A hall of fame honoring 178 of America's aviation pioneers has opened its permanent exhibits in Dayton, Ohio, where Orville and Wilbur Wright lived and worked.
"We are to aviation what Cooperstown is to baseball," Deputy Director Ron Kaplan said, referring to the popular National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in the New York town that's 70 miles west of Albany.
The National Aviation Hall of Fame covers the history of flight from its early days a century ago, when the Wright brothers conducted the first manned flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C., to the Space Age. Each of seven galleries focuses on a different era.
Besides the Wright brothers, the scores of honorees whose exploits are chronicled include Charles Lindbergh, who made the first nonstop solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927; Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly nonstop across the U.S. in 1933; Chuck Yeager, the Air Force test pilot who broke the sound barrier in 1947; and astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to step onto the moon in 1969.
Other highlights of the 13,000 square feet of exhibits include a full-size replica of an astronaut suit, a small-scale helicopter replica that visitors can "pilot" and two simulators where they can try their hand at docking a shuttle-launched repair unit with a mock Hubble space telescope.
The simulators must be tough. When real-life astronauts Thomas Stafford and Frank Borman test-drove them before the opening, "both of them crashed on the first try and made it on the second try," Kaplan said.
Although several U.S. states have museums devoted to their own aviation pioneers, the Dayton facility is the only aviation hall of fame chartered by Congress to cover the nation, Kaplan said. It is financed by public and private funds and run by a private nonprofit group.
The building, next to the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, opened in 1999 with some temporary exhibits.
Among upcoming events is an induction ceremony July 19 that is expected to be attended by most of the 32 living hall of famers, which may make it "the biggest gathering of aviation heroes ever," Kaplan said.
The Hall of Fame is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except federal holidays. Admission is free. (888) 383-1903, www.nationalaviation.org.