Aviation History Travel Udvar-Hazy Center Virginia Washington DC

July 31st, 2012 … on laughter-silvered wings*

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!

General view of the South wing of the Boeing Aviation HangarThe 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.Westland LysanderVought F4U Corsair

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.Enola Gay 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.

Boeing StratolinerOf 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), The astonishing SR-71 Blackbirdand 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.Space Shuttle Discovery

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 scorched lower tiles on the Discovery 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.Upper skin cladding on the shuttle

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.
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July 29, 2012 … sightseeing in the capital

Retail therapy is not in our vocabulary.

Indeed, with the exception of camera shops, I personally regard retail therapy as an oxymoron.  Nevertheless we needed to do some shopping yesterday and strolled over the bridge to Georgetown.  This is a very quaint and, I suspect, very expensive neighbourhood. Lots of brand names, lots of high fashion, and expensive decor. The architecture looks very European to my eye, Georgetown morning We were there a little early for most stores so we filled in time by strolling down one of the side streets, and crossed over the very pretty and now disused Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in GeorgetownFrom there, we reached the walkway beside the Potomac, and where I imagine the old port of Georgetown must have been. Already at 9:30 am the temperature was rising and parents with young children were playing in a water feature obviously designed to allow just that. I guess it’s the upscale version of cracking a fire hydrant in poorer neighbourhoods.

Someone whom I imagined to be a vagrant was using it to perform his morning ablutions (fully clothed) and then lay down on the upstream concrete to dry out.Cooling off at 9:30 am in Georgetown

The river is obviously a playground for the city, though the pollution warning notices suggest it would be unwise to fall in. We did our small amount of shopping and then walked back to foggy bottom where we had lunch.

By now the temperature was so hot, we decided that a tour on an air-conditioned bus made more sense than walking. However, we did have to walk almost two miles to get to the start point (corner of Pennsylvania and 12th) , taking advantage of whatever shade we could find along the way.

I was intrigued to see the number of tours based on Segways, with ten or a dozen to the group zipping along the streets. It seems these are illegal on New Zealand footpaths, subject to the outcome of a current court case.Segway tourism on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC

The tour bus arrived a half hour ahead of schedule, and the driver earned our gratitude by allowing us to board and enjoy the coolness and bottled water from an ice chest. Our tour guide (Adam) was the usual personable young fellow who does such jobs. In due course, with seats almost full with people from Missouri, New York, Philadelphia, Florida, Columbia and New Zealand, we set off into the bright afternoon, and got what must have been a fairly routine tour of most of Washington’s major landmarks.

It was well done and enjoyable apart from the heat any time we left the bus. I scored bonus points as we went past Arlington to the Marine memorial, for being the only person on the tour who knew who was the only other president, apart from John F Kennedy,  buried there (William Howard Taft). Our guide was almost disgusted … “only the guy from New Zealand got it!!!”. I sneakily took the credit without revealing we had toured Arlington just the previous day.

Among the many moving monuments we saw, the newest was the Martin Luther King Jr memorial, emerging from the rock, and staring defiantly across the tidal basin at the memorial to that well known slave owner, Thomas Jefferson.Martin Luther King Jr memorial, Washington DC

Mary and I decided that it would be quicker to leave the tour after the Vietnam Memorial, and to walk back to the hotel via 23rd St., though perhaps not by as much as we imagined. The well known long black wall of the Vietnam memorial is a very emotional place, worthy of respect. The Vietnam memorialIt was just a mile from there back to the hotel, but we paused at the national Academy of Sciences along the way, to gaze a delightful sculpture of Albert Einstein.  He looks like the stereotypical grandfather, though that looks like heavy stuff to be reading to the grandchildren. Albert Einstein at the National Academy of SciencesWell, it’s a picture-heavy post today, more travelogue than photo reflection. On the other hand these are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities so what could I do?

And I don’t promise a change tomorrow.



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July 28, 2012 … each person treated with respect

Trial and error means that those who make errors are put on trial.

To some extent, reliance on memories of my last visit to Washington (in 2000) led me astray, and Washington’s overwhelming heat carried out the sentence. But before we got to the surface errors, first we had to overcome our trepidation to use the Metro (underground) to get from Foggy Bottom to Union Station to get the Amtrak tickets for the next leg of our journey.

My compliments to Amtrak. I had left my booking reference behind, but with the surname and the credit card used to book, the kind lady at  window 15 had out tickets printed out in less than 30 seconds, and was peering sternly over her glasses as she warned us not to lose them. Union Station has all the grandeur I recall. Booking area - Union Station, Washington DCI was a bit disappointed though at how the people who stream through it each day have allowed themselves to be treated as mere worker ants by the concession holders. Bad coffee, poor food choices in at least the café we tried, were not made any more palatable by the abrupt manner in which we were treated.

And then into the wider world to walk from the station to the National Gallery of Art. Memories from 12 years ago do not include present day road works, so although the direct route is a mere 1.8 km, with the temperature around 97 deg F it seemed much further. Navigational doubts disappeared once the Capitol was in view, and we got there eventually. As with all federally owned public buildings, there is airline style security before you get in. Once in I was reminded just how magnificent the building is. We stayed in the west building (classical art) since I have no great fondness for most so-called “modern art” … and while I am in confessional mode, I don’t like jazz either. Please don’t waste your time trying to convert me. That’s just how it is.

One thing that intrigued me, and which is not permitted as far as I know in the galleries at home, is other artists copying the masterworks on display. This gallery not only allows it, it provides drop cloths and easels for the artist to work.recreating masterpieces in the National Gallery of Art After a sufficient length of time there, we moved across the mall to the National Air and Space Museum. To some extent, I wish we hadn’t. Though this building contains some of history’s rarest and most extraordinary aircraft, usually the real original, not a replica or reconstruction, it seems to have been dumbed down for the children who seem to be the dominant customers these days. Like our own Te Papa, it feels more like a children’s playground than a serious collection of important artefacts.  Entrance Foyer of the National Air and Space MuseumI intend to get to the Udvar-Hazy Centre at Washington Dulles and hope desperately that its wonderful exhibits are displayed more seriously.

The crowning insult of this visit was the food court which consisted of MacDonald’s and two other providers. It was truly appalling food, and massively overcrowded.Feeding time at the zoo ... the food court at the National Air and Space Museum

We got back on the Metro, and noticing that it was heading on the direction of Arlington, decided to stay on the train. At Arlington it was simply too hot to walk around the massive grounds, so we capitulated and bought into the tour. Generally speaking I am not much into cemetery tourism, and refrained in New Orleans, but Arlington has a grandeur and solemnity that is worth visiting. A fragment of ArlingtonWe watched the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknowns. It is a highly ritualized variant on military parade protocol, and an occasion so embedded with respect and grief, that I thought it inappropriate to take photographs, but instead, to pay careful attention to the ritual before me.

At the conclusion, we boarded the train and returned to our hotel in Foggy Bottom,

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July 27, 2012 … at the centre of things

Transitions can be stressful.

Our journey from New Orleans to Washington began badly when we learned that the shuttle service had not actioned the discussion we had the previous day about moving the pickup time forward an hour to match the notice we received from the airline. A call from the concierge soon got that back on schedule. We had a 90 minute layover at Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson Airport. It is immense beyond imagination and must be almost printing money and still they want to charge their clients for Internet access. Shame on them. The first airport on our journey to be so cheap.

At BWI, we caught a pre-booked shuttle and meandered down I295 in the nose-to-tail traffic of the early evening commute. It was no better for those escaping the capital to Baltimore or points North. On I 295 inbound to WashingtonOur driver was arguably either the best driver I have ever seen or certifiably insane. He juggled, tweaked and dodged through the evening chaos to deliver us safe at our hotel in Foggy Bottom.

Just across the road is one of those admirable Trader Joe’s supermarkets, so we did our shopping and had a fine tea and a glass of wine to soothe the anxieties of the journey. Then, in a fit of madness, with the air temperature around 94 deg F (35 deg C) at 9:30 pm. We strolled down Pennsylvania Avenue to see if our neighbours were keeping their accommodations in order. Our neighbours left their lights onIt’s amazing how many people have their kids out at this time of night taking their pictures against the White House fence. And how many members of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department are keeping a firm eye on the antics of the crowd, and not just the people with a cause and placards who camp on the grass of Lafayette Square.

By the time we got back, past the many homeless people settling for the night on their chosen park benches,  it was nearly 11pm and the temperature had not dropped whatsoever.

But my resilience had, and so to bed.