CEO of the Cockpit #38: Pioneers

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Celebrating 100 years of flight can be done at a museum, but AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit is a little disappointed with the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. The planes are just too clean, and it doesn't have the people and artifacts that he finds important to aviation history.

I don't get DCA layovers as often as I used to when I flew the MD-88. The 767 doesn't get to our nation's capital that often -- at least from our base -- and I haven't been in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum for quite a few years.

There usually isn't enough time during a layover to go over there and peruse the historical aviation stuff. This week's trip had a 24-hour layover, and with the help of the great metro rail service, my co-pilot, Jeff, and I managed to get over to it early in the day.

I've always been a sucker for a good museum and this career of flying airliners has let me visit quite a few. For you art museum lovers, I recommend Paris, France. If you want a great WWII museum, you have to go see the RAF museum in England. For military buffs, there is no greater place than the United States Air Force Museum at Dayton, Ohio.

However, I can only stand to see so many paintings of flowers in a vase or naked wrestling guys made out of marble, so the museums of Paris got old fairly quickly. Even the Air Force Museum lost its luster after a while. I don't know what others think, but it always depresses me a little that the biggest advances in aviation came about because of war. So, my favorite museum of all time is the Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Aviation museums have a great advantage over museums that are dedicated to other things. They can have artifacts from the whole history of aviation. It would be impossible to have a museum on ocean-going ships that is complete. Since most history is longer than a hundred years and goes way back before written records, there is no way to have the very first boat in your museum. It is possible to have the first airplane. Size is a restriction, too. If it takes this much room to contain the first hundred years of flight history and artifacts, how big will their building have to be in another three hundred years?

Unreal Smell

Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

Jeff must have been very bored today, or he just wanted to humor his aging captain but he tagged along with me. Jeff is a quiet sort of person. If you want a movie analogy, he is the "Silent Bob" to my "Jay." After we'd been at the museum long enough to take our first snack break, he came up with the most cogent comment of the day.

"Nothing around here smells like anything real," he said.

You know, I hadn't thought about it, but you're right: Some of the most important things around airplanes are their odors. Nobody thinks about it much, but every aircraft has its own distinctive stink. You can't be around an F-4 or an F-100 without catching a strong whiff of half-burnt JP-4. You can't wander around the right side of any airliner -- from the Constellation to the 747 -- without catching a trace scent of the bathroom's blue water that seeps out of the service doors on that side.

All of the aircraft on display had been scrubbed clean of any hint of skydrol odor, the smell of aging rubber seals was absent and the aircraft that we were allowed a short visit to their interior were also missing that musky smell of old leather, carpet, half-filled airsickness bags and dirty galleys.

When you visit museums like Air & Space, you get a little punch-drunk and maybe a little blasť about all of the historical wonders that surround you. A good example of this is that Jeff and I found ourselves sitting on a bench, staring at the spacecraft that took the first people to set foot on the Moon. Ho hum ...

Show Me the Airliners

One of the least interesting parts of the museum to the average citizen and the most important to aging captains like myself is the part that has to do with the airline world. The first time I went to this museum was about 26 years ago when I was a 727 engineer. The captain -- an "old" guy in his 50s -- went with me. It amazed me then how many historical aviation people this guy knew. We'd look at an old DC-4 cockpit and he'd say something like, "Yeah, I remember flying those things."

Someday as I approach retirement, (and by the way the airline world is going, that may be next week) I'm sure I'll one day amaze a kid by saying something like, "Yeah, I used to fly the DC-9, and we only had one autopilot!"

Where Is The Good Stuff?

There are a lot of interesting things at a museum like Air & Space but I think the artifacts and the stories that are the most interesting are the ones that you'll never see because nobody bothered to collect them.

For example, who was the first flight attendant to land an airliner? I'm sure it has happened but it was never written down or recorded in any other way.

What is the weirdest animal set loose in an airborne airliner? The one I'm familiar with is a huge dog that the agents thought was a seeing-eye dog. It turned out that the dog's owner could see but liked wearing sunglasses. That German Shepherd made unwritten aviation history by chewing seat cushions, passengers' legs and random galley food from LAX all the way to ATL.

Another animal story that will never make it to an Air & Space display is the story of the galley rat. A long time ago when airliners had flight engineers, the flight attendants called the cockpit and said there was a rat running loose in the forward galley. Could somebody come back and take care of it? The engineer grabbed the ship's logbook, which back then was a heavy metal thing, went back and killed the critter by smacking it on the head. He then dropped the dead rodent into the cockpit trash bag.

After landing a little kid came up with a small empty cage and asked, "Mister, have you seen my gerbil?"

Unsung, Forgotten Heroes

The Air & Space Museum tells the stories of hundreds of aviation pioneers. The tales of people like Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Doolittle, and Charles Lindbergh adorn the walls. Military heros like Rickenbacker, Galland, and Yeager are all over the place.

The stories you don't see would fill a dozen museums. Who was the first crew chief that found the best place to sleep on a C-141 was on or near the aft cargo ramp? Where do they tell the story of the first pilot who discovered, developed and used the first relief tube? For that matter, who invented the airborne, flushable, blue-water toilet?

B727 Flight Engineer Panel

Who was the first pilot in one of the first airliners that discovered that a hot air conditioning pack smelled almost exactly like an electrical fire? Who was the first 727 flight engineer to run the center fuel tank dry because he forgot to close the crossfeeds? After he found all four low-pressure lights on the center tank were on, did he have the presence of mind to pop them out so the captain wouldn't see how stupid he was? And, if he was that smart, how did he get the APU started once they got on the ground with a dry center tank?

Who was the pilot that got in the most trouble on a layover? I knew of a pilot who deadheaded from the west coast to the east coast on a layover to murder his wife, but does that count? I mean, if he was home trying to kill his wife, could he officially be considered "laying over?" His murder attempt failed, by the way, which would in a perverse sort of way also disqualify him.

The Best

The coolest airline pilot who ever existed is dead now but his story will live on forever, at least at our airline. I won't tell you his real name. Let's call him "Jim."

We had this little two day new captain school called "charm school". Now it is more or less a soul-less company propaganda program. Years ago, it was the same thing but it was held at a nice hotel and had an open bar.

During one of the very long, droning, presentations by some vice president or other there was a loud snoring from the back of the room. Jim was in the back row with his chair tilted back snoring like a bandsaw. The cool part was that he was wearing his sunglasses indoors so nobody could see that his eyes were closed. The snore gave him away.

They woke Jim up and "flunked" him out of the course. He got sent back six months later to re-take the entire course and the same thing happens -- he is sound asleep in the back wearing sunglasses.

Well, now the speaker is livid. He tromps to the back of the room and jerks Jim's sunglasses off of his face to wake him up. Here comes the cool part ...

Jim was wearing a second pair of sunglasses under the first.

He'll never get in a museum with that story. His rubber chicken probably won't either. You see, when we would turn in to park at the gate the ramp agent would be standing out in front of us directing us in. He would look up at us and then do a double-take and then laugh.

Why? Because as we turned the corner, Jim would fling open his side window and put a rubber chicken under the windshield-wiper blade.

GA Heroes

Historical pilots and other people from the general aviation ranks will never make the museums either, although they should.

Somewhere out there is the first line boy who discovered how much static electricity a helicopter can generate while it is sitting on a wet ramp with its rotors still going. I found this out once while approaching a Huey with the ground cables from the fuel truck. The lightning bolt that came out of the skid blew me back about ten feet. I wasn't the first to discover this so I don't belong in a museum, but somebody did.

Who was the first pilot to discover that you could fly a Cessna 150 using only the doors and elevator trim? Who was the first pilot to discover that an Apache with 150-horse engines wouldn't stay in the air with one engine out?

There must be hundreds or even thousands of unsung aviation pioneers who will never be in a museum.

There are hundreds of artifacts that will never make it there, either. That Ercoupe that some guy painted like a Spitfire to make it look sportier, the lawn chair that some idiot attached dozens of helium balloons to so he could fly, my homemade parachute that I designed and constructed when I was 10 so I could skydive off of the barn. (It didn't work.)

I'd like to see the world's highest-operating-time Aeronca Champ in the museum. You know it is out there someplace. Thousands upon thousands of flight hours out of some God-forsaken field and nobody will ever know about it.

When I retire I think I'll start an entirely new field of study. I plan to be an Aviation Anthropologist. I know that aviation is only a century old, but if we don't start collecting the historical things that matter, like Jim's rubber chicken, they will be gone forever.


Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.