Odyssey Magazine, Fall 2000
Life on a higher plane
Aviation museums show us the world from a new perspective.
With its delicate structure of varnished wood and wide wings covered in pure white muslin, the hand-built replica of the Wright Flyer suspended from the rafters of a Florida hangar is a work of art. It can also kill you, as Ken Kellett knows all too well."I'm the only human, other than Wilbur and Orville, who has actually flown one of these aircraft," Ken says, as he begins the "backlot tour" at Fantasy of Flight, an aviation museum in Polk City, Florida. About half of Ken's flights in the replica ended with splintered wood and broken parts -- the Flyer is cranky and unstable, as the Wright Brothers discovered at Kitty Hawk. But the brothers persevered, and that one little airplane gave birth to a whole new world of flying machines. The Flyer, and the risks men endured to get it off the ground, is a testimony to the strength of our urge to fly. Today we take flying for granted, riding all over the world in cramped, crowded jets at 500 miles per hour. But deep down, we know that's not real flying. We still yearn to feel the wind; we long to touch the clouds and explore the sky. We dream about it; we feel it in our bones when we look up to see a small airplane buzzing overhead, and sigh for what we wish flying could be Ñ romantic and filled with adventure. Fantasy of Flight is one of scores of aviation museums scattered across the country that try to create that sense of romance, to capture that adventurous spirit. Every aircraft in every hangar comes with a story of its own: where it was born, how it lived, its journeys and exploits. And at Fantasy of Flight, nearly all the aircraft on display are still airworthy -- and every afternoon one of the vintage planes is hauled outside to play. But before you even reach the bright hangar full of one-of-a-kind airplanes and the behind-the-scenes backlot tour, Fantasy of Flight immerses you in an imaginary world filled with the sights and sounds of aviation. In the museum's artistically designed exhibit area, breezes blow, stars twinkle in a night sky, biplanes fight overhead as you cringe inside a trench on the Western Front, and the pounding throb of four hard-working engines fills the cockpit of a World War II-era B-17 Flying Fortress. The legendary B-17s were the workhorses of the Allies' aerial offensive. They dropped bombs and fought off enemy planes, and were loved by their crews for their ability to limp home even with heavy damage. At Fantasy of Flight, a restored B-17B with a 103-foot wingspan sits majestically in a darkened hangar, lit by the headlamps of a Jeep. The setting evokes a wintry airfield, with stacks of supplies, a mechanic working on an engine, even a patch of forest nearby. Inside the ship, you can feel what it must have been like to fly along on one of those missions. You can smell the leather in the radioman's flight suit as he leans anxiously over his set, and hear the static and voices on the radio. You can peer into the claustrophobic spaces where the navigator and bombardier whiled away the long, tense hours. The waist gunners, a placard explains, had to be careful not to shoot the wings of their own airplane, while dealing with turbulence, the pilots' maneuvers, and enemy fire. Even from this safe distance, fifty years in the future, it's enough to make you shiver with dread -- and marvel at the courage and tenacity of those crews. After immersing yourself in the 1940s, it's a startling change to emerge into the bright, modern Showplace Hangars. Here, the museum's eclectic aircraft collection is on display. The collection is unusual in that all of it is privately funded by one Kermit Weeks, a world-class aerobatics champion and founder of the museum. Kermit has personally bought and paid for every airplane here -- not to mention every building, artifact, and paper clip on the property. Ken Kellett, aircraft restorer and tour guide, speaks of Kermit with a mixture of awe and bewilderment -- as if he were a sort of Wizard of Oz, a force of nature with the power and magic to create worlds of his own. "Why did he buy this particular airplane?" Ken wonders aloud, as he shows a tour group a tattered and ancient wreck in a storage hangar. Then he answers his own question: "I guess when you can have anything you want, you can have anything you want." The hangars and backlot tour offer plenty of chances to get up close and personal with the airplanes -- you can climb into cockpits, fly a simulated fighter mission, ride on a helicopter exhibit, and watch as one of the vintage planes is pulled outdoors and launched from the private runway out back. And if you get that irresistible urge to slip the surly bonds of Earth, you can sign up for an introductory flight with an instructor in a two-seater ultralight. Take the controls and find out for yourself what it's really like to enter the third dimension. The back-to-basics ultralight airplane represents the far end of the aviation spectrum from the B-17. It has no mission in life other than flying for its own sake. The Experimental Aircraft Association celebrates exactly that kind of flight, and the creative spirit that brings flying machines into the world. At the EAA's sprawling AirVenture Museum and Pioneer Airport, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, you can discover aircraft built for speed racing, round-the-world endurance, exploring the Amazon, or drawing airshow audiences. You'll find biplanes and tri-motors, fuselages of wood and carbon composites, primitive engines and modern jets, the classic and the cutting-edge. Pioneer Airport recreates the golden years of aviation, that brief, glamorous time between the wars when Lindbergh and Earhart flew, airmail routes were explored, and barnstormers in war-surplus Jenny biplanes landed in open meadows to sell rides to farmers and their children. Flying circuses traveled from town to town, introducing the public to the capabilities of airplanes, and the first airlines began passenger service. On a summer day, the perfect green grass of Pioneer Airport's runway glows under a wide blue sky, as the EAA's vintage Ford Tri-motor rumbles in for another load of passengers, as if transported from that golden era. The ungainly Tri-motor, known affectionately as the "Tin Goose," is renowned as the aircraft that paved the way for modern air travel. Noisy but reliable, it carried a dozen or so pampered passengers enticed by onboard restrooms, stand-up headroom, and stewardess service. Its all-metal construction and the Ford name lent it an aura of infallibility, which was enhanced in 1929 when Admiral Richard E. Byrd made the world's first flight over the South Pole in a Tri-motor. The Tin Goose helped to convince the public that air travel was safe and practical. The Tri-motor is one of several vintage aircraft that takes airport visitors up for a glimpse of the earth from above, and a taste of flying as it used to be. A 1929 Travelair open-cockpit biplane and a Bell 47 "bubble" helicopter also offer rides into the wild blue. In the main museum building, displays trace the evolution of aircraft as they developed to meet a variety of needs. Designers built racing airplanes that competed to achieve ever-higher speeds, and in the process developed new ideas and technology that advanced all of aviation. In 1909, a Curtiss Pusher like the one on display here -- a single-seater biplane with the pilot sitting out front in the breeze, and the engine behind -- was the world's fastest airplane, at 45.5 mph. By 1913, the record was 126 mph, and double that by 1927. The exhibits here range far and wide, but the soul of the EAA is homebuilt airplanes. The organization was launched in the 1950s, when founder Paul Poberezny wrote a series of articles for Mechanix Illustrated about how to build your own airplane at home for $800. The response was overwhelming, and today about 14,000 homebuilt aircraft are flying, with twice that number under construction. Most homebuilders buy plans or kits of tested designs, and they range from basic just-for-fun one-seater puddle-jumpers to fast, functional transportation, aerobatic competitors, and amphibians that can splash onto their bellies in the water or extend their wheels for airport landings. Shining examples of all these types are showcased in Oshkosh. Oshkosh is also home to the EAA's annual AirVenture fly-in, the biggest event of its kind in the world. Every summer, up to 750,000 visitors and 10,000 airplanes come to Wittman Airport, next door to the museum, to enjoy a full week of reveling in aviation of all sorts. At every aviation museum, you'll find old airplanes lovingly restored, many of them with fascinating life stories. But to see the most famous, original, authentic, storied aircraft, there is only one place to go: The grande dame of them all, the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum, in Washington, D.C. Walk in the door to the main gallery, and you'll see the original Wright Flyer suspended from the ceiling, along with Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and the tiny Bell X-1 jet that took Chuck Yeager through the sound barrier. Nearby is Burt Rutan's Voyager, the first airplane to fly nonstop around the world without refueling. You won't find any replicas or reproductions here, every aircraft in the collection is the genuine article. A long-awaited annex to the NASM is scheduled to open at Washington Dulles International Airport in 2003.The annex will provide expansive exhibit space for large aircraft like the Space Shuttle Enterprise and the SR-71 Blackbird, a speedy and futuristic-looking military reconnaissance plane that once flew coast-to-coast in 68 minutes. In big cities and at remote airports, in spacious exhibit halls or rusty old hangars, museums dedicated to every aspect of flight can be found. Many concern themselves with military exploits or local history, others are devoted to a single form of aircraft: gliders, balloons, helicopters. Cleveland is home to a museum about women in aviation and space. The Aviation Art Museum based in St. Paul is a traveling museum exhibit that attends various airshows in the Midwest. Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, in New York, offers weekend airshows with pioneer and World War I-era aircraft in action. Each of these places hopes to enchant you with the glory of wings. The history of flight is just beginning, and we were lucky enough to be born into an age when we can soar above the ground at will. It would be a shame to go through this life believing that flying means only bearing with crowds, bad food, and boredom, and waiting till it's over so you can get where you're going. Romance and adventure still await us in the sky, and a day spent among biplanes, ultralights, and homebuilts can remind us that the journey itself can be a pleasure. Free-lance writer Mary Grady lives in Providence, R. I., where she took her first flying lessons in Cessnas and hot-air balloons twenty years ago.
Information for TravelersFantasy of Flight is about a half-hour drive from either Orlando or Tampa, Florida, on Interstate 4. Allow at least three hours for your tour. The museum is open daily year-round. Admission is $24.95, with discounts for seniors and children, and includes unlimited simulator rides. Introductory ultralight flights cost extra, and medical, age and weight restrictions apply. Ultralight flights and demonstrations of vintage aircraft are subject to weather considerations. The Compass Rose diner on-site serves breakfast and lunch. Information is available at 941/984-3500, and on the Web at www.fantasyofflight.com. The EAA AirVenture Museum is open daily year-round in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, about a ninety-minute drive from Milwaukee. Pioneer Airport's hours vary seasonally, with seven-day-a-week operations during the summer. Aircraft flights cost $25-$50 and are subject to availability and weather conditions. Admission is $8, with discounts for seniors, children, and families. Allow at least two hours for your visit. For more information call 920/426-4818 or visit the museum's Web site at www.eaa.org/education/museum. For more information about visiting Washington, D.C., and the Smithsonian Institution's National Air & Space Museum, write Smithsonian Information, Smithsonian Institution, Room 153, Washington, DC 20560-0010, or call 202/357-2700, or visit the museum's Web site at www.nasm.edu. Renovations in progress through 2001 will cause the temporary closure of some exhibits. Except for some exhibit areas at Fantasy of Flight, the museums in general are accessible to the handicapped.
Copyright 2000 Mary Grady.