You ever have those dreams, that (back – probably when you were a kid) you could fly? Not in any kind of man-made craft, mind you – I mean possessing the ability to levitate and travel the skies at will. It’s an exhilarating, empowering feeling. I guess about the closest I’ve come to enjoying that sensation during waking hours is whenever I visit the Air and Space Museum at Dulles – the Smithsonian’s Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center.
Walking around in the presence of so much aviation technology – soaking up all the energies of various air and space craft in those massive hangars – I’ve almost felt my feet lift off the floor and let my arms do the walking. And even if it’s all just my imagination (not too hard to believe, I know), it’s still pretty cool.
Little wonder that I’d engender the place with so much magical capacity: I watched this behemoth grow up – from a bare patch of ground (after clearing the landscape of trees), to a skeleton of metal spires, to a series of finished buildings – outfitted with all the accoutrements of a 21st Century Smithsonian attraction. As a local media representative (from the good, old Wage Radio Newsroom in Leesburg), I had the enjoyment of covering the story of its development from the planning stages up through its construction and opening- as well as following any major events connected to this shrine to human endeavor.
I loved talking to the Smithsonian folks on hand, too – including Museum Director (and Four-Star General) ‘Jack’ Dailey, and the late World War II fighter ace Don Lopez (one of the original Flying Tigers); I also enjoyed chatting with some of the characters to whom I was introduced: Astronaut and Senator John Glenn (who told me what it was like to orbit the Earth), as well as some famous actor-guy who came in to narrate the Grand Opening – John Travolta (all pumped up for movie roles at the time – he looked ‘as big as a refrigerator’); I talked with all these people about essentially the same thing: the passion for flight which convened us in this common time and place. I also fondly recall touring this facility with my family (during the extended Opening Ceremonies in December, 2003) – to commemorate the Smithsonian’s Salute to Military Aviation Veterans – since my Dad had served in World War II, as an aerial gunner and bombardier for the US Naval Air Force.
Time and space collapse back to 2003, then to 2016, and we’re back to a keyboard, a screen, and images from history. Funny how this cavernous building filled with flying machines stir up all these memories of fathers and sons – and moms and daughters – sweeping shapes and heroic acts – as well as tragic loss; it’s a place – for me – where, somehow our combined energies seem in union. The industry’s greatest pioneers, after all, touch the limits of relativity.
This walk through the Valhalla of flight is also just plain cool and fun: Speaking of which – what’s Travolta’s favorite plane in the Museum? Mr. Saturday Night Fever told me that he was enchanted by the sheer class of a mid-sized piece of commercial aviation from the late 1930’s: the restored Boeing 307 ‘Stratoliner’- the first pressurized airliner.
And – you remember that Curtiss P-40 ‘Flying Tiger’ posed in a mock dog-fight with a blue, tilted-wing Corsair – guarding the entrance? The former is named for the craft flown by our late friend Don Lopez, while the latter represents the plane flown by Jack Dailey’s father in World War II.
And, my favorite ‘toy’ in the place has to be the ‘Blackbird’ – perched ominously at the foot of the stairs as we walked in; Lockheed’s SR-71 still holds the record for the fastest ‘conventional’ airplane (despite its extreme unconventionality); I was there when the Smithsonian folks (very slowly) wheeled it in; I interviewed its former pilots, and I’ve been haunted by images of this big, black, ice-pick shaped aircraft – now sitting peacefully on the floor of the Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles.
And you? Go there and generate some of your own dreams.