Aviation history started in earnest a little more than a hundred years ago. Before that, it was all about balloons and people jumping off cliffs while flapping wooden wings. Aviation surged immensely, and many of the vehicles it produced ended up in museums. Here are some of the best that you can (and should) visit.
- Musée de l’air et de l’espace
This museum is located just north of Paris, in the Le Bourget airport. It was inaugurated in 1919, just after the Great War. One of the oldest such museums in the world, it occupies 150,000 square metres and has a lot more to show than just airplanes. Some of the materials date back to the 16th century. Others might be a nuclear missile.
The airplane displays are themed around periods. You can see aircraft that pre-date WWI, as well as Farman Goliath, the WWI bomber that was late to the war – but gave a good boost to civil aviation. You’ll also have a peek at the V-1 flying bomb, the Skyraider (of “dropped a toilet on Vietnam” fame), not one but two Concordes (remember those?) and the adorable Breguet Atlantic.
- Ukraine State Aviation Museum
This museum, located near Kiev, is a lot younger than the French one. However, even if it was opened in 2003, it still has a fairly sizeable number of exhibits. It should be interesting for fans of Cold War aviation of the Soviet kind, as the museum exhibits a lot of fan favorites.
On the grounds of the museum one can almost see the evolution of such lines of planes like MiG and Su, or the Mil Mi helicopter line. Yes, there’s even the Mil Mi-26, which, more than any other helicopter, represents man’s victory over common sense (as nothing that big should ever fly). Il-76, world’s favorite heavy freighter, is also present.
- National Air and Space Museum
National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution – or NASM, if you like your museum names to sound like a piece of military equipment – is the most visited museum in the US and the third most visited museum in the world. All I’m saying is that you should probably go see it.
NASM displays both civilian and military artifacts, as well as many exhibits from the space race. The list includes the Apollo 11 command module, the Spirit of St. Louis, SpaceShip 1, the Lockheed U-2 and about 2000 of smaller items.
- Central Air Force Museum
However, if your heart is more red than red, white and blue, you will definitely want to see Central Air Force Museum about 40 km away from Moscow. It’s one of the largest aviation museums in the world, displaying 173 aircraft. You best get a Russian-speaking friend to take you there, as reportedly most of the information is still in Russian.
Once you’re there, however, you’ll be free to marvel at the wonders of proletarian mastery of aerodynamics. Il-2, the flying tank that beat the Fascist hordes? All sorts of Tupolev designs, dating back to World War 2? The Myasishchev M-50 prototype? The MiG-105 space plane that looks surprisingly like Donald Duck? They’re all there. About the only thing that you can’t find is the ubiquitous An-2, probably because it’s serving as the revolutionary vanguard in nearly every other museum.
- Militärhistorisches Museum Flugplatz Berlin-Gatow
This unpronounceable mess serves as the Berlin branch of the Bundeswehr Military History Museum. It mainly documents the military history of the German aviation, with the museum displaying 200,000 items, including 155 aeroplanes, 5,000 uniforms and 30,000 books. Many WWI planes are reproductions, but the examples of planes flown by West and East Germanies are genuine.
Among gliders (the Germans seem to be particularly enamored with engine-less flight), you’ll find repros of WWI planes of all sides, conversions of WWII planes (mostly from Spanish licensed copies) and things like Messerschmitt Me 163, which killed more Nazis than it ever did Allies. The Cold War display contains the melange of planes that were in use during the period, from the English Electric Lightning (best named plane ever) and Canberra to the freaky Italian Fiat G-91 R4. You can also see all the helicopters that the Soviets ever let the Ossies play with… and an An-2.
- Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
This place, named after billionaire plane leasing fat cat Steven F. Udvar-Hazy, who donated money to found it, is part of the NOTAM- wait, no, NASAMS- no, no, NASM. However, it’s located some way away and contains many notable exhibits.
Do you want to see some of the last surviving examples of Nazi planes? What about the Enola Gay or some Japanese planes? Space shuttle Discovery isn’t a military plane, but seeing a shuttle is an adventure on itself. There are also many light, ultralight and home made exhibits of historical import, too. Yes, it’s a likely spot to find the An-2.
- Imperial War Museum Duxford
Now this baby provides the NASM experience for those people who don’t want to fly to the US. So visit the Brexit-lands and go see this place. Located in a characteristically inconvenient spot for budget travellers, it hosts over 200 planes, as well as a collection of military vehicles.
While you walk between the 5 hangars and other exhibits, you can expect to witness historic planes like Consolidated PBY Catalina taking off from the single functional runway. It also one the places where you can see a Concorde (a test model) – and climb aboard! You can also gaze in amazement at a Short Sunderland (my favorite flying boat), an Eurofighter Typhoon, and others. The American Air Museum is one of the few places where you can find a bonafide SR-71 Blackbird!
However, no matter which historical place you decide to visit, you can still fall prey to flight disruptions. Delays, cancellations and overbooking can all ruin your day. However, you can still claim flight compensation via Skycop. Who knows, you might get up to €600 in compensation, which can then be meaningfully invested in a museum gift shop!