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Just plane history: Air Mobility Command Museum showcases airlift, Dover history

By Airman 1st Class C. Todd Lopez

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. (April 28, 2000) -- Technology and the modern Air Force move forward so fast, it is often difficult to remember what came before us. For young airmen it is even more difficult to remember the Air Force's rich history, heroes and the trend setters of years past.

Locally, we are very fortunate Dover Air Force Base is home to the Air Mobility Command Museum, an Air Force supported facility here that keeps alive and recognizes Dover AFB, airlift, and tanker/refueler history.

"Our mission is to preserve the history of airlift and air refueling aircraft," said Mike Leister, Air Mobility Command Museum director. "We try to do that by preserving not only the aircraft, but also the stories of the people that served on them and flew them, and also the memorabilia and artifacts that have to do with military history."

The Air Mobility Command Museum opened to the public in 1986 and is located in a refurbished aircraft hanger at the south end of base. The hanger is, itself a piece of history, serving as the site of the U.S. Army/Air Forces Rocket Test Center during World War II.

The museum receives nearly 50,000 visitors a year from all over the world.

"We see people from all over," said Lt. Col. (ret.) Harry Heist, a former airlift pilot and a volunteer at the museum. "There are tour buses, schools groups, JROTC students and veterans organizations who come through. We have had visitors from downtown Dover and visitors from as far away as Japan and China. Usually, the museum is one of the spots the wing commander will visit if he has a distinguished visitor on base."

"We are the most visited museum in central Delaware," said Leister. "People come from all over the United States, and all over the world. One lady actually came into New York from South Africa, rented a car, and drove here to the museum because she had seen our museum's Web site."

Visitors come to the museum to see the vast array of airlift history offered. The museum houses displays honoring the contributions of the Tuskeegee Airmen, and those participating in the Berlin Airlift. There are also collections of documents, photos and film. Additionally, visitors to the museum can see various uniforms, weapons and other military items.

Some of the most impressive pieces at the museum, however, are the restored military aircraft. The AMC museum is home to nearly two dozen such aircraft, and all are related to Dover AFB, or military airlift history. Some of the aircraft even have unique histories that extend beyond wartime.

"Our C-54 is a very famous and important aircraft in our history," said Leister. "It was actually given to us by the FBI. The Air Force gave it to the FBI to use as a sky-marshal trainer, a program in the 1970s where they trained guards to fly on aircraft because hijacking was a big problem. When the FBI was finished with the aircraft, they were going to cut it up into scrap, but instead they gave it to us and we were able to save the plane."

All aircraft in the museum are either donated to the museum by private individuals, or are acquired as aircraft are retired.

"Our PT-17 was actually donated by a local crop-duster that knew we needed one for our collection," said Leister. "He actually gave it to the Air Force. Most of the other aircraft are retired out of inventory after their service life is complete."

The museum has plans to add two additional aircraft to its collection in the near future. These aircraft include a KC-97 Stratofreighter, recently aquired from Beale AFB, Calif., and a Douglas C-133 Cargomaster, which made its debut at Dover AFB in August of 1958.

In addition to adding new aircraft to the collection, the museum plans on adding more hands-on exhibits to make the museum more educational and friendly to children in the civilian community.

"We're working now towards building more hands-on activities for kids," said Leister. "We have educational exhibits coming in next year that show children what aircraft are made of, teach them about lift, thrust and drag, the things that effect aircraft and how they fly."

Educating children and the local community is a big part of the museum's mission.

"One of the important things we do is to act as a window for the community, for the Air Force," said Leister. "Most people don't get to see what an active Air Force base looks like. They don't know about the military, other than what they see on television. The TV is really not a good reflection of the military."

The Air Mobility Command Museum is the largest museum in Central Delaware and is really one of the gems of Dover Air Force Base. The museum depends almost entirely on volunteers to accomplish its work. The museum encourages anybody who can find time to volunteer their services to help preserve the airlift portion of Air Force history.

"The best way to get involved is to come and volunteer," said Heist. "Most of the volunteers here are retired, and do anything from restoring aircraft, to giving tours, to aircraft maintenance, archiving, to working in the museum store. Some hard-core volunteers put in as much as 40 hours a week."

"If it were not for the volunteers, there would be no museum," said Heist.

The Air Force has changed much in just 52 years. The AMC Museum teaches young airmen of their rich military heritage, showcases the Air Force to the local community, and provides veterans a place to remember the history they were a part of. If there were no museum, there would be fewer ways to pass on this history.