Five Must-See U.S. Aviation Museums

by J. M. Pressley
First published: June 20, 2012

America has a rich history of aviation—and the best aviation museums on the planet. You won't want to miss these five.

Ever since the Wright brothers first took flight, Americans have been fascinated with the airplane. Aviation has evolved over the course of the past century and numerous conflicts, a rich history of craft that have lifted mankind from a few feet off the ground all the way to the Moon. Nearly every state in the union now boasts some form of aviation museum. There are five, however, that stand above the rest.

So, if you're an aviation history buff, once you make the pilgrimage to North Carolina to visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial, here are the five museums to check off your bucket list. And if the appeal of their extensive collections wasn't enough, most of the museums on this list offer free admission.

National Air and Space Museum

Established on the Mall in Washington, D.C. in 1976, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum is the largest aviation and aerospace museum complex in the world. And with more than 9,000,000 visitors each year, it's also the most visited museum on the planet. The collection spans all the way from the Wright 1903 Flyer to the Discovery space shuttle. Admission is free in both the National Mall Building and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA. The museum is open every day of the year except for Christmas.
Website: http://airandspace.si.edu

National Museum of the USAF

The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force dates back to the corner of an airplane hanger in 1923. As such, it is the oldest military aviation museum in the world. Located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, OH, the museum now encompasses 400 acres and 1,000,000 square feet of exhibit space. Its collection includes more than 360 vehicles and missiles along with thousands of historical aviation artifacts. A planned expansion will add a fourth building to its campus, set to open in 2014. Admission is free; the museum is open year-round except for New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Website: http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil

National Naval Aviation Museum

Pensacola, FL is home to the National Naval Aviation Museum, the world's largest such complex and one of Florida's most visited museums. Visitors can see more than 150 Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard aircraft representing the history of air power at sea. The museum encompasses nearly 300,000 square feet of exhibit space and 37 acres of grounds. Admission is free, and the museum is open every day of the year except for New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Website: http://www.navalaviationmuseum.org

Pima Air & Space Museum

Located in Tucson, AZ, the Pima Air & Space Museum is the largest privately funded aerospace museum in the nation. The 80-acre complex is home to more than 300 historic air and space craft from around the world. In addition, the museum is the official tour operator of the "Boneyard" at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, home to the USAF's fleet of retired planes. Admission varies; standard entry is $13.75 for adults and and $8.00 for children (free for children six and under). The museum is open every day of the year except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Website: http://www.pimaair.org

United States Army Aviation Museum

The United States Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker, AL, is home to more than160 restored military aircraft. Within its 70,000 square feet of exhibit space and on its grounds, the museum boasts one of the largest collections of military helicopters in the world, tracing the evolution of rotary-wing aviation. The museum is also home to the Army Aviation Hall of Fame and the Aviation Vietnam Memorial. Admission is free, and the museum is open year-round except for New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas.
Website: http://www.armyaviationmuseum.org/