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Museum of Flight: the Big Ones


The indoor spaces of the Museum of Flight in Seattle highlight a lot of history and a lot of planes, but there's another kind of avgeek thrill across the road, where the museum has its biggest planes, and the best chance to get up close, and in some cases on board.


Some of the planes are famous in their own right: a 707-era Air Force One and  a British Airways Concorde, but all are planes that played a significant role in aviation history. It's almost overwhelming to be so close to so many.


First up as you walk in are two of the most famous planes of World War II, a B17 Flying Fortress and its successor the B29 Superfortress. After the war, the two designs became the model for a variety of aerial tankers, cargo carriers and the Boeing 377 passenger liner, Boeing's last before the 777.


Just beyond the bombers are two planes, from rival makers and flying for rival carriers. Both debuted in 1933, and may be the first truly modern airliners, built for passenger comfort and able to fly long distances in relatively short times. For United Airlines, formerly Boeing Air Transport, that was the Model 247D, with significant tech advances in materials and construction including pressurized cabin. United's rival, TWA, which played up its association with Charles Lindbergh, chose the DC-2, which was soon upgraded as the DC-3.


Quite a size leap from those to to the 747 that's on display and open for walkthrough.


But if the 747 is the size champ for planes, it doesn't even compete when engine size is the criterion; it has four because they are nowhere near as powerful, or as large, as those on the 787 that's also on display. The museum's 787 is one of the three original prototypes; during testing it was frozen to 43 below and heated up to 115 above.


When you get to the cutouts of Nixon and Chinese premier Zhou-enlai, you know you're at Air Force One, officially a VC-125, the Air Force name for a 707. In the original newspaper picture of the two, this plane shows in the background. The interior fittings are luxurious, but by our standards today, cramped. It's a reminder that the 707 was only barely larger than today's 737s, though with much greater wing area, and carried fewer passengers.


Of course, there's also a plane on display that's bigger in most respects than the 707, but carried only 100 passengers. But, it was fast. The Concorde is here, and it looks so different in every way from all the rest. Its needle-like shape, its stubby tail, and especially its huge but square exhausts make it a unique sight.


Inside, it's also clear that it was not a spacious plane, although plastic barriers made it hard to show that in a picture. The lower picture is through a very narrow galley to the cockpit.


Next to a 727, there's a cutaway exhibit on cargo handling by FedEx. Nearby, some more military planes, including a vertical take-off Harrier.


I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that just next door is a space exploration section, complete with a full-size trainer for the Space Shuttle missions and a space capsule. You may have guessed that when it comes to air and space museums, I fall on the air side...


And I'll leave you now with one more plane, a good one for trivia night. It looks like it belongs in the early years of aviation, but it's actually a model built by the thousands, eighteen thousand in fact, between 1947 and 2001. It's the Antonov AN-2 Colt, the largest single-engine biplane ever. It was a jack-of-all-trades, serving as a fire spotter, fire tanker, air ambulance, crop-duster and more. Stable at low speeds, able to land or take-off nearly anywhere...what more could you ask? Oh, maybe reclining seats and a complimentary drink?



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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