Story by: John Walton
DAYTON— Standing under the behemoths of military aviation—the first Boeing 707-based Air Force One, a double-deck Douglas C-124 Globemaster II, a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, the sole surviving North American XB-70 Valkyrie— in the enormous National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, it seemed like an odd place to have a revelation about the extent to which 20th century’s commercial aviation is linked with its contemporary military counterpart.
“As we go through here, everything you’re going to see is either military stealing from commercial, or commercial post-war stealing from military,” Museum historian Dr. Jeff Underwood explained to Airways at the beginning of our tour, as the museum prepared to start moving a significant part of its collection to its newest hangar.
“You see advances made during the wartime period picked up after the war. The [Douglas] C-54 [Skymaster] is the perfect example. They took what they had learned from the C-54, which was a DC-4, and applied that into the DC-6, which is the VC-118. The interplay back and forth — there’s a close cooperation between the military and industry; there had to be, especially during World War II,” Underwood said.
Indeed, examples of both military versions of those two civilian aircraft reside at the museum — the first presidential aircraft, VC-54C “Sacred Cow”, which flew Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and VC-118 “Independence”, the aircraft most closely associated with Truman’s presidency.
Airways was privileged to be among the final visitors of the original Presidential collection, historically listed behind the security of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base before the exhibit’s closure in order to facilitate the complex moves of dozens of aircraft into a new 220,000 square feet hangar by June 2016.
The beautiful light of the hangar will be as missed by visitors as its absence will be valued by the museum’s conservators, who have been concerned about its effect on these irreplaceable pieces of aviation history.
Throughout the 20th century, aviation manufacturers experienced the symbiotic relationship between the two sides of the industry. One way for a planemaker to even out the cyclical global economy was to be able to manufacture both military and commercial aircraft, given the theory that airlines purchase equipment during boom times, while governments invest in military capital expenditure during economic downturns as part of stimulus packages.
“The government has funded large programs that have had commercial developments also,” USAF Museum Historian Underwood continued. “For example, if you take the engine off of a [Lockheed] C-5 Galaxy and look at the roots of that engine, and look at what it’s used as now, there are commercial applications.”
That engine is the 1964-era General Electric TF39 power plant, which was later developed into the wildly successful and incredibly widespread CF6 engine.
Would commercial turbofan have happened without military requirements? Almost certainly. But the speed at which commercial aviation evolved, and the direction it took, has clearly been strongly influenced by military aviation.
Moreover, the ability of commercial aviation to hire from a deep pool of experienced military pilots — including those familiar with flying large subsonic bomber aircraft — contributed significantly to the industry’s ability to expand as quickly and efficiently as it did throughout the last seventy years.
One of those military pilots turned civilian, now retired and serving as a volunteer docent on the information desk, highlighted the link between the museum and Eddie Rickenbacker, World War I (WWI) fighter ace, and of Eastern Air Lines fame.
Rickenbacker encouraged his WWI contemporaries to donate a significant part of the Early Years (pre-WWII) collection, which also includes a replica of the Wright 1909 Flyer, created by Dayton residents Orville and Wilbur Wright. It doesn’t get much more fundamental to the history of aviation — all aviation — than the Wright Brothers.