Those of you who have known me for a while knew, perhaps feared, that this day would come.
To those uninterested in aviation, I hope you will rejoin me tomorrow by which time I may have returned to Earth.
The day before yesterday, I was remarking to the kind friends who drove us around in rural Virginia that it was proving difficult to get to the Udvar-Hazy Center, the showcase for the major part of the Smithsonian’s superb collection of air and space artefacts. Mark almost immediately asked if we would like him to take us out there. Though I felt bad about taking him up on his offer, this was so high on my “bucket-list”, that I shamelessly leapt at the opportunity. I am not sure we would have got there without his kind offer.
Another thirty miles of pleasant Virginia countryside brought us to the Udvar-Hazy Centre at the Southern edge of Washington Dulles International Airport. A huge hangar-like building sits behind something that looks like an airport control tower. As usual, bags were inspected and there we were, within the highest temple of aviation. Oh wow!
The first impression to an aviation geek such as me is overwhelming. There are the aircraft I have seen pictures of, all my life. And with few exceptions, these are NOT replicas. These are the actual aircraft that did the deeds.
The Wright Flyer on display at the mall is not a reconstruction. It is the actual aircraft on which Orville Wright left the ground in controlled flight on December 17, 1903. Almost every milestone of aviation history is here. Some are civilian, some are military. For clarity, I am fascinated by the engineering and science of aviation achievement.
Two aircraft which represent the very pinnacle of achievement within the purpose for which they were designed are the Westland Lysander which famously dropped spies into rough fields at night behind the German lines in WWII, and the Vought Corsair F4U which served so well in the war in the Pacific (and which was supplied in large numbers to the RNZAF).
Some of the best and worst of human achievement is represented here. Everything from a Wright Flyer to the B29, “Enola Gay” which dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, to the mighty space shuttle Discovery. Some are controversial, and Enola Gay has had to have protective plexiglass screens to protect it from those who would rather it were not there. I offer a picture of it not because I am a warmonger, but because this is an actual piece of history, and because in purely aviation terms, this represents the peak of piston-engined powered flight. There she is with the number 82 on the fuselage. A beautiful lady with a dreadful event in her past.
Of course the displays are heavily weighted towards American aircraft as they should be. It is their premier national aviation museum after all. On the other hand, some of the allies and foes of various conflicts are also on display. Among the most impressive of the aircraft on display, are the Boeing 307 Stratoliner, the first prototype of the Boeing 707 (how huge it was then, how tiny it is now) , the SR71 Blackbird (spy plane), and the absolute jewel in the crown, the space shuttle Discovery.
I did not expect to be so moved by the shuttle. The earlier shuttle Enterprise got moved to New York to make way for Discovery, but it never went to space. It was sparkling white and pristine. Discovery is scorched battered and dinged. It is patched and repaired. It bears the honourable scars of 238 million kilometres spread over 39 space missions between 1984 and 2011.
Up close and personal, the bottom of the shuttle is not black, but rather the ashen grey of burnt charcoal. And that is not a smooth skin, but thousands of small aerated ceramic tiles, each about 4.5 cm thick, and each of which was black to begin with. Each bears a serial number and orientation markings since each has a unique shape for its place on the fuselage and lower wings. The angle of the burn marks speak of the extraordinary angle of attack on re-entry, as the craft presents its entire lower surface as a speed-brake and heat sink. What courage it must have taken to stay calm inside the craft as the skin glowed to red heat and flames of re-entry roared all around. The upper surface is almost white, but again that is not a metal surface. It is like a giant fabric quilt, made of the same aerated silicon material.
What speaks loudest, are the scorch marks trailing off from the myriad corners, intersections and high points in the great mosaic that protects the shuttle from the heat of re-entry. And perhaps even more scary, the occasional black tile where an original has needed to be replaced. The men and women who flew in this and all the others in the fleet have my utmost respect and admiration.
OK, I have got that out of my system. Normal service should resume tomorrow. Thanks again, Mark.
Today, we are off to New York by train.
* High Flight, by G Magee, RCAF.
the opening verses go like this:
|Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence.