Monday, February 16, 2009

AF Museum (road) trip

I'm sure there are valid reasons for not doing so, but I sure do wish that the United States Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson would provide a way for pilots to fly in for a visit. Certainly that would make a bigger difference to people that live further away than the 1 + 10 drive that I have, but it would still be an infinitely cooler way to arrive. Particularly when arriving in an airplane that looks as if it would fit right in as an exhibit. It is what it is, though, so a road trip it was.

The secret to the AF museum is to get there promptly at 0900. That's not a critical success factor, of course, but it does help alleviate some of the obstructions to photography that crop up once the Cub Scout groups and families with half a dozen strollers arrive. There's an even bigger secret that I am only willing to share with you because of the limited readership here at the Chronicles. That secret is that the first thing you do when you get into the museum is to get in the line to get out of the museum. Given the counter-intuitive tenor of that advice, I will elucidate.

In my opinion, one of the best kept secrets of the museum is that there are actually two museums. There's the big three-hangar museum that everyone is aware of, and there is a second two-hangar museum that contains the Research & Development airplanes (think "X-planes") and the presidential aircraft (think Air Force One). In the past, the shuttle ride over to the annex was very informal; you simply hopped on a bus for the quarter mile drive to the other hangars. The Air Force has seemingly become aware that the practice of driving civilians over to the "live" side of the base and dropping them off with no records whatsoever of who went (and more importantly, who returned) was potentially a recipe for disaster.

Not surprisingly in today's (appropriately) higher level of security awareness, new policies are in place. Now you need to register before going to the annex, said registration involving the showing of a valid photo ID, wearing a wristband ala Oshkosh, and sitting through a short security briefing. A passenger manifest of sorts is maintained by your "tour guide," whose sole function is ensuring that everyone taken over to that side of the base also returns from that side of the base. It's a perfectly reasonable arrangement and adds very little time to the side trip. It is a much longer drive on the bus now, however. They now leave the base, drive all the way around to the other side of the base, and come back in through a security checkpoint. It's not much of a burden, though, in that you get a kind of mini-tour of the active Air Force Base.

The atmosphere in the annex hangars is much more informal. There are no barriers around the airplanes, and while they ask that you not touch the airplanes, some contact is inevitable. Unfortunately, I suspect most of the human-to-airplane contact comes in the form of painful bumps as people unfamiliar with the various sharp appendages common to military aircraft become intimately acquainted with pitot probes, angle-of-attack sensors, and sharp wing leading edges. I myself am certainly not immune, but my five years of flightline maintenance work hold me in good stead. No bumps, bruises, or contusions to report on my part this time around.

Equally interesting is that mere mortals such as myself are offered the opportunity to actually enter former presidential aircraft and tread the exact same airplane aisles as former presidents ranging from FDR to Clinton. The seats, office areas, and flight decks are blocked off my (unfortunately dirty and clouded) plexiglass, but it's still awe inspiring to experience these venerable airplanes. The collection contains every presidential aircraft from the Douglas C-54 to the Boeing 707. My favorite is the gorgeous Lockheed Constellation used by the Eisenhower administration.

Sorry about the aspect ratio being wrong. Stupid YouTube.

It only takes an hour to work your way through the collections in both hangars, but I find that it's not a 50-50 split. I spend about 75% of the available time with the X-planes, mostly because they are the more exotic of the two genres. It's intriguing to see the evolution of what were exotic and unproven ideas back in the era of experimentation into the proven technologies that are common today. For example, you will see the Bell X-1B, the first airplane to use reaction rockets to control attitude when flying at altitudes so high that there was not enough air for traditional flight controls to be effective, sitting right next to the X-15, the research airplane that demonstrated the viability of the launch into space and glide back to a landing model used in the Space Shuttle.

Vimeo gets the aspect ratio right, but they only allow me one video a week

Once returned to the main museum, you are more constrained in how close you can get to the airplanes. That's not normally much of a burden, but in the two cases of the airplanes that I worked on while I was in the Air Force it is somewhat frustrating to not be able to go "visit" the various panels and doors that we used to gain access to our electronic reconnaissance equipment. I'd like to get a look at the KS-87 camera and some of the other sensors, both optical and infrared, that were carried by the RF-4C tactical recon jet that I worked on in Korea and Germany:

My unit patch from my two years in Zweibrucken, West Germany:

I couldn't find one for my unit in Korea.

We would meet the jets upon their return and download the film. This camera, the KA-56 Low Pan, was a horizon-to-horizon scanning camera. The film would sometimes "accordion" and come spewing out as soon as we removed the film magazine. This would invariably elicit a profanity-laced tirade from the pilots.

We would remove the used take-up reel and replace it with an empty reel. If the film counter showed that the supply reel was low, we'd refill it in a "dark box" that we carried in our maintenance truck.

I also like to visit the other plane that I worked on, the SR-71 Blackbird. This is a picture of a unique variant of an already unique airplane:

It's the only flying SR-71B, the two-pilot training variant. Normally the guy in back cannot see anything at all in front of the airplane. The B model has an elevated rear cockpit to allow an instructor pilot to monitor what's going on. We simply referred to it as 956, short for its full tail number 61-7956. In fact, there were so few SR-71s that we referred to all of them by the last three digits of their tail number.

My favorite job on the Blackbird was loading the map projector. The map projector (the light gray box visible just to the right of the control stick above) projected a 35mm film strip that detailed where they were going and their altitude/speed at any given stage of the mission. There was also a larger one in the rear seat that provided directions regarding when, where, and which sensor was to be used to gather the reconnaissance product. 956 had the same smaller map projector in both the front and rear cockpits. Seeing the maps and mission profiles was the next best thing to riding along with them!

You can see how restricted the forward view was for the guy in back:

The gray screen that looks like a drop-down meal tray on a passenger plane was the screen for the map projector. The projector itself, when installed, was a black box attached where you can see 'C2' stenciled below the screen. The missing control panel where you see the cover stenciled 'SLR' was the controls to operate the primary reconnaissance system that I worked on, the Side Looking Radar. The MFD screen above the map projector screen is new to me. Back when I was working on these planes, that space was filled with a downward looking optical viewfinder that was used to mark landmarks and update the astro-nav or inertial nav systems. The viewfinder may have been replaced in 1986 when the CAPRE radar I had worked on was replaced with a more modern synthetic aperture system.

So, at the end of the day it's nice to visit my old planes, but with the barriers in place it's a lot like visiting an old friend in jail: look, but don't touch.


  1. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for sharing, that's awesome! I loved the panning videos and also your comments based on your experience in the Air Force.

    I saw "Visit Australia and NZ" in your bucket list. You'll be happy to know that there's quite a few aviation museums (including military ones) that you can fly to in Australia. Don't know about NZ though, but I guess it must be similar.

    In Australia you can fly to Temora, the Museum of Australian Army Flying and the one at Moorabbin.

    Drop me a line if you ever end up on that side of the planet.


  2. Dave,

    Excellent stuff! Thanks for sharing.

    I've just told the wife that we're going to take a road trip this spring/summer to Dayton. Primarily to visit the museum but also to visit Springfield. I used to work at the airport there.

    Gene - Greensboro, NC