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Wings of History: Museum of Flight, Seattle


If you're an amateur avgeek like me, someone who enjoys flying and can recognize a number of planes past and present, but is really no expert at all when it comes to the details and the history, this place is for you.


I knew that for sure when I pulled up into the parking lot of the Museum of Flight, next door to Boeing Field, and spotted one of the one of the planes of my childhood dreams, the Lockheed Super Constellation—and then turned around to see one of the three prototypes of the 777-X-9 rolling to a taxiway and taking off.


Well, there's a time shift for you: 1954, 2021 and 1903. And we're just in the lobby of the immense building, where a reproduction of the first Wright plane and some of its contemporaries are hung. Even more awaits.


The main indoor exhibit space is an immense hangar-like building, well lit by glass walls, and with literally hundreds of exhibits, including dozens and dozens of planes, many of them hung overhead in dizzying formations, mixing decades and types. It takes a bit of wandering to put some mental order to it all!

And yes, that's a full-size DC-3 hanging there.


At the front of the hall, many of the exhibits center on planes that played key roles in the development of air travel, and some of what drove it—including a momentous decision by the Post Office to subsidize aviation pioneers with contracts to carry mail, the first real commercial field for aviation. Railway Express joined in too—but almost no one remembers them these days.


If that third mail plane, a 1926 Ryan M-1, looks kind of familiar, it's probably because it's almost identical to the one Lindbergh flew on his nonstop trans-Atlantic flight in 1928. But Lindbergh's plane wasn't filled with mail; almost every interior space was taken up with extra fuel tanks!


The Post Office not only put money into aviation, it put money into promoting its new service, which sold at a premium; the 5c price on the poster was more than double the regular 2c price for a first-class letter.

It didn't take long for the scent of money to attract some corruption to the process; contracts to carry the mail were awarded locally and in many cases money changed hands to get a contract. So, in 1928, a new Postmaster General changed the system, awarding contracts for all the airmail to just three companies, cleaning up the system and guaranteeing profits for the three companies, which became United Airlines, TWA and American Airlines.

P1150534That 1933 Ford mail truck sitting under the Ryan M-1 is a story of its own. After World War I, the Post Office inherited the War Department's surplus trucks, over a thousand of them, 43 different models from 23 different manufacturers. In the late 1920s, maintenance and stocking of spare parts had become a nightmare, solved by buying hundreds of these Fords as chassis, with postal garages around the country bolting bodies on. Some lasted into the 1950s.


The growing mail contracts led to bigger planes and the possibility of regular passenger service; Boeing, which owned United, was among the foremost in putting together planes like the Boeing Model 80, above, which some called the 'Pullman of the Air.' Increased passenger service meant cabin services; at first one of the pilots was responsible for handing out sandwiches and keeping passengers calm.

Then, Ellen Church, a nurse and student pilot, convinced Boeing management that having calm, competent women working on the planes would inspire passenger confidence; she and a few others became the first-ever flight attendants.

But there were also women with less 'traditional' roles in aviation; a small number of women pilots filled various roles including barnstorming and racing. But perhaps the best-known was Amelia Earhart who set many records in speed, distance and endurance before disappearing on a round-the-world flight in her Lockheed Electra 10-E, like the one below. In 1997, Linda Finch flew this one on Earhart's route, completing the journey.


In another part of the building, there's an exhibit on aspects of aviation during World War II which also focuses on women's roles in pilot training, in ferrying planes from American factories to bases in Europe and elsewhere and the relatively meager recognition they got for it.

P1150618And even within the fight for women to be trained and to work as pilots, a shameful note: The museum displays a letter from Jacqueline Cochran, the head of the women pilots program, rejecting a young Black woman from Mississippi on grounds that it would require building a whole separate area for eating, sleeping and recreation.


Back to the main hall, and some handsome and exciting planes of the 1920s and 1930s, above, as well as some unusual items, such as the 'gossamer albatross' ultralight plane just below, and the Taylor Aerocar, which, commercially at least, never got off the ground. Sorry, couldn't resist.


These World War II planes are in the other gallery...


...but there's also a large military section at the back of the main hall, including side-by-side comparisons of U.S. and Soviet planes from the Korean War and later.


At opposite ends of the sleek-and-swift spectrum, an SR-71 'Blackbird' spy plane and the ubiquitous UH-1 'Huey' helicopter as famous for its role in M*A*S*H as for its real-life work.


And here's the plane whose name became a synonym for 'small single-engine plane' in almost the same way that Kleenex came to mean 'tissue to blow your nose': The Piper Cub.


The front end of a Boeing 727 is here, too, with a cut-away view of the fuselage; you always hope that's not what they've done to your luggage, but here it looks as if they have!


The museum itself wraps around to connect to the famed 'Red Barn,' the original Boeing factory on the site, built with open spaces and sections that could be moved around to accommodate large and small projects and production.


If you're thinking of visiting, be sure to allow plenty of time: this is only halft the story. I'll be back in a few weeks with the 'outdoor' half of the museum, a huge shed filled with historic planes including Concorde, Air Force One and a 747!


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

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