Strategic Air Command Museum

Strategic Air Command Museum-04

Russ Steele
August 31, 2012
Filed under Destinations, Feature Story

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Having completed 20 years of service in the Air Force, with most of my career in Strategic Air Command (SAC), I collected a number of certificates and plaques that were cluttering up my home office 30 years after retirement. While they were significant to me, recognition of some first-time events in SAC, these items of edification needed a better home.

I had to find these memorable treasures a better resting place; a home where those interested in Air Force history might appreciate them. So, I contacted the Strategic Air and Space Museum near Ashland, Neb., and asked if they would be interested in having my memorabilia.

Strategic Air Command Museum-05

Steele with Brian York exchanging a plaque recording some first-time accomplishments.

Brian York, curator of exhibits and collections, initially said, “I already have 35 cans of old aircraft oil.” Once York and I spoke further he said he would like to look at my material before making a commitment.

After some deliberation, my wife, Ellen, and I decided a road trip to Ashland would make a great RV excursion. We set about planning the route from our home in Northern California to the museum in eastern Nebraska. We heard from friends about the scenery and historical charm of old Highway 40 through Utah and Colorado, and decided to traverse one of America’s great arteries as we made our way east.

Historic US-40 once crossed the entire United States from Atlantic City, N.J. to San Francisco, Calif., but now only small sections still exist. When the Interstate Highway System was created, many western sections of Route 40 were decommissioned. We planned to tour one of the remaining sections from Silver Creek Junction, Utah, just off of I-80, to Silverthorne, Colo., where US-40 joins I-70 near Denver. That route would allow us to see more of rural America and visit interesting small towns, such as Vernal, Utah, and Craig and Steamboat Springs, Colo. along the way. We are much more comfortable on our nation’s backroads than on the interstates in our rig anyway. The slower pace gives us an opportunity to take in the surroundings at every bend in the road.

Once we arrived at the museum, York met us in the front lobby and took my materials for review. Smiling, he suggested we tour the museum as his guests while he did an evaluation and prepared any transfer deeds.

Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird

The Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird is a high-speed reconnaissance plane designed to outrun the U-2 spy plane. Its maximum speed is still classified, but its cruising speed is 1,320 mph.

The Strategic Air Command Museum was General Curtis LeMay’s vision. He wanted to preserve SAC’s rich military history for future generations. The first aircraft we viewed, and the seed that started the museum, a B-36 Strategic Bomber, was located at the end of an old runway at Offutt Air Force Base in 1959. In May 1998, following a million-dollar local fundraising campaign, the museum was moved to a location more accessible to the public near Ashland, Neb., and renamed the Strategic Air & Space Museum in 2001.

Today the museum is a 300,000-square-foot building and features a glass atrium, two aircraft display hangars, traveling exhibit area, children’s interactive gallery, 200-seat theater and snack bar. The glass atrium is constructed of glass panels that encase a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. The two aircraft display hangars protect dozens of Air Force aircraft and memorabilia in the museum collection and exhibits from the harsh Nebraska winters and blazing summer sun.

We found an FB-111, just like the one I flew, on the lower floor of the museum and took some pictures of the right seat, where I used to log long flight hours. During the height of my flying career, I would spend as much as six hours at a time in this plane’s small cockpit with limited comfort facilities. An avid coffee drinker, I soon discovered not to drink too much coffee before a flight, especially a long one.

Snow-covered Rocky Mountains

Snow-covered Rocky Mountains from historic Route 40 in Colorado.

However, my most memorable accomplishments were not in the cockpit, but in supervising a test team responsible for examining aircraft to make sure they were up to meeting their combat mission. My team was the one that determined if a plane was ready for combat, causing great consternation in the 509th Bombardment Wing, Second Air Force and HQ Strategic Air Command. We were infamous overnight when our predictions came true.

Our day at the museum was filled with memorable sights and sounds, but the one significant component of every aircraft ramp that was missing on the clean painted floor of the museum was the pungent, greasy smell of JP-4 jet fuel.

The JP-4 had been drained from all the aircraft as a safety measure. Hoping I was not drawing too much attention to myself, I put my nose close to the skin of the old FB-111 to catch a whiff, but it had been wiped clean. My aircraft sniffing caught the attention of a docent on the floor, who came to see if I had any questions, and to keep an eye on me.

After rebuilding memories for an hour or so, we met York again at the information desk. I was pleased to hear that all the materials I brought with me from California were of interest to the museum, as his assessment was that they were all one-of-a-kind items, including the story I wrote about my adventures as the first Category III FB-111 Test Director. I learned from the docent on the museum floor that the museum’s FB-111 collection was rather thin and could use the boost. That made my small contribution even more important to the museum’s archives.

We recommend that other Trailer Life readers check their closets, desk drawers and bookshelves for items they might want to donate to their favorite museum. If you donate these items to a museum, future generations will have an opportunity to appreciate your small contributions to history. They do not have to be military items, just unique items that have a historical significance. And we bet that you’ll have just as much fun as we did on our flight of memories to the Strategic Air & Space Museum.

Strategic Air & Space Museum
402-944-3100, www.sacmuseum.org

The Craig Campground
970-824-5105, www.thecraigcampground.com

Eugene T. Mahoney State Park
402-471-1414, nebraskastateparks.reserveamerica.com

The Great Platte River Road Archway
877-511-2724, www.archway.org

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