Friday, July 3, 2015

"Into the wild blue yonder"

SR-71 Blackbird

     I spent a pleasant hour or so Tuesday at the unfortunately-named Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the warehouse annex to the National Air and Space Museum that opened in 2003 in Chantilly, Virginia.
     Had I spent that time aboard the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird prominently displayed, I could have flown from Washington to Los Angeles; this plane did the reverse route on March 6, 1990 in just over an hour--64 minutes, clocking in at 2,144 miles per hour.
Grumman Gulfhawk
      While I enjoyed seeing the once supersecret plane, with its matte black skin, and the Space Shuttle Discovery, I found the planes that really sent a shiver were the ones I had built as models as a child, the British Westland Lysander and the orange Grumman Gulfhawk. I was amazed how a glance up and 45 years fell away, and I was setting the intricate gear system that allowed you to extend and retract the Gulfhawk's landing gear by rotating the propeller. 
     Having been to the aviation museum on the mall a number of times, with its delicate wood and cloth Wright Brothers Flyer and steel gray Spirit of St. Louis, it was refreshing to go to a new space and see different aircraft, though this is not a sterling example of the museum curator's art: planes and plaques and that's it, with cases of Flash Gordon rayguns and a numbing array of missiles and rockets. The space itself, a pair of soaring, curved hangars, was dramatic, though.
     I half hoped my favorite plane, the stumpy Granville Gee Bee, would be there, but it wasn't, no doubt because all of them crashed, killing their pilots, and were destroyed. Future World War II Jimmy Doolittle once said that flying the Gee Bee was like trying to balance a pencil by its point on your fingertip, and flying it in the 1930 Thompson Race inspired him to quit air racing while still alive. The Gee Bee had such a powerful engine crammed into a tiny barrel of a body that the plane wanted more than anything else to flip over.
      There was another charmingly squat plane I had never heard of before, the Stits Sky Baby, for half a century the smallest plane to carry a pilot. Looking like a refuge from a Disney movie, with a top speed of 80 miles an hour, it was sort of the opposite of the SR-71, though cool in its own right.  Considering the vast difference in cost, I'd much rather lope across the country in the Sky Baby in ... 30 hours ... and pocket the hundreds of millions difference in the plane's cost than tear along with expensive speed in the SR-71. 

Stit Sky Baby


  1. Small planes are fun. Big planes are transportation. Supersonic planes an affectation.


  2. Nice that you are traveling. That Sky Baby is cute but doesn't look too safe.

  3. Sadly, the Chanute air museum in Rantoul is closing at the end of the year - anyone interested in this kind of thing who can't get enough or can't make it to VA should check it out (makes a nice quick road trip combined with Champaign-Urbana)

  4. The Air Zoo in Kalamazoo is another option. Lots of exhibits, flight simulators, immersion theatre where it's like you're on a bombing run. We've gone there many times, and there's always new things to see. Well worth the trip.

  5. The hanging planes remind me of the Museum of Science and Industry. When I worked there in the 50s, virtually everyone (including the Queen of England) would look up at the planes first thing when coming in the front door.

  6. I regret that you find the Udvar-Hazy Center "unfortunately named." Steve Udvar-Hazy's lifelong commitment to aviation, his philanthropy, and his talent warrant this recognition. As a childhood immigrant to the US, Steve is the embodiment of the American Dream, and every bit as deserving of this honor as was James Smithson, after whom the Smithsonian is named. Perhaps you might want to reconsider.

    1. Nobody he's saying he's not a nice guy. But it's the "National Air and Space Museum," not the "James Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum." He deserves a plaque, not saddling the place with a name that not one visitor in 100 could remember if you put a gun to their heads. That's unfortunate.

    2. I think Hazy might be Hungarian.

  7. Anonymous 11:09,
    Get a grip. Naming things for people who have lots of money is the American Way. Immigrating to the US, to leave behind whatever, is the American Way. Finding humor or irony in foreign-origin names is not denigration of either behavior. Naming a place displaying airplanes "Hazy" is humorously ironic.


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