REVIEW: Combat Air Museum [History Tour]

With my late step-father being a pilot, you better believe that I saw my fair share of military and aerospace-related museums when I was a kid. In fact, these sorts of excursions made up the lion’s share of any sort of road trip we went on. There are quite a few of these within 100 or so miles of the greater Kansas City area, considering the amount of military bases (current and former), airports, and other such facilities around. Of all of these, the one museum that sticks out to me as being what I would consider “my favorite” when I was a kid was easily the Combat Air Museum in Topeka, Kansas. Containing an astonishingly large collection of airplanes, both modern and classic, it was an absolute delight for a kid that grew up going to air shows and collecting diecast airplanes. I haven’t been to this museum for well over fifteen or twenty years at this point, and decided that it was well worth a trip back out there to see how the museum has changed over the years. With my son being generally pretty excited about airplane-related things, I figured it was a great time to also introduce him to such a good place. We coupled this trip with another museum that is within driving distance, The Museum of the Kansas National Guard, as both are located in the same general area of an old airport.

Combat Air Museum; Topeka, Kansas

As you will see, this is a museum for both young and old alike. There are plenty of opportunities for older fans of military aircraft to see some of their favorites, as well as opportunities for kids of all ages to get experiences such as being able to fly a flight simulator, or witness the numerous helicopters taking off and landing next door. It was fun reliving my past for a brief moment and passing this experience down to a younger generation.

Background:

According to their website:

“The Combat Air Museum has served as an educational institution and tourism destination for forty five years. It is one of a handful of major aviation museums in the United States located on an active air field. Visitors to our Museum are regularly treated to flying activities of Air Force fighter aircraft and Army helicopter operations. With the longest runway in the State of Kansas, large refueling tanker aircraft of the Kansas Air National Guard and army troop transports often fill the skies around the Museum. The Museum’s “Young Aviators” classes and Girls In Aviation Day offer students and Girl Scouts a unique opportunity to be immersed in the midst of a museum covering aviation history from the earliest days of flight to the present day.

Located at the Topeka Regional Airport on Forbes Field in Topeka, Kansas, the Combat Air Museum is a federally recognized not-for-profit 501(c)(3) educational organization dedicated to the creation of facilities and resources for the education of the local and regional communities through the collection, preservation, conservation and exhibition of aircraft, information, artifacts, technology and art associated with the military aviation history of the United States of America.”

Reading(s):

I didn’t really have a generalized “history of flight” book handy, nor did the museum have any sort of museum-specific book available for purchase, so I am using Korean Air War by Michael Napier as my chosen reading for this trip because I feel like it’s an overlooked time in aviation history.

From my Review HERE

“I have a sincere interest in learning about The Korean War because my own grandfather served in The United Sates Army during the war, and hope this book is the first step of many of me growing my knowledge of it. Even more obscure than the war itself is an entire book about Korean War air power, and that’s the topic for today. Korean Air War – Sabres, MiGs and Meteors, 1950–53 by Michael Napier pulls together more information than I ever expected on that topic, showing that the origins of air combat, as we know it today, started in those early 1950’s skies over Korea.”

I think one of the things I need to do at some point is read a detailed history of aviation, the sort of books my Dad would have had billions of, so I will keep an eye out for something that fits the bill.

The Trip:

Considering how long it has been since my last trip to this museum, some of my recollections are fuzzy about what the place was like before. There honestly seemed to be more stuff at the museum than I remember from when I was a kid, but honestly this could be me just completely misremembering something that happened decades ago. For some reason, I don’t recall there being two hangers and I thought there was more stuff displayed outside of the museum itself. The museum is broken down into three areas – the main hanger, which has detailed audio and visual exhibitions, volunteers providing additional services such as information and flight simulator time, a secondary hanger that was described as the “project area”, and the area outside between both that housed a couple of planes and other pieces of military equipment.

I mentioned earlier that one of the experiences that you could participate in was the ability to fly a computerized flight simulator on the premises. There was a very nice retired man that had this all set up and allowed any kid to get a chance to take off and land a plane. My son at the time was six years old and had never done anything remotely similar to that using actual flight sticks and controls. He is an avid video game player so it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary that he would be able to do this, but something more sophisticated such as a professional-grade fight simulator was awe inspiring for him. The gentleman was very generous with his time and allowed him a chance to take off, fly around, and even land the plane which he did successfully. Watching him have an absolute blast doing this was probably the highlight of our entire trip.

We also noticed that one point that a group of Apache helicopters, that are housed next door, were landing at roughly the same time that we were moving from one hanger to another. This created a unique opportunity for my son to watch a helicopter come in from the sky and land on the tarmac as well as taxiing into the hangar. This also was a highlight of the trip and something he talked about for days to come. I know this is not necessarily part of the actual museum, but it seems like the museum and whoever has these helicopters has a working relationship to where if they see kids outside waiting they’ll wave at them or slow down so they can see. To me, it’s just a perk of the proximity that this museum has two other aeronautical and military equipment.

I think the only thing that was somewhat lacking on the visit was the disparity between hanger #1 and hanger #2 in terms of what you can see in the general state that they are in. Hanger #1 is definitely the showroom for various aircrafts and military equipment that have been carefully restored and showcased. Hangar #2, however, is used more as a workspace and is somewhat cluttered together. A lot of the planes that I remember as a kid are in hangar #2 now which ultimately led me to believe that it was more of a storage facility than a well maintained part of the museum. Planes were really tightly packed into the area and it was kind of hard to navigate. It was cool searching through this to be able to find planes such as my beloved F-14 Tomcat from when I was a kid, so that was pretty cool. Perhaps one of these days they will straighten out the configuration of both hangers into something resembling the care and upkeep from the main showcase hangar in both.

As stated before, I would recommend trying to make time to visit all of the museums at the airport in one trip if you can. Sadly, we got delayed a bit and never got a chance to stop at the American Flight Museum, which is a future trip we will plan at some point. Above is a map of locations for all three.

Conclusion:

Overall, my reunion with the Combat Air Museum in Topeka, Kansas was a good experience for me and my family. Things have obviously changed, but it seems like the site is still doing well and offers plenty to see and do for patrons of all ages. If one were to plan a “military history day” and combine this with the other two nearby museums, it could be an experience you won’t soon forget. The museum has an extensive gift shop and all the other “bells and whistles” one can expect from a mo9dern museum, and a visit is very reasonably priced. Definitely recommended.

See More:

Official Website

For more local history excursions, click HERE

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