Today the CAF’s B29/24 Squadron posed a question on social media that I felt warranted an answer that was longer than the 140 characters of Twitter (look! I already did), or the attention span of a comment on Facebook.
The question: “We know why WE think what we do is important, but why do YOU think it’s important for us to tour with these aircraft?”
Now that you’ve asked…From the earliest times, man’s desire to take flight has captivated generations of dreamers and innovators. From the mythos of the ancient Greeks, Leonardo da Vinci, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, Otto Lilienthal, Samuel P. Langley, and every other aviation pioneer, the dream of aviation persisted for millennia and spanned continents and oceans. When the Wilbur and Orville Wright finally perfected the art of heavier than air flight, they successfully realized the dreams of the generations that came before.
In a little over a century since the Wright brothers’ first short flight on the sand dunes of North Carolina, the aviators and engineers that they empowered have been able to take men as far as our dreams have dared to go. The rapid progression of aviation technology has left a rich legacy and heritage that aviation museums all around the world strive to preserve every day.
This preservation is essential. The rapid advances in aviation technology and aeronautics in the first century (and continuing into the 2nd) since the Wright brothers means that there is a very broad base of knowledge to preserve. The cutting age of aviation today, both military and civilian, bears very little witness to the world of aviation even 30 years ago. It is nearly impossible to for a young person today growing up in the age of 777s, A380s, F22s, and F35s, to truly understand the reality of aviation 75 years ago.
I have a bookcase full of biographies and memoirs written by and about the young men of World War 2 aircrews telling their stories. I have spent 25+ years dreaming about aviation during the 2nd World War, and it’s hard for even me to wrap my head around the realities of aviation during that period.
Aviation during this time was at the cutting edge of technology and created extremely elegant solutions to questions of materials, computing, navigation, aerodynamics, etcetera, that came from every corner of science and engineering with none of the digital help that we receive today.
Aviation museums face the interesting juxtaposition of relating a story of analog technology in a digital age. These museums are continually attempting to find and carve out their place in the growing digital (and digitized) environment of the 21st century, while at the same time needing to maintain their roots in the cutting edge of technology of the 20th century in order to effectively portray the history of aviation.
There are great institutions all over the country (and the world) such as (to name a few) the San Diego Air and Space Museum, The Kalamazoo Air Zoo, the National Naval Aviation Museum, The Strategic Air and Space Museum, and (the museum that I volunteer for) The National Museum of the United States Air Force, that preserve this rich history using static displays of aircraft and other artifacts to relate this aviation story. I believe that while these institutions are a great resource and are able to preserve the history, educate the public, and inspire interest in aviation and other STEM topics, they are not able to fully allow their visitors to fully embrace the experience of what aviation was like.
My understanding and appreciation completely changed the first time I was able to be on the ramp as B-25s started up and taxied out for a sortie, and changed again the first time I was able to climb up and through a B-17, or a B-24, or a B-29. I’m sure it will change again completely if I am ever fortunate enough to be able to be a passenger on one of these, or another aircraft of the period. My experience is not unique. This same thing happens to hundreds of people every day.
These hands on experiences that fill in the gaps of the memoirs and museums are only possible due to the dedication and mission of the organizations that are able to dedicate themselves to the operation and display of this living history. The vision and passion of people like Edward Maloney, Robert and Caroline Collings, Paul Allen, and Kermit Weeks (just to name a few) make possible the organizations such Planes of Fame, The Collings Foundation, The Flying Heritage Collection, Fantasy of Flight, the Texas Flying Legends, Liberty Aviation Museum, the Yankee Air Museum, the Historic Flight Foundation, Historic Aircraft Restoration Museum, the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, the EAA, the Commemorative Air Force, and many, many, many others.
Every year, this ever growing group of (mainly volunteer) aircraft owners, pilots, maintainers, and other logistical support are able to offer to the public all around the country (and world) the opportunity to experience the living history of aviation.
In a year where we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain (an aerial battle fought without any ground forces being directly engaged that arguably decided the fate of a nation [and possibly the world]), and at a time when we are rapidly losing the generation that gave us these magnificent flying machines (and thus their first-hand knowledge of them). It is more and more important to be able to have these experiences to round out the understanding and memory of aviation history.
As Richard Bach eloquently wrote in his novel, A Gift of Wings, “like no other sculpture in the history of art, the dead engine and dead airframe come to life at the touch of a human hand, and join their life with the pilot’s own.” In my experience this union also extends to those who are witness as well.
This was a long way of saying thank you for enriching the world of aviation and aviation history.