If you, or someone you love, is interested in airplanes and the history of flight, there’s probably a museum near you for that. And if you've already been to that museum, there are plenty of others across the country you might want to plan your next vacation around.
1. SMITHSONIAN'S NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM // WASHINGTON, D.C.
Admission is free at The National Air and Space Museum, where visitors can see a number of craft from the early days of flight, including a 19th century hang glider built by Otto Lilenthal, who, according to the museum, is "the most significant pre-Wright brothers aeronautical experimenter"; the Wright Flyer, which, after its 1903 flight, was disassembled, placed in a crate, and stored in the Wrights' bicycle shop, where it survived a flood and was subsequently reassembled and put on display in various locations before being restored in 1927 and 1985; and the 1909 Wright Military Flyer, the world's first military airplane. In addition, the museum houses aircraft from both World Wars, relics of the Space Race, and SpaceShipOne, the first privately developed and piloted craft to reach space. There are also educational exhibits, flight simulators, lectures, and movies.
2. UDVAR-HAZY CENTER // DULLES AIRPORT, CHANTILLY, VIRGINIA
The Udvar-Hazy Center is the Air and Space Museum’s auxiliary facility, housed in two giant hangars near Dulles Airport. There, visitors can see larger aircraft, such as a Concorde (a supersonic passenger jet that hasn't flown since 2003); the space shuttle Discovery, which flew 39 missions—including one carrying the Hubble telescope—to space; and the Enola Gay, the aircraft that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. Udvar-Hazy is also where historic aircraft are restored for exhibit, behind glassed-in walls so that visitors can watch the work in progress.
3. THE MUSEUM OF FLIGHT // SEATTLE, WASHINGTON
The Pacific Northwest Aviation Historical Foundation was formed in 1964 to find and preserve aviation artifacts; the Museum of Flight followed as a place to put those artifacts. Because the Boeing company was founded in Seattle in 1916, Boeing planes are featured prominently—in fact, the museum opened in 1983 in the original Red Barn, where the first Boeing planes were built. The museum now has over 150 aircraft, thousands of artifacts, and an extensive archive of aviation history.
4. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE U.S. AIR FORCE // WRIGHT-PATTERSON AFB, DAYTON, OHIO
The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is the oldest (its earliest iteration opened in December 1917) and largest military aviation museum in the world. Exhibits cover every era of aircraft used by the Air Force, with galleries devoted to each war of the 20th century. Parts of the museum are currently closed until June 8, when the museum will unveil its new fourth building.
5. AIR MOBILITY COMMAND MUSEUM // DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, DELAWARE
The Air Mobility Command Museum is the only museum dedicated to the history of airlift and air refueling. More than 30 aircraft are on display, plus museum exhibits that detail the history of military and humanitarian crews that took part in the 1948–1949 Berlin airlift and operations during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
6. PIMA AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM // TUCSON, ARIZONA
With more than 300 aircraft and 125,000 artifacts, the Pima Air and Space Museum is the largest private aviation museum in the world. The huge facility houses planes inside five hangars as well as outdoors. You can catch a tram tour of the “boneyard” of over 4000 decommissioned aircraft at the the nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (which isn't affiliated with the museum).
7. PACIFIC AVIATION MUSEUM PEARL HARBOR // FORD ISLAND, HAWAII
The hangars that house the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor survived the attack on December 7, 1941, that led to America's entry into World War II. In Hangar 37, visitors can take a guided tour that outlines the history of the base and the story of the attack; in the 80,000-square-foot Hangar 79, they can check out all kinds of aircraft and see a restoration shop as it would have looked during World War II. (Visitors should also be sure to look up—the windows still have bullet holes from the Japanese attack.) The museum, which is accessible by shuttle bus from the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center, also features flight simulators where you can become a World War II pilot—if just for a little while.
8. AIR FORCE FLIGHT TEST MUSEUM // EDWARDS AFB, CALIFORNIA
At the Air Force Flight Test Museum, visitors can see experimental aircraft from the entire history of the Air Force, but there's a catch—the museum is open four days a week for those who have base access, but visits for the general public are restricted to twice-monthly tours. (Reservations are required.) The museum has 83 aircraft in its collection, with about half on display at a time.
9. THE WRIGHT BROTHERS NATIONAL MEMORIAL // KILL DEVIL HILLS, NORTH CAROLINA
The Wright Brothers National Memorial is built on the spot on North Carolina’s Outer Banks where Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully flew the first powered heavier-than-air plane in December 1903. In addition to a large stone monument, which sits at the top of the hill, visitors can walk the paths of the four flights made on December 17, which are marked. A recreation of the Wright Brothers' living quarters and workshop are nearby, and a visitors center welcomes you with exhibits and a recreation of the 1903 flyer.
10. ALASKA AVIATION MUSEUM // ANCHORAGE, ALASKA
From the Alaska Aviation Museum, visitors can see takeoffs and landings at the nearby Ted Stevens International Airport and watch seaplanes come and go at Lake Hood, the busiest seaplane base in the world. The museum itself focuses on the history of aviation in Alaska, which the majority of the state depends on for transportation and supplies.
11. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF COMMERCIAL AVIATION // ATLANTA, GEORGIA
While the other museums on this list are all about aircraft, the National Museum of Commercial Aviation is all about airlines. In addition to planes, they have an extensive collection of airline vehicles, uniforms, insignia, and memorabilia like dishes and toys. The museum is in the process of moving to a new permanent home at 727 Airline Museum Way, Atlanta, across from the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. It's open on select weekends until sometime this spring, when regular hours will resume.
12. NATIONAL HELICOPTER MUSEUM // STRATFORD, CONNECTICUT
Igor Sikorsky developed the first mass-produced helicopter and founded what is now called the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation in Stratford, Connecticut, in 1925. At the town's National Helicopter Museum, there are plenty of exhibits and archives on Sikorsky and his aircraft, but other helicopter engineers and pilots are featured as well, along with a variety of rotorcraft and engines from the entire history of helicopter flight.