were further and further away from allied bases. Unfortunately, fighters only have a fraction of the range of bombers, so they would accompany the raid as far as possible, but inevitably turn around to return to base before the target was reached leaving the bombers vulnerable to enemy fighter attack. This ingenious little fighter was small enough to fit in the bomb bay, so some of the bombers would carry these fighters instead of a normal payload. If attacked, the jets were launched by dropping them. They had a hook so after the fight they should have basically been able to snag the retrieval arm and be lifted back into the bomb bay. Unfortunately, this proved to be impractical and never really worked, so the project was dropped.
Spending the day walking through the displays, eventually you would realize that the entire time, you were walking under an enormous wing that dwarfed everything else in the hanger. It was the “Stratofortress” bomber that delivered the atomic payload to Nagasaki. Argue the ethics as you wish, it’s still an amazing feat of engineering.
The museum had (for the short time it was retired) an SR-71 spy plane as well as the SR-71 cruise missile that was an attempt to arm the aircraft that failed. The first stealth fighter and bomber were in the museum as well. There were full scale replicas of the two bombs dropped on Japan, bombers you could walk through (not the XB-70 unfortunately, but they’d never be able to get me out if they did), a fighter cockpit you could sit in, and even one of the recovered Apollo capsules. Sadly, the last time I went was with my then-new bride, but she had no interest. They had a new display on the Jewish experience from WWII at the entryway to the main hanger. After spending an hour there, she decided she wasn’t interested anymore and insisted on leaving.
Listen, if you find yourself in Dayton, check it out, and try to get beyond the holocaust display. Believe me, it’s worth it.
For those hoping for an update on my father’s condition, I’ve still heard nothing. My father never called, and neither has my sister.