The South Dakota Air & Space Museum’s Outdoor Aircraft Exhibits
In the Black Hills of South Dakota just outside Ellsworth AFB sits the small but extraordinary South Dakota Air and Space Museum. It’s easy to miss if you don’t know about it or aren’t looking for it. However, this belies the many exhibits they maintain with free admission to the public. Here’s a virtual photo tour for those who can’t make the trip but still have an interest in the warbirds on display, along with some historical notes of interest.
First up the centerpiece of the museum, the B-1B Lancer. Operational since 1986, this supersonic long-range variable wing bomber was originally incepted for nuclear strike but was retrofitted for conventional missions in the early 90’s. Notable missions include Operation Desert Fox (Iraq), Operation Allied Force (Kosovo), Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), the Invasion of Iraq II: Electric Boogaloo, Operation Odyssey Dawn (Libya), and Operation Inherent Resolve (Syria). Additionally, in 2008 it was the first USAF aircraft to fly supersonic on a 50/50 mix of petrol and synthetic fuel. This B-1B is s/n 83-0067 Texas Raider.
Next is the B-29 Superfortress. Operational in 1944 and serving until 1960, this plane was state of the art with a pressurized crew cabin, computer controlled remote turrets, and was the first nuclear bomber and the only one to drop nuclear weapons in anger. The B-29 saw service in the Pacific theater operating from island bases, China, and India to conduct bombing raids on Japan, the two most famous being the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima (Enola Gay carrying Little Boy) and Nagasaki (Bockscar carrying Fat Man). After WWII the B-29 saw service in Korea and was eventually downgraded to a medium bomber with the advent of the B-36 Peacemaker, but was useful in other roles such as reconnaissance and as a test carrier for the Bell X-1 and other aircraft. This example, Legal Eagle II,is a later model recovered from the China Lake testing facility in the 80’s and restored to its current state.
The EC-135A was a flying Command Post created from a modified KC-135 (note the boom under the tail) and later was an Airborne Launch Control Center (ALCC). This aircraft’s main use was for Operation Looking Glass and kept 24/7 airborne coverage for over 29 years straight from 1961 to 1990 before standing down from continuous airborne alert to ground or airborne alert. The planes were then superseded in their role by the E-6B in 1998. This specific one is s/n 61-0262 Rollin’ Thunder.
The next plane is the venerable B-52. The Stratofortress was introduced 65 years ago in 1955 and intended to carry nuclear weapons. While it’s probably most famous in these circles for utilizing conventional weapons over Vietnam in Operations Rolling Thunder, Arc Light, and Linebacker II, the B-52 was also involved in airborne alert patrols like Chrome Dome, Hard Head, Head Start, Round Robin, and Giant Lance. These patrols involved B-52s and other strategic bombers to be continually circulating to provide a strike capability already in the air to shorten response times in a “Cold War Gone Hot” scenario. This 24/7 alert was ended in 1991 with the end of the Cold War but the B-52 was put into action against Iraq during Operation Desert Storm using Air Launched Cruise Missiles. It was then used in Operation Desert Strike (Iraq), Operation Allied Force (Yugoslavia), and Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom as well as Freedom of Navigation operation in the South China Sea and Operation Inherent Resolve (Syria).
The C-54 Skymaster seems to be a lesser known plane but had a large impact. Brought into service in 1942, it was used as a transport aircraft during WWII and this model was the basis of the forerunner to Air Force One, the VC-54C The Flying White House but unofficially known as Sacred Cow. After President Roosevelt’s passing President Truman used the plane. The airframe was also heavily involved in the Berlin Airlift at the beginning of the Cold War, helping to supply the city with much needed fuel and food supplies. The total amount of supplies delivered from 26 June 1948 to 30 September 1949 totaled 2,334,374 tons over 278,228 flights. This example is a C-54D/Q, s/n 42-72592.
The Minuteman III is currently the only land-based ICBM in US service, the example above is its previous iteration, the Minuteman II. It received the name “Minuteman” because it is solid fueled, allowing it to sit dormant but still be ready to launch with minimal maintenance and danger, compared to liquid fueled missiles that needed to have fuel loaded before launch. The first model was operational in 1962, this display model II in 1965, and the current generation model III in 1970. The Minuteman II could fly 7,767nm and was accurate to about a mile Circular Error Probable (CEP), more than accurate enough for the 1.2 Megaton warhead it carried.
The MIM-3 Nike Ajax was the first operational Surface to Air Missile (SAM) and was in service from 1954 to 1963 in the US and until 1970 in Japan. The initial Nike Project began with Bell Laboratories and Western Electric at the end of WWII due to the changing nature of air warfare with the advent of jets and long-range high-speed bombers capable of employing nuclear weapons. In light of these threats Anti-aircraft Artillery had reached a point of ineffectiveness. The MIM-3 had a range of 25nm and could reach an altitude of 12nm. While itself quickly outpaced by advances in aircraft design and performance, Nike pioneered systems used in SAMs today. Using a Target Acquisition Radar (TAR) the system detected incoming aircraft and passed tracks to the Target Tracking Radar (TTR) to follow the target across the sky. The missile was then controlled using a Missile Tracking Radar (MTR) and a computer plotting an intercept course using data from both the TAR and the MTR. While MTRs have become obsolete due to advances in missile guidance systems the basics of the chain are still used. After military retirement the surplus boosters were used for research rockets that took sensors to the altitudes that were between where balloons and satellites could go. These typically had “Nike” in their name.
The Beechcraft Model 18 served from 1939 to 1963 in a few different roles under different designators, from trainers in navigation (AT-7), bombing (AT-11), photography (F-2), and this cargo model, the C-45H Expeditor. In addition to their civil and military service the airframe was also extensively used by Air America during the Vietnam war in both stock and modified configurations. This example was originally an AT-11 s/n 42-37418 before being remanufactured by Beechcraft in the 50’s to number 52-10866. It was then on the civil registry under the numbers N2797A, N311SA, N4111A before being sold to the USAF museum in 1992 and given the current false serial of 40796.
The F-100 Super Sabre was a development off the F-86 Sabre and was in service from 1954 to 1979. It was the first supersonic level flight plane, and was followed by its contemporary the MiG-19 four months later. Stability problems stemming from the swept wings at low speeds and high angles of attack causing the plane to violently pitch up became known as the “Sabre Dance”. Despite this, the “Hun” had a leading role in the Vietnam war from 1961 to 1965 as escorts, Forward Air Controllers, and Suppression of Enemy Air Defense assets, and from 1965 to 1971 as close air support within South Vietnam. The F-100 had four M39A1 cannons and 6 hard points for AIM-9 Sidewinders, AGM-12 Bullpups, LAU-3/A rocket pods, conventional bombs, or the Mark 7, 28, 38, or 43 nuclear bombs.
This VB-25J is a Staff and VIP transport variant of the B-25 Mitchell bomber. Most famous for its role in the Doolittle Raid, this airframe was in service with the US from 1941 to 1960 with the Indonesian military keeping theirs until 1979. Originally conceived as a medium bomber, it fulfilled this role as well as a strafer and commerce raider in Southeast Asia and the Pacific with some use in Europe. This specific VB-25J, Blonde Bomber was used as General Eisenhower’s personal transport from 1944 to 1945. Modifications for this role included the stripping of weapons, installation of a bunk, tables, cabinets, airliner seats, side windows, and an auxiliary fuel tank. For a full history of this specific plane see: http://www.warbirdregistry.org/b25registry/b25-434030.html.
Serving from 1957 to 1982 the F-101 Voodoo was a nuclear capable fighter bomber, interceptor, and photo-reconnaissance aircraft. Despite heavy use as an interceptor in the US and Canada and as a nuclear deterrent in Europe the photo-reconnaissance version was the only one to actually see combat, being used during the Cuban Missile Crisis as well as being deployed in the Vietnam War and used by the Republic of China to perform overflights of the mainland. Canada wound up keeping theirs in service until 1984 before replacing them with the CF-18 Hornet. This F-101B model interceptor, s/n 59-0426, would have been armed with four AIM-4 Falcon missiles or 2 AIM-4s and 2 AIR-2 Genie nuclear rockets.
Seen over the skies of Korea clashing with the MiG-15, the swept wing F-86 Sabre served the USAF from 1949 to 1965 with many countries keeping theirs in service even longer. The F-86 carried six .50 caliber machine guns, and up to 2000lbs of bombs or various rocket packages. With the A-1CM gunsight-AN/APG-30 combination the F-86 was able to shoot more accurately at longer ranges due to range calculations being done automatically. Shortly after the Korean War and the duels against Russian, Chinese, and North Korean pilots in MiG Alley the F-86 was used in the world’s first successful combat air to air missile engagement during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1958. Personnel from VMF-323 (A Marine squadron flying the FJ-4, the final version of the F-86 but for the Navy) were tasked with modifying Republic of China Air Force F-86s with the then new and unblooded AIM-9 Sidewinder to counter Communist China’s new MiG-17s flying over the Taiwan Strait. Until that point the MiG-17s had engaged at their leisure, out of range of the guns of the F-86s. This changed on 24 September 1958 when four AIM-9 equipped F-86s took off from strip alert and used them to engage a flight of MiG-17s, downing six with the missiles and a further six with guns after the MiGs engaged. A full retelling of the story can be found here: http://userwebs.inreach.com/tc/page7.html. This example is an F-86H, s/n 53-1302.
The C-47 Skytrain/Dakota is a military modified version of the DC-3 that was the workhorse of WWII and served through both the Korean and Vietnam wars as well. It had a crew of 3 and was capable of carrying up to 6,000lbs of cargo, 28 fully loaded paratroopers, 14 patients on stretchers and 3 nurses, or eventually 3 GAU-2/M134 miniguns as the first gunship of its kind. In addition, this airframe was used for other myriad applications from VIP transport to electronic attack through its service life. The most famous look for this aircraft is probably the version sporting the invasion stripes flying over Normandy to deliver the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, the British 6th Airborne Division, and the Free French 4th SAS Battalion to their drop zones. Less fabulous but just as important was the exceedingly dangerous route flown over “The Hump” in the Himalayas to bring supplies from India to support US forces in China. Over 156,977 trips were made transporting 80,400 personnel both ways and 685,304 gross tons of cargo to include fuel, weapons, ammunition, rations, and other supplies. This accounted for 1.5 million flight hours and cost 594 aircraft and 1,314 personnel lost to the weather, mountains, and Japanese fighters. The C-47 still sees use in civil and military applications, the most recent use by the USAF was by the 6th Special Operations Squadron from 2002 to 2008. The C-47 can also be seen above Normandy during the anniversary of D-Day and having witnessed it and the reenactment drops I would suggest seeing it in person if you can make the trip. For a history of this specific aircraft s/n 42-93127 see http://www.aerialvisuals.ca/AirframeDossier.php?Serial=49970.
The A-26 (later the B-26) Invader/Counter Invader, not to be confused with the B-26 Marauder, was purpose built for ground attack based on the A-20 Havoc. The Invader could be variably configured by swapping out the nose for bombardier and gun noses, could carry up to 4,000lbs of bombs, and some variants could carry up to 18 forward firing .50 caliber machine guns for ground attack. The A-26 was initially used in the Pacific Theatre where it was near universally panned due to the limited visibility and the jungle conditions. After some reworks of the cockpit the A-26 was then tested with favorable results in the European Theatre attacking logistics hubs, trains, armored vehicles, air bases, and troop concentrations at both day and night. It was kept for this purpose in Korea and Vietnam as well as other hotspots around the world. This aircraft retired from US military service in 1969 but was also used by the CIA in the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Vietnam, and Africa in both ground attack and infiltration models. The history for this aircraft, s/n 64-17640 can be found here: http://www.aerialvisuals.ca/AirframeDossier.php?Serial=49900.
This rounds out only half of the outdoor exhibits and in the interest of keeping this somewhat short look forward to a Part II soon on TKB.
Versidious is a “military history and firearms enthusiast, who often gets lost in museums looking at small details.”