Tiger skull and space pancakes: A behind-the-scenes look at USAF museum rarities not on display

Museum unveils rare items as it celebrates 100 years of history

There’s far more to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force than the four big hangars visible to motorists on Harshman Avenue.

In fact, visitors never see most of what is in the museum’s vast collection.

Krista Overman, a curator for the museum’s Collections Division, said the institution has about 136,000 artifacts in its possession.

About 88,000 of those are at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Overman said in a recent interview. “The remaining ones are on loan to either civilian museums or other Air Force base museums.”

The museum also oversees what it calls “static display” programs. If you see a “plane on a stick” at a local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall — similar to the F-104 posted as a familiar sentinel on the museum’s front lawn — the institution is responsible for those, too.

In fact, only about 7,000 of the museum’s artifacts are on exhibit in a manner accessible to the public.



“That’s only about 6% or 7% of our collection,” Overman said. “The rest is in this building (building 5 on Wright-Patterson’s Area B) or on loan.”

A good chunk of Air Force and American history rests in a non-descript series of buildings on Wright-Patterson’s Area B.

Space pancakes and tiger skulls

Overman and her colleagues recently offered the Dayton Daily News a peek at what it takes for the museum’s nearly 100 civil servant employees to store, restore and prepare pieces of Air Force history for exhibit.

Items kept at building 5 and nearby at World War II-era restoration hangars are dizzying in their variety. They span the era from the very birth of powered, piloted flight to an F-15 flown to the museum a few weeks ago.



Found in a chilled vault in building 5, for example, is an autographed swath of cloth from the original 1903 Wright Flyer, carefully preserved. Here as well are space suit prototypes and an array of early flight helmets, including a leather helmet used by aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh, with an accompanying letter from Lindbergh about the helmet.

“This where we keep things that are either historically important, or just by virtue of the materials that they’re made out of, they need to be in this environment in cold storage,” Overman said. “This is temperature- and humidity-controlled.”

A short drive away, at the restoration hangars, specialists and managers oversee work on the F-15 recently delivered to the museum, as well as the only B-17D still in existence, a plane pressed into service in the Pacific in the perilous early days of America’s involvement in World War II.

Also here are former space vehicles, missiles, experimental aircraft, helicopters without rotors, craft from before the First World War until today

Chad VanHook, project lead for the museum, oversees work on the B-17D.

While the still flyable F-15 may require relatively little prep work, the B-17 is another matter, VanHook said.

“It’s a whole different story,” he said. “It’s been disassembled since the late ‘40s, so this is way, way more in-depth.”

The Boeing B-17D “Swoose” has stories to tell. Originally named “Ole Betsy,” it participated in bombing missions after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was renamed “The Swoose” as it served as a transport for the commander of Allied air forces in the Southwest Pacific, Lt. Gen. George Brett. It toured much of the globe and has the scars and emblems to prove it. Flags of visited countries and even scratched-in signatures adorn the worn fuselage.

The Army Air Corps accepted the plane and assigned it to the 19th Bombardment Group at March Field, Calif., in April 1941.

Wings and engines are arrayed on the ground or on pallets roughly where they would go if they were still attached. A glance at the ensemble confirms that years of painstaking work lie ahead to bring the plane to a point where it may one day be exhibited.



“It’s essentially untouched since it left the military,” VanHook said. “Nothing has been done to it at the Smithsonian. So the goal is to restore only what is absolutely necessary, fix some corrosion issues ... with a huge emphasis on preserving as much of the originality (of the craft) as we possibly can.”

“In seven-plus years, it will be on display,” he added.

An amazing array of history and Americana are found here. Among the artifacts currently unavailable to the public:

Space pancakes: According to museum research, in April 1962, an Eagle River, Wisc. resident claimed to have seen a flying saucer land. When the witness approached the vehicle, he said he saw a five-foot-tall “spaceman,” with others inside the saucer, one of whom was “cooking over a flameless grill.”

The witness said he offered the visitors a jug of war, who gave him four warm pancakes in return.

Project Blue Book investigated this claim, Overman said. To this day, the museum keeps chunks of the “space pancakes” in a climate-controlled textiles storage area.

Blue book’s verdict on the “pancakes:” “They’re just buckwheat pancakes of an earthly origin,” Overman said.

Tiger skull ashtray: A striking object visually, adorned with metal fabrications, the metal containes a real skull of a tiger presented by the Thailand military to Gen. Thomas White, the fourth Air Force chief of staff. While Overman wasn’t certain when the skull was given to White — he served as chief from 1957 until his 1961 retirement — the museum has had it since 1967.

Prisoner of war mandolin: The museum has a vintage mandolin that an American prisoner of war obtained in a German POW camp through an exchange of some kind with a guard.

When you do see a piece of history on display, plenty of work has gone into that moment, designer Bob Memering.

“The ideas are brought to us,” he said. “We kind of take those ideas and bring them into reality with visuals and ideas. The designers sit down and get on the computer with CAD (computer-assisted design) programs and Photoshop and all that kind of stuff to actually produce visuals that we take back to the team.”

Graphics designers, carpenters, CNC (computer numeric control) machine operators, welders and others work their magic, cutting, shaping and fabricating wood and metal, creating displays that are not only visually compelling but educational.

A team installs a new display in the main museum, working with restoration teams and others to add finishing touches.

He estimated that some 50 to 60 people work behind the scene to get an exhibit ready.

Every object is even scanned for radiation to make sure they’re safe to display, Overman said.

“We do so many things for the object,” she said. “There’s a lot that goes into it.”

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