By John Goglia
I am sure that most of you enjoy visiting aviation museums as much as I do. In fact, I visit some as often as I can just to see if they have added anything new, but I really enjoy the time looking at the same aircraft again and again. Sometimes these visits can bring back long forgotten memories.
While I was visiting the Pima Air Museum in Tucson, Arizona a few years ago, I had such a flashback when I noticed a French-built Caravelle on display. This was not just any Caravelle, but it was Registration N1001U, one that had belonged to United Airlines. Well, more years than I care to remember have passed since I have seen this particular aircraft, although I have not nor am I likely to ever forget N1001U. It was the first turbo jet powered aircraft I worked on and seeing it again sure made me feel like part of me was passing.
Another area of some museums that I also like to visit is the hangar where the restoration work is accomplished. For maintenance people, there is nothing like rebuilding an aircraft.
However, there is another side of visiting museums that I don't particularly enjoy. That is the very obvious fact that they all, through wall displays and other exhibits, tell stories about the great pilots who made history in those flying machines. With few exceptions, any mention of the role of the technician in providing an airworthy aircraft for the gallant airman is lacking.
This lack of awareness is even evident in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
Well, the Air and Space Museum is growing. The galleries on Independence Avenue in Washington make up one of the world's most popular museums. Nearly 10 million people pass through the museums' doors each year, yet these people rarely see some of the most spectacular items in the collection because there is no room or the museum's roof could not handle their weight. Gems like the B29 Enola Gay, the original NASA space shuttle Enterprise, the Navy version of the beloved Constellation passenger transport, and the SR71 that set the transcontinental speed record on its retirement flight to Washington, are squirreled away in storage facilities near Washington.
Smithsonian Director, Vice Admiral Donald D. Engen [USNR Ret'd], proposes to fix that by building a 700,000 sq.ft. restoration center and exhibit facility at Dulles International Airport. Set to open in December 2003 — in time for the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' flight — the Dulles center would allow visitors to see the hidden gems of the collection and watch expert technicians at work restoring other historic aircraft.
As I indicated earlier, all the great museums seem to leave out one important thing. When you visit the Smithsonian, the Air Force Museum in Dayton, or many others, you'll learn lots about marvelous aircraft, but almost nothing about the people who kept them flying, or the people who labored to make the aircraft museum-quality. I'm talking not about the pilots, but the technicians and engineers who built those aircraft and kept them ready for the flyboys.
Maintenance and engineering just never get the recognition they deserve for the critical role they play in advancing aviation technology and in keeping flying as safe as possible along the way. When pilots push the envelope, there is a whole team of engineers and technicians pushing too — but you rarely see that in the museums.
It's time we fixed that. I've convinced Admiral Engen that the place to make the fix is at the new Dulles center. After all, what is a restoration facility but an overhaul hangar? This will be a shop with enough funding and supplies and a staff of skilled and dedicated technicians to do the job right — I'll guarantee you that!
Museum officials say last year was the only instance in recent memory in which the air and space museum trailed the natural history museum.
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