Monday, October 19, 2015

Museums of flight

The 'Great Gallery' of the Museum of Flight Seattle
A short version of this piece is part of my story in the October issue of National Geographic Traveller India.

What’s interesting about Seattle is that it is home to so many aviation-related attractions. Boeing is, of course, the most obvious of these, but there are several others too.
The oldest of these is the Museum of Flight and its aircraft restoration centre. Then, there’s the Flying Heritage Collection established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, which focuses mostly on military aircraft from World War II. Finally, there’s the Historic Flight Foundation’s museum and restoration centre for aircraft manufactured between 1927 and 1957. 
Besides Boeing’s Everett factory and the Future of Flight Center, I really wanted to visit all three museums. But with just three-odd days in Seattle and so much to do, I had to choose — and the Museum of Flight it was on this trip. I found it especially attractive, not just for its collection of aircraft and aviation and space-related memorabilia, but also for its airpark that offers visitors an opportunity to tour the interiors of some pretty interesting aircraft.
Among the world’s largest private air and space museums, the Museum of Flight is in the town of Tukwila, just south of Seattle. It’s actually located in the southwest corner of Boeing Field, formally known as King County International Airport.
In fact, the Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower exhibit — on the museum’s upper floor — is a great place to watch aircraft movements at the airport. And in addition to learning about how air traffic controllers and towers work, the ATC mock-up allows you to listen to real-time conversations between the controllers at Boeing Field and pilots as they land at the airport.
The museum’s 'Great Gallery' is home to a diverse squadron of aircraft, ranging from deadly fighters such as the MiG-21 to unique craft such as the Wright 1903 Flyer Reproduction, a replica of the Flyer in which the Wright brothers made their first flight. It also has an M-21, a variant of the A-12 — the earliest type of Blackbird or SR-71 aircraft — that carried an unpiloted drone. Other attractions within the museum include a 30-minute tour of the Space Shuttle Trainer Crew Compartment.
However, I was more interested in what was outside the museum: in the airpark, where a disappointment awaited me. ‘City of Everett’, the first Boeing 747 or Jumbo Jet to be built, was not open for tours when I visited. I’d obviously goofed-up on my research! But there were several other equally interesting planes to explore.
Conference room on board SAM 970
First up, was a stroll through a gleaming British Airways Concorde. It was an illuminating experience, but more on that soon. 
Next, was a tour of ZA003, the third 787 Dreamliner to be built. While used mostly for flight tests, it was also a demonstration aircraft for Boeing’s ‘Dream Tour’ in 2011. What struck me most about the plane is how spacious it feels, even in coach! 
My final port of call in the airpark was SAM 970, the Boeing 707 that was the first jet to serve as Air Force One. Delivered in 1959, the aircraft was on a number of flights that played a role in shaping the history of the world. VIPs who’ve flown on it include US presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, as well as others such as Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev and Henry Kissinger.
It was fascinating to walk through the plane’s plastic-shrouded interiors, taking in the communications room and the conference room, and thinking about the discussions that took place in this ‘oval office in the air’.
Note: It seems the 787 Dreamliner is currently not open for tours as it’s been moved to a new aviation pavilion scheduled to open in summer 2016.

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