The main Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC is closed for renovations these days. However, their sister museum, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center next to Dulles Airport, is open. And what a fantastic place it is.
Recently, the family (complete with Super Kids and even Superer Wife) were out in Virginia for a wedding and some sight-seeing (historical, mostly). We went to a great many museums (tax money well-spent, in my estimation). You can’t drive half a mile in Virginia without seeing some sort of historical and/or museum site. Appomatox Courthouse. Monticello. James Madison’s House. Bull Run. The Museum of This. The Museum of That. Upon This Ye Olde Spot Patrick Henry Did Converse With Several Farmers and One Ye Olde Cow.
Virginia is an amazing place. Plus, coming from California, it is even more amazinger, because: green (not the ideology–I mean trees everywhere), no homeless people (other than wandering around DC, though, some of them might’ve been Congressional staffers after a late night bender), and no trash anywhere. California is cornering the world’s market on outdoor trash.
Back to the Hazy Center (Steve Hazy, by the way, is the CEO of the Air Lease Corporation, a billionaire, and, I imagine, quite a large donor to the Smithsonian). If you have any interest in planes and helicopters of any kind, this is the place for you. It contains the Enola Gay, the Discovery Challenger, a Blackbird, and many, many other fascinating examples of Man’s ingenuity. The place is huge. Free (tax money at work, which means it isn’t free). I could’ve happily wandered around in there for half a day.
One of the interesting things about the flying machines displayed is that they all had their provenance spelled out. Such as: “This F-100D entered service in 1957 and flew 6, 159 hours over a 21-year career. It served during the Cuban Missile Crisis, was later stationed in Japan, and moved to Bien Hoa Air Base in South Vietnam in 1965. Ground fire hit the plane several times during its years in Vietnam. The aircraft is displayed as it appeared during the heaviest fighting of the Tet Offensive of 1968, when it flew for the 90th Tactical Fighter Squadron…”
And so on.
I was particularly fascinated by a series of prototype helicopters invented by one Stanley Hiller, who apparently started his mind-staggering career at 15 years old, when he invented the world’s first, successful coaxial helicopter. I’ve included photos of three of his machines. He did a lot of work for the military (go where the money is, I suppose). The yellow Hiller Copter pictured here he built while he was at Stanford, at the ripe old age of 19 (suddenly, I feel like a non-achiever). Called the XH-44, it was the first helicopter invented to use all-metal blades. He tested the XH-44 with amphibious floats in his parents’ swimming pool.
One of his odder inventions is the Flying Platform. He built this for the Army in the 1950s, but they never went to mass production with it. Apparently, a non-pilot could fly this thing by simply leaning in the direction he wanted to go. Top speed of 16 mph.
Another bizarre Hiller-machine was Rotorcycle. Hiller built that one for the Marine Corps in the 50s. They wanted a single-person, collapsible helicopter for Spec Ops missions or for dropping to pilots trapped behind enemy lines. Even though the Rotorcycle was a success, the Corps did not bring it to production due to slow speed (52 mph), vulnerability to small arms fire, and the fact that pilots could get spatially disoriented in it if they flew too high above the ground.
Interestingly enough, driving back from San Francisco Airport, I noticed a Hiller Museum off the 101 in San Carlos, near Palo Alto. Never noticed that sign before. Anyway, this Hiller fellow must’ve had quite a brain! It’s encouraging and inspiring to see creativity like that at work.
Creativity is creativity, whether it powers your drawing, your writing, or your helicopter-inventing. Unusual thing, isn’t it?