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Combat Air Museum

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Vintage War Birds in the Heartland of America

What started out as a small private collection of military aircraft has evolved into one of the most impressive museums to military aviation anywhere in the country. Founded in 1977 as the Yesterday’s Air Force (YAF) and built around the collection of David Tallichet, it was reorganized in 1979 as the Combat Air Museum.

Today, it has more than 40 aircraft in its collection representing 100 years of flight, in addition to numerous displays of aircraft engines, military vehicles, and other aviation-themed displays.
Located at the Topeka Regional Airport/Forbes Field — formerly the Forbes Air Force Base — outside of Topeka, Kansas, the privately owned museum is dedicated to the preservation, conservation, and exhibition of aircraft, artifacts, technology, and art associated with the military aviation history of the United States.

Since 1979, the Combat Air Museum has been located at Topeka Regional Airport/Forbes Field (formerly the Forbes Air Force Base) outside of Topeka, Kansas.

Today the Combat Air Museum owns 22 of the aircraft, while the others are on loan from the U.S. Air Force, Army, Marines, and the Navy, as well as two private museums.

What would a military aviation museum be without a couple of missiles?

“The Combat Air Museum has always been at Forbes Field, the former Forbes Air Force Base, since it was organized in the fall of 1976 as a wing of David Tallichet’s Yesterday’s Air Force,” explained Kevin Drewelow, director of the Combat Air Museum. “The group was chartered in April 1977 as Yesterday’s Air Force Kansas. In 1979, the group reorganized under the name of Combat Air Museum and relocated to Hangars 602 and 604 at the south end of Forbes Field.”

World War I in Scale

Kansas is a long way from the Western Front of France and Belgium, but visitors to the Combat Air Museum can take in half a dozen full-size and scale replicas of some of the First World War’s most famous aircraft, many of which have no actual surviving examples.

A display that highlights the role women played in the history of military aviation.

These include a Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny,” a Nieuport 27, Sopwith Scout, Taube fighter, Fokker Dr. 1 tri-plane, and Fokker E.IV. What’s impressive about these replicas is that many were built to actually be flown, and they were all donated to the museum in recent years.

An exhibit highlighting the role of the Naval Air Transport Service during and immediately after the Second World War.

For example, the Nieuport 27 was built as a 7/8th scale replica based on an original owned by Lanny Turner of Wellsville, Kansas. After flying the replica for some dozen years, the plane was kindly donated to the museum, which now has it in a place of honor in the collection.

Another standout replica is the museum’s DH-2 biplane, one of the first effective British fighters of the First World War. Designed by Geoffrey de Havilland, it was introduced to combat Germany’s Fokker Eindecker. While revolutionary for 1915, this aircraft was considered outdated only a year later, highlighting the rapid evolution of aircraft design during World War I. The 80-percent scale replica is complete with a mock .30 caliber Lewis Gun — that example being a fully 3D printed replica!

A Grumman S-2 Tracker, the first purpose-built, single airframe anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft to enter service with the U.S. Navy. It was introduced in 1954 and remained in use with the Navy until 1976.

Snoopy from the Peanuts cartoon strip won’t be the only one to believe that the “Red Baron” is flying overhead either, as the museum has a truly impressive, 75-percent scale replica of the famous Fokker Dr.1 (Dreidecker). This late wartime tri-plane was of the type flown by Baron Manfred von Richthofen when he was shot down in April 1918. It was donated by Dick Lemons of the World War I aviation group Dawn Patrol.

“Our Curtiss Jenny, Fokker Eindecker, Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.-5a, and Sopwith Pup are full-size replicas; the others are 75- to 80-percent full size,” says Drewelow.

World War II and Cold War Aircraft

The Combat Air Museum’s collection also includes several notable planes from the Second World War, including a Beech SNB-5, Fairchild UC-61K Forwarder, North American Harvard MkIV/AT-6 Texan, and a Vultee BT-13 Valiant — all of which were restored at the museum.

The Combat Air Museum has a good collection of military aircraft ordnance, including these wing-mounted bombs.

In addition, the museum has a Douglas C-47D Skytrain, nicknamed “Kilroy.” This was the type of aircraft that carried Allied paratroopers during the D-Day and Market Garden drops in World War II. It was acquired by the museum in 1980 and was regularly flown by the museum until the past decade.

Among the collection of jets in the collection include notable American Cold War era jets: Douglas F3D-2 Skyknight, Douglas TA-4J Skyhawk, Grumman F9F-5 Panther, Grumman F11F-1 Tiger, Grumman F-14A Tomcat, Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star, McDonnell F-101B Voodoo, McDonnell F-4D Phantom II, North American F-86H-10-NH Sabre, Republic F-84F Thunderstreak, and Republic F-105D Thunderchief.

An original World War II-era Fairchild Model 24, a type of plane provided to the Royal Air Force under lend-lease as the Model 24W-41 (UC-61).

The collection also includes three Soviet Bloc fighters: Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-15, Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-17 (on loan from the Military Aircraft Restoration Corporation), and Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21PF (on loan from the Museum of Flight, Seattle, Washington).

One other aircraft of note is a full-scale mockup of a German Messerschmitt Bf-109G-10. While the Bf-109 was the most produced fighter aircraft of the Second World War, only a few dozen are known to have survived, and this mockup was created based on surviving examples.

Among the museum’s collection of war trophies are these World War II Japanese flight suits and other equipment.

Visitors are able to take “virtual tours” in many of the museum’s aircraft, and can actually walk around the hangar and get up close as well. The Combat Air Museum also allows visitors to climb into its Lockheed EC-121T-LO Warning Star, an early Cold War aircraft that was designed to be a flying radar station as part of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line. A total of 72 of these aircraft were built between 1951 and 1955, and this is just one of a dozen on display today.

“The museum’s Lockheed EC-121T Warning Star is the only aircraft not stored inside our hangars,” adds Drewelow.

Aviation Displays and Restoration Efforts

In addition to the aircraft, the Combat Air Museum has several other notable exhibits that will be of interest to military aviation buffs, including an original Norden Bombsight, as well as displays of survival gear, flight suits, and other equipment.

What really sets this museum apart from others is that visitors can see conservation and restoration efforts firsthand. While this is normally done behind closed doors, visitors to the museum can see the progress being made in efforts to bring these old war birds back to prime condition.

The interior of the Lockheed EC-121T-LO Warning Star shows how this was, in essence, a flying radar station.

While all of the museum’s aircraft are on display, there are more to come. “Volunteers are currently restoring our Hiller OH-23 Raven, North American F-86H Sabre, and Singer-Link general aviation trainer,” notes Drewelow.

Many of the aircraft are still flight-worthy, but in the post-Sept. 11 era it has become increasingly difficult for many museums to actually fly their respective aircraft. The Combat Air Museum took a difficult but necessary approach to preserve the history of its planes by grounding them.

“The museum ceased flying operations in the mid ’90s due to the rising cost of operations, maintenance, and insurance,” says Drewelow. The upside to this is that because the planes have had their “wings clipped,” visitors can truly get close to the old war birds. “Today we focus on telling the story of military aviation and educating youth on the history and science of aviation,” adds Drewelow.

A Cold War era M61 Vulcan, an electrically fired Gatling-style rotary cannon that can fire 20mm rounds at an extremely high rate — around 6,000 rounds per minute. This style weapon was the principal cannon armament on American fixed-wing aircraft since its introduction in 1959.

This includes events that many larger institutions don’t provide. The Combat Air Museum thus remains committed to ensuring that the history of military aviation will be appreciated by visitors of all ages — and not just young boys either.

“In conjunction with area aviation organizations and museums, we recently hosted our second annual Girls in Aviation Day; over 300 Girl Scouts, adult advisors, and the public attended,” says Drewelow. “Female Air Force and Army pilots and maintainers provided tours of current military aircraft, and women civilian pilots discussed aviation careers with the girls, among other activities. The Museum also offers ‘Young Aviators’ classes during the year for children between the ages of 9 and 13.”

Combat Air Museum
Address: 7016 SE Forbes Ave (on Forbes Field), Topeka Regional Airport, Topeka, KS 66619
Hours: Monday – Saturday: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Sundays: Noon to 4:30 p.m., No new visitors admitted after 3:30 p.m.

Winter Hours (Jan. 2 to Feb. 28/29):
Mon. – Sun.: Noon to 4:30 p.m.
No new visitors admitted after
3:30 p.m.

Museum Closed: New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day
Admission: Free
Phone: (785) 862-3303

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