DOVER — Thousands and thousands of motorists take Del. 1 every day, and many of them pass by a point just south of the Dover Air Force Base near the exit to Del. 9. On one side is a man-made body of water. On the other, about two dozen planes sit on what looks like an unfinished runway.
Large planes, small planes, gray planes, blue planes — an eye-catching sight for passing drivers.
And although many appear operational and have “U.S. Air Force” painted on the side, these planes aren’t actually used by the men and women at the base — not anymore, at least.
Just to the north is the base, but this site is the Air Mobility Command Museum, a resting place for more than two dozen historic airplanes. Among the collection are a former Air Force Two, a Soviet biplane and the world’s lone C-5 Galaxy in a museum.
Open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 to 4, the AMC Museum is the only site in the United States dedicated to airlift and air-refueling.
Visitors might be surprised at the lack of security, but the museum isn’t on the base — it moved to the current location in 1996 after formerly residing past the base’s fences.
On Tuesday, the 29-year-old facility got a bit of an exterior face-lift. The new gate, located a couple hundred feet closer to the Del. 1, opened after two years of work, much to the delight of museum and base officials present at the ribbon-cutting.
“What a fitting entrance to a fantastic facility,” said Col. Kevin Gordon with the 436th Airlift Wing at the base.
The gate is a mix of brick and iron, with protruding bars and a large sign welcoming drivers. Just off to the side, a T-37 Tweet rests on a pedestal — a welcoming display sure to enthrall many drivers on Del. 9.
Several officials expressed thanks the gate not only looks better but is more secure.
Paid for by Air Mobility Command, the entrance has become the new access point for the popular destination. It replaces the previous gate, which opened in the months after Sept. 11, as the military sought an entrance that did not take museum visitors into the base.
The previous access point will be turned into an entrance for base personnel.
A big draw
The museum is a major attraction, drawing more than 100,000 visitors in 2014. It’s the most popular free attraction in Kent, grabbing the top slot on Trip Advisor, director Mike Leister boasted.
With 45 years with the Air Force under his belt, Mr. Leister can tell an inquiring guest almost anything he or she wants to know about the museum.
Does the museum have any planes that saw combat in World War II? How many vice presidents did the museum’s Air Force Two carry during its lifespan? What was the last fighter housed next door at the base before command switched to carriers?
Answers: Yes. Six. The F-106.
Not only does the attraction boast rare airplanes, it has a number of craft that were in battles. Perhaps the most notable of that group is the C-47A Skytrain, which took part in D-Day. A “wreck” when the museum received it, according to Mr. Leister, staff spent time restoring and rebuilding the plane. Visitors can see actual battle damage inside, as well as a copy of the seven-decades-old jump manifest listing the paratroopers who leapt from the craft on that fateful June day.
Every vice president from Nelson Rockefeller (No. 2 to Gerald Ford) to Dick Cheney (George W. Bush’s second-in-command) flew on the VC-9C that received the call sign “Air Force Two” for certain trips. Retired in 2006 from use by the vice president and brought to the museum in 2011, the plane also carried four presidents: Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Visitors to the former Air Force Two can see dishes used in-flight by vice presidents and imagine what it felt like to be traveling through the air with dignitaries and leaders who helped shape major policy decisions.
As for the F-106, the final fighter departed the base in 1973, never to return (except to the museum).
The site houses a host of other planes Mr. Leister is proud of, such as a B-17G Flying Fortress. Used for bombing missions in World War II, the plane is the “most revered type of American aircraft” from that time period, according to the director.
Only about 40 survive today, he said.
Volunteers personally rebuilt the B-17 displayed in the museum’s main hangar-like area.
Near the bomber sits a CG-4A glider, a cheaply made transport that landed by making controlled crashes. Few survive today, but the museum has one. Visitors can learn how the cockpit swings up like it’s on a hinge, lifting the pilot out of danger should the Jeep behind him break free and roll forward.
Outside, visitors can see a massive C-5 and a much smaller U-3A, as well as more than a dozen craft somewhere in between the two in size. A variety of manufacturers, such as Boeing, Cessna and Lockheed, are represented.
In total, the museum has 33 planes, of which about 10 are from the Second World War, Mr. Leister said.
The third Saturday of every month is an especially popular time to tour the museum, as the staff opens up the cockpits for the planes sitting outside, allowing visitors a chance to go inside more than a dozen aircraft and see what the pilots and crew would have seen.
“We try to make this very family friendly,” Mr. Leister said. “This is not just a place for old airplane nuts. It’s a good place to take a family.”
Volunteers and visitors
Many of the planes have been restored, thanks to the efforts of the museum’s 170 or so volunteers, many of whom are veterans. They all have a passion for aircraft, and some give tours.
Paul George has been volunteering at the museum for eight years, after a friend convinced him to start. In fact, he enjoyed it and impressed his supervisors so much he was put in charge of scheduling.
Now, he works four days a week at the site — the best attraction in the state, he believes.
“I really feel that it’s a privilege to be a volunteer here,” Mr. George said.
While most people donating their time to the site are former Air Force personnel, Mr. George and fellow volunteer Henry Roll are Army vets.
In his sixth year with the museum, Mr. Roll works as a tour guide three days a week.
He hopes to help teach visitors, especially young students, about the men and women who make up the U.S. armed forces.
“Only a small percentage of Americans now have any link to the military, so this allows me a chance to talk about what the military does, show the equipment that they have flown, tell them about their history, about their bravery, about their sacrifices,” he said.
Guests vary greatly, ranging from a bus of elementary schoolers to an assemblage of seniors, Mr. Roll said.
Jamett Garlick, a first-grade teacher at West Park Place Elementary School in Newark took her class of about 17 kids to the facility Thursday morning. The group came as part of the class’s unit on flight, Ms. Garlick said, with the kids getting a lesson on the parts of a plane while touring the site with an enthusiastic guide.
Visitors come long distances to visit the AMC Museum. In fact, European tourists stop by at a frequent rate, according to Mr. Leister. The museum advertises overseas, thanks to a passion many Europeans have for airplanes.
“You can often tell when there are European visitors here, because they walk around with a little notebook … taking notes,” the director said.
“You know how bird watchers in the U.S. take a note when they see a red-tailed hawk on this date? Well, people come and they write down the tail number of every airplane in our museum, and they are plane-spotters. So if they’ve seen a VC-9 here and they see the one out at the Air Force Museum, they’ve seen both of them that are still in existence.”
The museum has a small budget supplied by the Air Force, and it also receives money from the nonprofit AMC Museum Foundation. With no fee for entrance, the site is reliant on donations and volunteers, Mr. Leister said.
It gets the second pick of retired cargo and tanker planes, after the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Some planes can be flown to the Dover museum, while others have to be taken apart and shipped over, piece by piece, before being reassembled.
Though there’s an obvious focus on aircraft, the AMC Museum doesn’t just contain things with wings. Visitors can see uniforms and medals, as well as videos depicting some planes in action.
Lorraine Dion, director of special events with Kent County Tourism, had nothing but good things to say about the attraction.
“Not only does that museum enhance the quality of life for the residents here who can go and learn about the aircraft history, it brings visitors spending money,” she said.
After 29 years, the Air Mobility Command Museum is still going strong, and officials are optimistic it will continue.
Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at firstname.lastname@example.org