I am not much into aeroplanes. I don’t even like flying. So I kept the visit to the Air and Space Museum at Washington DC for the last day, the day we were supposed to catch the flight back to Bangalore via Pars. ( Actually the museum we visited was closer to the airport, the Udvar Hazy Center located at Chantilly, Virginia, named after the Hungarian donor who raised some $65 million to fund the museum. Yet another instance of how private donations finance museums, galleries and libraries not to mention universities and institutions across the USA.)
But as the guide took us through the history of aviation , from Langley and Wright Brothers’ attempt at first heavier-than-air manned flights to the Discovery space shuttle covering Boeing , Concorde and many fighter planes in between, I was rivetted. We have done this in the last 100 years? We human beings? Take a bow!
It does give you the goose bumps. Seeing the plane that the Wright Brothers actually built, with its twin propellers and cloth covered wings. And the Discovery. This lump of metal and plastic I front of you actually flew into space and spent a year there! And there were people inside, including a 77 year old John Glenn? Amazing feeling.
And much credit for making the journey so magical, so engaging was the commentary by the guide who actually had flown many fighter planes as well as the Concord, keeping track of its zillion ‘ nickel gauges’ in the cockpit. He gave so many details, narrated so many stories within the 90 minutes, never losing enthusiasm, or his sense of humour.
Among the many stories that he told, the one I remember vividly was about Bessy Coleman, America’s first Black pilot. She was the tenth child among thirteen born to a sharecropper family driven by a dream to fly as she watched the planes from World War 1 return after the war. But no one in America would teach a Black woman to fly. So she learnt French and got a sponsor to finance her study I France. She came back and started to fly. But she realized that in those days of infrequent civil flights, she had to take up air shows or ‘ barnstorming’ to make a living. And no one in USA would teach her that. So back to France it was! Tragically she died at the age of 34 as her plane crashed during a trip she was making to plan her air show. She was not wearing seat belt.
Also interesting was the story of Aichi M6A , the Japanese floatplanes ( you can see the ‘floats’ in the picture) meant to be launched from submarines. To cut a long story short, as the planes were ready to strike their American target, the ship received a message stating that Japan had surrendered and they should return home. All six planes were pushed or catapulted into the sea to prevent capture. The aircraft displayed in the museum was the only existing one in the factory that the Americans captured.
I was also fascinated and amused by how the Wright Brothers used their bi-cycle making experience to craft the flying machine, how the horse tack shops were contacted for designing seat belts for pilots, how corduroy was used to cover seats of pilots so that their asses did not slide easily, and countless such tidbits.
There was also Charles Lindberg’s flying suit and other paraphernalia.
And then there was Jayashree who on seeing the Air France lettering on the Concorde said excitedly, ‘ Oh , this is the plane we will be flying today!’
- PennState University – State College
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