I like to go to Omaha on days when the sky is clear and the air is crisp. Mainly because I like to see the various military planes that populate the sky. That's because just south of Omaha is Offutt Air Force base, which was the home of the Strategic Air Command when it was in existence.
Halfway between Omaha and Lincoln just off of Interstate 80 at the Ashland/South Bend exit (Exit 426, Nebraska State Highway 66 - see map) is the Strategic Air and Space Museum, a wonderful place to visit if you're in to planes, aerospace and military history. I've been to the place about 7 or 8 times.
As you pull up to this enormous facility, you'll see an Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile rocket out front, along with a Blue Scout rocket NASA uses for small payloads, and a Jupiter rocket, similar to the one used to send Explorer 1 into space to help discover the Van Allen Radiation belts.
As you walk in the door, in the main lobby atrium they have an SR-71 Blackbird, a high-speed, high altitude surveillance plane used by the U.S. in the Cold War, suspended from the ceiling. It's quite a stunning visual as you first come in.
There are three main areas of the museum. On the main level, you can look into the Dunham Restoration hanger. They happened to be working on a Boeing B-29 "Superfortress" when I was in there last. It was pretty amazing to see.
Go down the escalators and hang a left at the bottom and you go into a huge hanger where you could easily have a football field inside. This houses a number of planes including the largest military bomber ever made, the B-36. It literally dwarfs the B-52 that sits next to it.
That's right - the B-36 and the B-52 are sitting side by side. That's how big this place is.
The Boeing B-52. These are big suckers. But actually, when you get up close to them, they're not as big as you think.
There's also a B-47, the predecessor to the B-52; and a Convair/General Dynamics B-58 bomber in there, as well (shown above). That's a pretty funky looking airplane. It was the first supersonic bomber to be built in the U.S.
One of the more cool things in this hanger is a Russian MIG-21 from the North Vietnamese Air Force that was flown to the south by a pilot who wanted to defect. It still has the North Vietnam star on the side of the plane.
There's also a B-25, an F-111, and an F-101 in the hanger along with many other planes. That's right. All in one hanger. I'm tellin' ya - it's a big joint!
There's a center area under the main lobby between the two main hangers that has changing exhibits. What they had in there for my last visit was "The Lost Spacecraft" - an exhibit and showing of Liberty Bell 7, the Mercury program space capsule that was lost in the Atlantic on July 21, 1961 after Virgil (Gus) Grissom's 15 minute flight sub-orbital flight, and was raised 38 years later by a team of salvage workers funded and backed by the Discovery Channel.
Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom
Being somewhat of a "space geek" growing up, I really wanted to see this exhibit. To get to the capsule I had to go down and through a series of displays. There was a lot of memorabilia throughout the entrance area leading up to the Liberty Bell 7 display.
Finally, the entrance opened up into a room that showed the space capsule (which was restored as best as it could be by a team of historians and engineers at the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, KS). There were a number of items salvaged from the capsule including survival gear, knick-knacks and mementos Grissom took on the flight; and, surprisingly, hypodermic needles for medical injections in case something went wrong during the flight. I've seen smaller injectors for putting marinade into beef or pork.
I lingered a little longer and looked around the capsule a couple times. Wow. Considering how small the capsule was, it's amazing to think how a man could fit inside that thing.
Past the Freedom 7 exhibit and into the second large hanger (although smaller than the first one), they have a B-1A bomber on display - only one of 4 that were produced before they went with the B-1B bomber.
Around the B1-A bomber was a display called "Power by Design", which displayed a number of sports cars to show the correlation of power and speed in design. I'm guessing the sports cars belonged to Chip Davis, the creative force behind Mannheim Steamroller. Davis has lent some of his sports cars to the museum in the past, and the 15 or so cars on display were similar to the ones that I'd seen in there in the past. Since the display started at the end of October and would go through to the end of March, I figured that Davis probably found some place to garage his cars for the winter.
There's also a British Hawker Vulcan on display in this room, as well as a C-119 "Flying Boxcar". There's also a couple of transports helicopters suspended from the ceiling. Plus they had replicas of a couple of the Apollo command modules on display.
Some days there are former pilots from Offutt Air Force Base at the museum who will answer questions about various planes and procedures. I talked to a guy one time about three years ago who used to be a pilot for the "Looking Glass" aircraft - a Boeing C-135 that was used as the flying command post for communications and forward control in the case of a nuclear attack.
I remember seeing a C-135 with only an American flag on its tail doing a "touch and go" at the Des Moines airport a number of years ago. I had always wondered if that was the "Looking Glass" and I asked him if it were possible that I did see one do a touch and go.
He told me, "Yeah, we used to do 'touch and go's' all the time to break up the boredom." He said there were 3 "Looking Glass" planes and when one would finish an 8 hour shift, before it would land another "Looking Glass" plane would be taking off to take its place in the sky. The missions ended in 1990.
At the museum, there's also a gift shop that's kind of cool, a snack bar and some other periodic displays on hand. I hardly ever get out of there in less than 90 minutes, and like I say, I've been there 7 or 8 times. It never bores me.
Even if you're not into planes, the Strategic Air and Space Museum is quite a place to visit. The size of the place, alone, is worth the price of admission ($7.00). But the historical value of the place is priceless. It's definitely worth the visit.