Reviewing the best military history exhibitions, with Marc DeSantis
N ew York State’s Long Island was an important centre for the United States’ aircraft production bonanza during the Second World War, with about one in every seven American airplanes built there. The Grumman Engineering Corporation was the source of thousands of F4F Wildcats, F6F Hellcats, and TBF Avengers for the US Navy, while Republic Aviation Corporation manufactured thousands of P-47 Thunderbolt fighters for the United States Army Air Forces.
Located on Long Island in Farmingdale, about an hour’s drive east of Manhattan, on the former grounds of Republic’s production plant, the American Airpower Museum (AAM), is a repository of fascinating examples of vintage warbirds, as well as more modern machines.
Occupying a large hangar on the edge of Republic Airport, AAM stands apart from most other air and space museums on account of the number of flyable aircraft in its collection. With a runway situated nearby, the museum is perfectly suited to allow its machines to take to the skies. It is well worth a visit for any aviation enthusiast.
Holidays, such as Memorial Day (May), Independence Day (the 4th of July), and Labor Day (September), are especially good times to pay the museum a visit. Typically, warbirds from other parts of North America will fly to Republic Airport and stop here. In past years, Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and a B-29 Superfortress have landed, as well as a Consolidated B-24 Liberator and an Avro Lancaster.
Smaller warplanes have also swung by on various holidays, including Supermarine Spitfires, a Mitsubishi A6M Zero, and a Vought F4U Corsair.
The aircraft in the museum’s permanent collection, as distinct from the machines that temporarily visit, are similarly resonant with historical significance. Among the functional aircraft in the museum’s collection is a P-51D Mustang. One of the outstanding fighters to emerge from the war, the single-seat P-51 was North American Aviation’s response to the British Purchasing Commission’s interest in fighters. Initially, it proved to be a poor performer at high altitude: a crippling combat deficiency.
However, when paired with Rolls-Royce’s superb Merlin engine, the Mustang was transformed into a stellar warplane. Reaching a top speed of 438mph, and armed with six 0.5-inch machine guns, the P-51’s extraordinary range allowed it to accompany American bombers deep into Germany and then shepherd them back to Britain.
It was a war-winning weapon, of which some 15,000 were built. The museum’s own Mustang is a smart machine, wearing largely bare aluminium, and clad with D-Day ‘invasion stripes’ on its lower fuselage.
With its grinning shark-mouth nose, the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk won immortality for itself even prior to American entry into the war as the aircraft of the famed Flying Tigers in China. Though outclassed by the extremely manoeuvrable Mitsubishi Zero, it more than held its own in the hands of a talented pilot.
Attaining a top speed of only 343mph, the Warhawk was no match for Luftwaffe fighters, such as the Messerschmitt Bf-109, in European skies. The Royal Air Force, which operated numerous P-40s, diverted their machines into the ground attack role. These performed solidly in North Africa and elsewhere.
The US Army Air Forces also recognized that the P-40 had been superseded by enemy combat aircraft, but they too found a use for them as second-line fighters in secondary theatres, with several P-40-equipped fighter groups detailed to stand guard over the Panama Canal.
The twin-engine Douglas C-47 Skytrain was the militarised version of the legendary DC-3 passenger aircraft. Some 10,000 machines rolled out of US factories. The C-47 became the workhorse US transport aircraft, with many units provided via Lend-Lease to other Allied air forces. Capable of moving cargo or carrying up to 28 paratroopers, C-47s figured prominently in airborne operations such as D-Day and Market-Garden, delivering parachute troops in their thousands to their target areas.
No less a figure than General Eisenhower himself judged the C-47 – together with the atomic bomb, the jeep, and the bazooka – to be one of the four most critical Allied weapons of the Second World War. Flights on the resident C-47, handsomely attired in D-Day invasion stripes, are offered by the museum for a fee.
In April 1942, the twin-engine B-25 Mitchell bomber won acclaim for itself by launching from the USS Hornet aircraft carrier to strike Tokyo in the famed Doolittle Raid. The museum’s example was once the personal airplane of General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold, the commander of the US Army Air Forces during the Second World War. B-25s saw service all over the globe with the air forces of many nations.
Grumman’s TBF Avenger was a carrier-borne torpedo bomber with a crew of three. The museum’s example is technically a TBM Avenger, the ‘M’ indicating that the machine was constructed by General Motors’ Eastern Aircraft Division. Many Avengers were operated by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, which used it primarily as a conventional bomber. Avengers would prove to be the bane of both Japanese warships and German U-boats; the future US President George H W Bush was himself a wartime Avenger pilot.
The Texan trainer
None of these aircraft could fly themselves – they required trained pilots to be of any use. A ubiquitous advanced trainer that debuted before the Second World War, the North American AT-6 Texan was the mount on which over 300,000 Allied pilots learned to fly.
Altogether, some 17,000 AT-6 Texans and variants were constructed, and large numbers were flown by the Royal Air Force, in which it was known as the Harvard. Many AT-6s were also constructed under licence in Canada.
A salient advantage of the Texan was that it replicated the flight characteristics of the combat aircraft that pilots would eventually use in service, an important thing for air forces seeking to train their pilots effectively. One airworthy example of the machine is in the collection. As with the C-47, flights in the AT-6 are offered by the museum.
Rounding out the museum’s collection are several aircraft on static display. These include the Republic F-105 Thunderchief, a jet-powered supersonic fighter that had been designed to deliver a nuclear bomb, but instead found a role for itself as a conventional fighter-bomber in Vietnam.
Also on the tarmac may be found a Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II
ground attack jet; a swing-wing General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark; a Grumman EA-6B Prowler; and a trio of members of the Republic F-84 fighter family: the F-84E Thunderjet, the F-84F Thunderstreak, and the RF-84F Thunderflash.
As previously mentioned, flights are available on several machines
in the museum’s collection, including the Texan, the C-47, and a Waco UPF-7 biplane. Rides are offered seasonally and weather permitting, but it is advisable to call ahead and confirm availability before you head to Long Island in person.