There is a nearly unanimous sentiment among those who frequent the pilot's lounge here at the virtual airport that one of the best things a pilot can do when not flying is to spend time at a good aviation museum. For many of us, a good aviation museum, no matter what size, is something to be savored, to be visited in an unhurried manner.
For those of us who enjoy aviation museums, the centennial of powered flight has proven a boon, for it has served as the impetus to find the money to upgrade existing museums or build new ones. The Smithsonian Institution will be unveiling its gem on Dulles Airport soon, and a museum that was not well known for its aviation connection has recently completed an upgrade that is nothing short of incredible.
A distressingly long time ago, I was a student in Ann Arbor, Mich., and happened to go to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn because it was raining and my outdoor plans fell through. I knew little about The Henry Ford (as it is often called) other than it was connected to the very impressive Greenfield Village. Naturally, when I paid my admission fee and discovered there was an aviation section, I proceeded to it. When I got there I didn't know whether to be awed or upset, for sitting forlornly on the parquet floor was one of the finest small collections of historically significant aircraft I had seen anywhere at any time. Unfortunately, there had been little or no effort to preserve the airplanes or even protect them from visitors. They were in sad shape. Worse yet, sitting outside with its nose pressed longingly against the windows was a North Central Airlines DC-3, seemingly trying to get inside. I learned that when it was donated it was the highest time DC-3 in the world, but there it sat ignominiously corroding away, slowly returning to its original bauxite.
Even as the collection continued to deteriorate with age, I found myself returning to the Henry Ford Museum every few years, because the collection was so very compelling. The Dayton-Wright RB-1 -- the incredibly advanced racing airplane of 1920, with a semi-monococque fuselage, retractable gear and leading- and trailing-edge flaps -- was so far ahead of its time that it was simply hard to believe that it could be conceived and built in 1920. In an era of open cockpits, the pilot was enclosed, but was well back in the fuselage and had only side windows, and even those sloped aft, so there was absolutely no forward visibility. Cleverly, the windows were a celluloid material so the pilot could put his head against one, push and it would bulge outward a bit so he could see forward. Sort of.
The Pitcairn Autogyro that the Detroit News flew off of the roof of its building to be first at news events sat there, blades drooping and fabric fraying. Often there was not even anything that identified an aircraft. The Ford 4-AT Trimotor that Bernt Balchen flew over the South Pole -- hauling Richard Byrd to further glory and which then resided under the snow and ice at Little America for several years before being brought back to the States -- sat turning golden as it corroded under the preservative that had been applied in 1927. No sign even mentioned that Ford had twice been one of the largest airplane manufacturing concerns in the world and that the factory where the 4-AT was built was only a few hundred yards to the south of the museum. The Fokker Trimotor that Floyd Bennett carried Byrd north from Spitsbergen sat on the very same skis that Bernt Balchen had shown Byrd and Bennett how to repair using oars from a lifeboat. Yet it showed signs of damage from visitors, and the sign describing the airplane made the uncompromising statement that the airplane had made it over the North Pole, ignoring the fact that the flight had not lasted nearly long enough to make the round trip and there was ongoing controversy as to whether the flight was faked. The trip had been sponsored by Ford, so by gawd -- according to the museum -- Bennett and Byrd had made it.
What was worse was that Henry Ford -- largely because of the efforts of his aviation enthusiast son, Edsel -- had been one of the earliest innovators and pioneers in aviation. He had developed what was probably the very first cargo airline, built arguably the world's most modern airport, developed instrument approaches at that airport to handle Michigan's rotten winter weather, and applied mass production to aircraft manufacturing in the '20s and again in the '40s; but there just wasn't any information about that rich history in the museum.
Not long ago, I called the curator of the aviation section of the Henry Ford Museum, Bob Casey, intending to ask some questions about the Bennett/Byrd North Pole expedition and whether the museum still claimed that they had made it to the Pole despite Bennett reportedly admitting, just before his death, that they did not, and the data on time, speed and distance just didn't add up to a trip to the Pole. To my amazement, I learned that not only had the museum decided to recognize the controversy, it had completely redone the aviation section of the museum as a tribute to the centennial of powered, controllable flight. Mr. Casey graciously agreed to show me what now is an amazing restoration of the aviation section.
So that there is no ambiguity, I'll state it clearly: The Henry Ford Museum still contains what is probably the best small collection of historically significant aircraft and aviation artifacts anywhere, and now presents them in a fashion that is as good as or better than anyone. It is not the Smithsonian or the Air Force Museum -- or even the EAA Museum or Kermit Week's marvelous "Fantasy of Flight"; it is a museum dedicated to what civilians did in less than 40 years of flight. It has fewer than two dozen aircraft, yet they have been restored or cleaned up and are displayed in a fashion that appeals to those who have only a passing interest in aviation, those who are true aficionados, and those somewhere in between. It will attract the very young and the very old. I spent three hours; I intend to go back and spend a full day.
The entire effort cost some $8 million and created a museum-within-a-museum, walled off from the rest of the gigantic open space that constitutes the Henry Ford. That action alone created controversy. Not all bold strokes are popular, but in a world dominated by increasingly conservative and risk-averse corporations, it is refreshing to see a large organization do something that isn't plain vanilla. Even the entrance to the exhibit is not universally popular. One goes under North Central's DC-3 -- old NC21728 -- which now gleams, and hovers, gear retracted, about 10 feet above the floor. The only glitch is that it is painted in Northwest Airlines colors, something it never wore in life. There are a number of very angry former North Central employees -- for that was a proud airline -- widely regarded for the ability of its flight crews to handle the foul weather associated with the Great Lakes with intelligence and élan. The problem the museum had was that Northwest was kind enough to make a very major contribution to the project and rather than put up a tacky billboard to the donor as is done sometimes, the decision was made to honor the donation by painting the DC-3 in Northwest colors, recognizing that North Central -- via merger with Southern and Hughes Air West airlines -- became Republic, which then merged with Northwest, so there is a certain continuity. Understanding that no decision is universally loved, what I felt was extremely important is that "Old 728" still wears its original NC number and it has been restored lovingly from its horrible condition and now lives indoors. Would I rather see it in North Central colors, with Herman the goose on the tail? Yes, but I also recognize that museums, as airplanes, fly because of money. I just wish there were some way to display the plaque inside the airplane, which was installed after North Central used the airplane to give its aging "father," Donald Douglas, one last DC-3 flight before his death.
Oh, yes, when you walk under the DC-3, look up. You'll see JATO units installed because of a strange decision at North Central. The airplane had an executive interior toward the end of its flying life. All the mahogany made it heavy. On one of the trips with the board of directors aboard, an engine had to be shut down and the captain discovered he could barely hold altitude on the remaining Wright engine. He complained and rather than reduce the weight, the very powerful executive secretary of the company had 14-second duration JATO units installed, making the airplane even heavier and requiring that they be fired off every 18 months and be replaced.
Directly under the DC-3 is a bronze medallion set in the floor. From it stretches a bronze stripe 120 feet long, representing the length of the Wright brother's first successful flight. At its far end is the center of the entire exhibit: A replica of the Wright Flyer -- built for the 75th anniversary of the event -- sits on a tableau that duplicates the hugely famous photograph of the first flight. The airplane has just cleared the launching rail, Orville is prone in the hip cradle and has the canard positioned steeply nose up as he is discovering just how wildly unstable the airplane is in pitch, and Wilbur is off to the right, just as in the photo, his coat blowing in the stiff breeze, gazing at what the two of them had wrought. The display is circular, so you can see the Flyer from all sides; you even have to walk around Wilbur, for he is placed outside the sand-covered diorama. As you stand, quietly considering that this moment, captured in time, started it all, you become aware that there are speakers all around, from which issue forth the sounds of the wind blowing and seabirds crying, just as the Wrights would have heard in the North Carolina dunes that day.
The replica Flyer on display has flown a number of times, although not with an engine that was a replica of the one designed by the Wrights. According to curator Bob Casey, the replica was every bit as difficult to control as the original and the flights consisted of darting up and down and were always of very short duration.
Placing the Wright Flyer in the very center of the exhibit evokes an appropriate symbolism, for with that flight, the airplane had been invented, so now what? The "what" is the foundation of the remainder of the exhibits, all of which radiate from the Flyer much as do the cylinders on a radial engine. The exhibits demonstrate the variety of uses to which the Wrights' creation was put in an amazingly short time.
Following the sounds of an airshow announcer, you round a corner to see barnstormers set up at yet another stop at a country fairground in the early '20s. Suspended inverted above the crowd in the bleachers is an OX-5 powered Curtiss Canuck (the Canadian version of the JN-4 Jenny) with a wing walker on the center section of the top wing. Immediately below it is the third airplane built by E. M. "Matty" Laird's various airplane companies, the 1915 Boneshaker. On its nose is a six-cylinder Anzani radial engine. (Yes, it really has an even number of cylinders and no, I don't know how it would have worked without beating itself to death -- ask Deakin). In the cockpit is a sculpture of Katherine Stinson. She barnstormed with that airplane through Japan and China, becoming the first woman to fly in much of Southeast Asia and Japan. To one side is a set of bleachers where you can rest your feet next to mannequins in period costume, and watch Bob Lyjack's Taperwing Waco and Bill Barber's Boeing Stearman performing airshow routines on a screen cleverly displayed for the bleachers. Around you are posters advertising flying circuses and barnstormers and inviting you to become a wing walker yourself. Following those directions you walk onto the lower wing of a biplane. As you step on a pressure plate where the spar would be, the screen in front of you comes to life and you ride the wing as the airplane does some low-level aerobatics over the hills and into the valleys of rural America. It is phenomenally well done, and you can't help but be impressed by whoever flew the airplane for the sequence, as he or she was truly clipping tree- and hill-tops and diving well into the valleys.
Entering another branch off of the Flyer immerses you into one of the inevitable uses of any device that moves -- finding out how fast it will go. The Dayton-Wright RB-1 is the centerpiece of an exhibit dedicated to air racing, with the sounds of high-powered airplanes hammering past adding a nice touch while you look at displays that go into significant detail. I had known that the Thompson Trophy pylon races at what is now Cleveland Hopkins Airport back in the '30s were dangerous; however, I had no idea that fully one third of those who competed died. Nor did I know that the hugely prestigious Bendix Trophy cross-country race -- in which the very fastest airplanes in the world hustled from Los Angeles to Cleveland during the years '31 to '39 -- was twice won by women.
Commercial aviation represents another offshoot from the first successful airplane and is well-represented. The "commercial" concept is more than just airlines; it includes the idea of building and selling airplanes for a living, using them for business and as airliners. The oldest airplane on exhibit is a 1910 Bleriot monoplane, which was imported into the U.S. and assembled and flown for some years before being sold to the museum. Nearby is the Pitcairn Autogyro used by the Detroit News and Sikorski's very first helicopter, the VS-300A, from 1939. Looking at it, it's difficult to believe that it was powered by a Franklin engine that developed but 50 horsepower. Arranged beside the helo is a screen on which you can see films of it being flown in front of the museum by Igor Sikorski himself, the day he gave it to Henry Ford. Looking only slightly odd with a wing that has absolutely no dihedral, is the one surviving Ford "Flivver," the single-seat monoplane that Henry Ford had planned to build in massive quantities until his chief pilot and close friend was killed during a distance-flight attempt.
One of the first airliners, the large Boeing B-40 biplane -- one of only two known to be in existence -- demonstrates how revenue-generating airmail got first priority in the design of what was one of the very earliest purpose-built commercial airplanes in this country. There were two large hoppers to carry mail, and, at a time when airline passengers in Europe were traveling in champagne luxury, the two passengers the Boeing could carry were jammed, almost as an afterthought, into a tiny compartment just behind the engine where the noise and heat must have helped along any incipient airsickness.
In the center is the Ford 4-AT Trimotor that Balchen flew over the South Pole. Although still bearing its paint applied for the Byrd Antarctic Expedition, as the "Floyd Bennett" (to honor Byrd's pilot on the north pole effort who had died a few years previously), the museum chose to display it in the commercial aviation section because the Trimotor was best known as an airliner. Yes, that is another of those tough decisions that have to be made when a specific airplane that was used for a record-setting flight is also of a type much better known for other endeavors. The display is tasteful in that it manages to express the history of the series as airliners while pointing out that this particular airplane was indeed the one that went to the South Pole in 1929. If you look carefully, you can see that the airplane was stripped as much as possible to reduce weight for its polar flight. There is no soundproofing, the cabin ceiling was removed, and you can see the fuel tanks in the wings. The extra fuel tank for the flight is still in the cabin.
One of the most interesting displays in the commercial section is a comparison of passenger seating in airliners over the years. The exterior is the shape and size of a portion of the exterior of a Boeing 747 fuselage from the cabin floor level to the top. Walking in the forward door you can look to your right and see an exact replica of a Ford Trimotor cabin, including seats, distance between the seats and headroom. To the left is the space available for the two passengers in the Boeing B-40. Only one seat is in place and its back is tilted back so one can get in and out, but, once seated, the actual space available is shockingly similar to the tiny area provided in coach in a modern airliner. You can go aft through the Trimotor cabin section, past another exit and enter a re-creation of a DC-3 cabin, showing that airline travel in 1939 wasn't bad at all.
Beside the Ford Trimotor is the actual radio range building that was at the Ford Airport, now the Ford test track, immediately south of the museum. The radio range idea was developed by the Germans as a beam for its Gothas and Zeppelins to bomb England in World War I. The U. S. Army got hold of it after the war and classified it secret until 1925 when it was declassified with the idea it would be used for navigation. Progress was slow until Henry Ford decided he wanted it for his freight airline that was based at Ford Airport and serving his factories with the forerunner of the Trimotor, the 2-AT, (which looked like a Trimotor with just one, 400-hp Liberty engine). His engineers developed what became the four-spoke radio range. The pilot heard a Morse code "A" in two of the quadrants of the range and the letter "N" in the other two. When the plane was on one of the spokes (sometimes called beams) the letters merged into a solid tone. It allowed for amazingly accurate navigation, and instrument approaches were known to have been flown down to 200 feet and a half mile visibility with them. Beside the hut, which still contains the transmitter gear, you can put on a set of headphones and move a model Trimotor back and forth and hear what those long-ago pilots heard when flying the range. When doing it, imagine the incredible racket of three engines just a few feet away and the static on the radio from thunderstorms, and you understand why a lot of pilots who cranked up the volume, hoping to pick the A and N out of the roars and crashes of static, are now deaf as posts.
The commercial section has a number of hands-on areas in which a visitor can work on aircraft design problems, such as airfoil shape (a wind tunnel is conveniently provided for your task) or you can make a paper airplane and step into a dedicated area where you can fly it and measure just how far it goes. I think you'll probably have to pry the kids out of this part of the exhibit.
The final spoke of the wheel is dedicated to the use of the airplane for exploration. As you walk in, you see the Fokker Trimotor on a tableau of snow and ice. At the nose are figures of Floyd Bennett, Richard Byrd and Bernt Balchen. Pressing a button causes them to talk about the fact that Bennett and Byrd had broken both sets of skis because they lacked cold weather experience. Byrd is suspicious of Balchen because he is from the rival Amundsen camp, there to fly an airship over the North Pole, but Balchen tells them how to repair the skis with lifeboat oars and what to use for wax and then suggests they take off at night when the sun has not partially melted the ice. (His suggestions worked.) Nearby is another of the clever information boards that is airfoil shaped and held up with struts so that it looks like the upper wing of a biplane. On it is a fairly detailed discussion of the controversy surrounding the Bennett-Byrd flight. Byrd was the navigator and had fairly primitive instruments for navigation near the Pole. It admits the duration of the flight seemed to be too short to cover the distance involved and provides a balanced look at both sides of the issue. After all the years of blithely claiming Bennett and Byrd made it to the North Pole, the frankness of the exhibit is an eye opener and, at least in my opinion, adds greatly to the value of the entire experience. Ford bankrolled that expedition. It took courage to admit that it probably was not a success and that the first to fly over the North Pole was Roald Amundsen's team.
If the depiction of ice and snow makes you shiver, just walk a little ways to one side where you can try on the same type of arctic wear used by Bennett and Byrd. The Fokker was open cockpit -- it just had a windshield -- and putting on just the layers of gloves and mittens those two wore greatly increased my awe for what they accomplished, whether they made it to the Pole or not.
The exploration area continues with a rare Lockheed Vega similar to the one used by Amelia Earhart on her solo flight across the Atlantic. On the airfoil board in front of you there is a book that you are encouraged to open to learn more about Amelia Earhart. Opening it activates lights that illuminate a person speaking on a period commercial broadcast microphone and announcing that Amelia Earhart is missing. Other lights become searchlights beaming through the dark as the announcer describes the search her and her navigator, Fred Noonan.
A little farther on is the 1927 Stinson Detroiter -- "Pride of Detroit" -- that Schlee and Brock sought to fly around the world. They went eastbound, eventually arriving safely in Japan only to find that the U.S. Navy had said it would no longer support record-attempt flights, which reduced their safety margin on the trans-Pacific leg to zero. Wisely, they crated the airplane and thus arrived back in the U.S. after setting a number of records for distance and returning home safely, something a striking number of would-be record setters of the time were failing to do.
Finally, there is a display honoring Charles Lindbergh with a replica his Ryan NYP -- "Spirit of St. Louis" -- as the centerpiece. It is not just any replica. It is one of the three used in the "Spirit of St. Louis" movie starring Jimmy Stewart, and the one he bought to fly for himself after the movie was filmed. He kept it for several years and donated to the museum.
One of the pleasant things about the museum-within-a-museum is that there is also a dedicated balcony that allows you to look at virtually all of the displays from a different angle, something that is valuable for getting a closer view of the airplanes that are hung from the ceiling. It is the only way to see the elegant mechanism that operated the leading- and trailing-edge flaps on the Dayton-Wright racer. The landing gear and flaps were controlled by a large crank. With the gear down, both sets of flaps were down. When the pilot cranked the gear up, it also retracted the flaps. The trailing edge flaps were full span, and thus they were also the ailerons, so the mechanism had to operate them both as flaps and ailerons. It did so successfully. In 1920.
My three hours in the aviation section of The Henry Ford was not enough for even that section of the museum. I didn't even try to look at the amazing collection of cars or steam locomotives or antique furniture or jewelry. I'm going back.
I went to the Henry Ford Museum intending to do a column on what has been called the greatest hoax in aviation history -- Byrd's faked flight over the North Pole -- and how the museum had refused to even recognize that there might be some question about the success of the flight. I had used as one source the book "Oceans, Poles and Airmen," which goes into detail about the physical impossibility of making the flight in the elapsed time. I came away impressed that the museum, as a part of a creating what could be a free-standing aviation museum, has stepped up to and embraced the controversy in an honest and forthright manner. We may never know whether Bennett and Byrd made it. History is replete with stories of how Byrd was the absolute master of organizing stunningly complex expeditions and then behaving weirdly once on them -- and also demonstrating that he wasn't a very good navigator, which adds to the entire mystique. Now, one of the finest museums in the world, and the one with the particular airplane involved, has put the evidence on the table in an unbiased manner, so the visitor can decide. I went in believing Byrd faked the flight. I came out believing he may have given it a good shot and may have thought he was at the North Pole when he was several hundred miles short. Whether he made it or not, my respect for Floyd Bennett -- the pilot of the Fokker -- and Bernt Balchen -- the pilot of the Ford -- went up many notches.
Am I overly enthusiastic about the aviation museum within The Henry Ford Museum? Perhaps so, but it is only because they did it so wrong for so long and now they have done it so right.
Go. You will be pleased with your decision.
See you next month.