© Provided by CNET Geoffrey Morrison/CNET
Nestled among the verdant, rolling hills of western South Dakota, adjacent to historic Ellsworth Air Force Base, is the South Dakota Air and Space Museum. Focusing on aircraft from the early Cold War to the present day, there's everything from an enormous B-52 bomber to a B-1B Lancer.
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The "space" part of the name isn't just for show. There's an entire Titan I ICBM on display as well as Nike Ajax and Minuteman missiles. The latter is especially appropriate, given how many Minuteman launch sites there were (and still are) in the area.
On a brutally hot midsummer day, I decided to check out some of the amazing aircraft at this small and impressive museum. Here's a look around.
Check out the bombers and fighters of the South Dakota Air and Space Museum
1/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The South Dakota Air and Space Museum is located next to Ellsworth Air Force Base. It's also home to one of the Air Force's two B-1B wings, hence the aircraft that greets you at the museum's entrance. For more info about this museum, and our tour, check out Cold War bombers, interceptors, and more at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum.
2/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The B-1B Lancer was the second go at an aircraft with this general design. The first, the B-1A, was a high-altitude bomber capable of Mach 2.2; only four were built. One is at Wings Over the Rockies in Denver, which I've also toured.
3/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The B-variant, which still flies today, has a top speed of Mach 1.25. It has a subsonic cruising speed of Mach 0.96, or about 700 mph.
4/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET Inside the museum, you can see a mockup of a B-1B cockpit.
5/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET This particular B-1B was stationed in Texas for most of its life. That earned it the nickname, "Texas Raider."
6/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET Taking a step back a few decades, this is the museum's beautifully restored and maintained B-29, the "Legal Eagle II."
7/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The "Legal Eagle II" was built in 1945 and stationed in the Pacific for three years. It was then converted into a KB-29M airborne tanker before being used for target practice in California. It was rescued by the museum in the mid-'80s.
8/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The Boeing EC-135 functions as an airborne command center in case of nuclear attack. This particular aircraft was a tanker before it was converted to command duties.
9/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET This big B-52 that was stationed at Ellsworth was the first such aircraft to land at the base.
10/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET This model is the D variant, which has longer range and the ability to carry a greater amount of conventional (i.e. non-nuclear) weapons.
11/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The D variant was widely used in Vietnam, where they were commonly painted like this.
12/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET As big as it is, the B-52 isn't slow. A cruise speed of just over 500 mph is about as fast as most modern commercial airliners.
13/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET Models before the G variant still had a tail gunner compartment, which lacked an ejection seat. G and H variants moved the tail gunner station forward with the rest of the crew. The gun was fired remotely.
14/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET B-52s of this era had a crew of six.
15/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The Douglas C-54 Skymaster transport was built in the '40s and used by the military for 30 years. This example was ordered by the Air Force, but it was given to the Navy, which flew it until 1970.
16/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET On the right is the surface-to-air Nike Ajax missile. On the left is a Minuteman II ICBM, of hundreds rested in silos throughout the upper Midwest and Great Plains. On this trip, I toured two Minuteman Launch Control Centers.
17/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET This isn't just any B-25. It's a VB-25J and the personal transport of General Dwight Eisenhower during WWII. The weapons were removed to make room for more seating, bunks, and a table. Bulletproof fuel tanks were added, along with additional navigations and communication gear.
18/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The next entry in the Century Series fighter jets, the F-101 Voodoo, was designed as a long-range bomber escort. But it ended up serving as a nuclear weapon-capable fighter-bomber and a high-speed interceptor.
19/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The F-102 Delta Dagger was an early Cold War interceptor and the Air Force's first delta-wing fighter.
20/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET This example, despite only being in service for less than 10 years, was stationed everywhere from New York to Hawaii. At one point, it was flown by Gus Grissom.
21/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The F-105B Thunderchief was a Mach 2-capable fighter-bomber. It first flew in 1955 and was used extensively in the Vietnam War. It could carry a greater bomb load than some of the legendary bombers of WWII including the B-17.
22/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The, well, interesting looking F-111 Aardvark swing-wing aircraft filled a variety of roles throughout its 30 years of service.
23/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The A-7 Corsair II was a light attack aircraft in service from the late '60s to the early '90s. This example was stationed in Pennsylvania with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard.
24/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The swept-wing F-84F Thunderstreak was a significant development over the straight-winged F-84 Thunderjet which first flew shortly after WWII.
25/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET In addition to the swept wings and numerous other changes, the fuselage was stretched vertically to fit a larger, more powerful engine. One result of the design was an oval air intake.
26/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The hugely successful F-86 Sabre. Nearly 10,000 were built.
27/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The wide-mouthed F-100 Super Sabre was the first Air Force plane capable of going supersonic in level flight.
28/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET This C-47 was built in 1944. It flew for the Air Force, the Navy and the Department of Agriculture.
29/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET This is an A-26, which for a time was also known as a B-26. It's a light bomber and ground-attack aircraft. In the nose are eight 50-caliber machine guns. Additional machine guns could be mounted in pods on the wings and on dorsal/ventral turrets.
30/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The B-57 Canberra was designed by British Electric, but built by Martin in the US under license. It features a wing with a relatively large chord. This the EB variant would pretend to be an enemy aircraft when training ground and aircraft crews.
31/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET One of the few helicopters at the museum, this UH-1F, aka a Huey, saw service as an air rescue vehicle during the Vietnam War.
32/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET This is an T-33 Shooting Star jet trainer.
33/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET A decommissioned Titan I ICBM rests on its side. I toured an underground Titan missile silo in Arizona.
34/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The Titan I was notoriously difficult to maintain and slow to launch, largely due to its use of cryogenic liquid oxygen. After only three years they were replaced by the Titan II, which used more easily-storable propellants.
35/35 SLIDES © Provided by CNET For more info about these aircraft, the museum, and our tour, check out Cold War bombers, interceptors, and more at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum.
One of the most impressive aircraft in the museum's collection is on display right as you arrive. Practically peering over the sign is a B-1B Lancer, wings swept back and looking every bit as fast as it can be.
Capable of Mach 1.25, the 1B was a change from the original design. The 1A, while outwardly similar, was capable of Mach 2.2. The military decided it didn't need a bomber that fast since unmanned missiles would be better suited for the task. The 1B's condition here is excellent. You can take great views of it from all sides and even sit underneath to escape the relentless sun. You can see one of the only remaining B-1As at the Wings Over the Rockies Museum in Denver, which I've also toured.
Of course, this isn't the only impressive aircraft. A meticulously restored and maintained B-29 would be the centerpiece of many museums, and is no exception. In one corner is a B-52, an aircraft so big that most museums don't have the space to store them. It features the black belly and camouflage top typical of its type during the Vietnam War.
© Provided by CNET Geoffrey Morrison/CNET
It's not just bombers here, either. Several of the Century Series fighters including the F-100, F-101, F-102, and F-105 are on display. It's only missing my favorite, the F-104, though you can see some close-ups of that in other museums I've toured.
Going back in time a bit, there's a WWII-era C-47 cargo aircraft and an A-26 with nose guns bristling.
Another particularly impressive aircraft looks like just another B-25 from a distance. It's actually a VB-25J, the VIP transport variant. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower himself used this aircraft during WWII.
Skies above South Dakota
There's a lot to see in this part of South Dakota, not least the natural beauty of the Badlands and the Black Hills National Forest. You can also tour a decommissioned ICBM launch control center at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and one of the best Saab museums in the world (yes, that Saab) -- where you definitely wouldn't expect it.
The South Dakota Air and Space Museum is worth checking out if you're in the Rapid City area. Most impressively, the museum is free.
If your travel plans aren't bringing you to the Mount Rushmore State anytime soon, check out the gallery above.
As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, airplane graveyards and more.
You can follow his exploits on Instagram and YouTube. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines, along with a sequel.