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Aviation museums, the learning continues

 

As a foundation member of the largest aviation museum in Illinois, U.S., I have the opportunity to be involved in various aspects of the museum’s operation. Recently, I took part in repositioning some aircraft to make space for an F-15 Eagle that was in desperate need of refurbishing.

Many years of outside storage takes its toll! While our group was doing its thing, I noticed several people standing by watching us move the F-15 into place. You could tell by their facial expressions they were interested in what we were doing. Perhaps it was that they expected the museum to be static, in a sense, devoid of activity.

I can empathize with that feeling, but having been to a least a dozen aviation museums throughout the years, there have been several occasions where something dynamic was actually going on at the museum.

One year it was a SR-71 Blackbird freshly arrived and still outside of the hanger in which it was to be stored. Another year it was that odd shaped craft covered with a cloth tarp at the end of the hanger in the Udvar-Hazy museum of the National Air and Space Museum in the U.S. It might have been just my impression, but I think that covered aircraft (that had recently made history as a civilian spacecraft) was getting more attention than the Concord which was parked nearby!

Aviation museums, on a given day, tend to be static and chances are that’s what you’ll experience when you visit one. But, that doesn’t mean the story being told is a static one.

Indeed, aviation history is dynamic and there is much to be learned by carefully attending to each exhibit in the order designated. Since aeronautics is a relatively new science, at least compared to sciences like math or chemistry, most of the story can be told in a small time period, represented by even relatively small collections of aircraft or other flying memorabilia.

A museum need not have a copy of every aircraft to come off the assembly line, nor does it need to have any particular mix of both military and civilian types. Rather, the most important aspect of a museum’s exhibits is they accurately tell the intended story.

So why should pilots be interested in the story anyway? And what is the point of understanding the history of aviation? These are the questions that have no clear-cut answers, but I’ll give you my opinion of what those answers might be.

Curiosity may have "killed the cat," but it can be the harbinger of learning as well. When at the museum, curiosity encourages questions like: Why do some aircraft have radial engines and some have narrow v-block or inline engines even though they are of the same vintage? Why did straight-wing jet aircraft quickly give way to swept-wing designs, and why, years later are some small jets still designed as straight-winged? Why were some propeller driven military aircraft built and flown well into the 70’s when jet aircraft technology was thoroughly mature? How come some fast aircraft have bullet shaped fuselages, while some of the fastest ones (relative to their thrust) have coke bottle shapes (the "area rule")?

There is a multitude of good questions that arise upon a visit to an aviation museum. Finding the answers leads to a trek through history and the knowledge gained along the way cannot only be gratifying but useful to the general understanding of how planes fly.

However, the catch is that in order to come up with good questions you must notice the differences between various aircraft and sometimes these can be subtle. For instance, if you look at the development of aircraft from a historical perspective it becomes evident that few of them do everything their designers would have liked.

Right off the factory assembly line a given aircraft is probably the best it’s going to be. But that doesn’t mean a better design won’t roll off from right behind. Hence, the ongoing refinements of structures and design are witnessed even over a short span of aviation’s chronology. Something of this chronology can be explained at the aviation museum.

The museum’s job is to stimulate curiosity and motivate the patron to learn more about the exhibits. The rest is up to us. With questions in mind its time to do some research to find the answers.

Many museums have a library that is accessible to the public, but even if one doesn’t, the local library can often provide the resources you need. I recommend searching for the answers to start with, and then, only if they are not forthcoming, ask an expert.

Much more is learned from the journey than simply asking an expert for all the answers. For a familiar example, you may wonder why a Piper Arrow III has substantially different stalling speeds than its sister, the Piper Arrow II.

Same plane, same engine, usually the same weight, but a different wing design. Do you know what it is about the different wing on the III that changes the speeds? It would be easy to ask around, but you’ll learn a heck of a lot more by researching the answer yourself!

Some of the best pilots I’ve met through the years were more than just pilots. They were also historians of their craft. They knew and understood more than what was in their aircraft manual or the regulation book. And foremost, they took every opportunity to visit museums and read historical accounts of famous aviators and aircraft manufacturers (the later of which is well covered in the Putnam Aeronautical Books series).

Their curiosity led them to learn all they could about their chosen profession (or hobby, as the case may be). In the course of this learning process, inevitably, they stumbled upon tidbits of information relevant to their own flying.

Wow! Who would have guessed that by learning about the past you could learn something to help you in the present or even the future. Obviously this is not a new concept, but it is still one that we need to be reminded about from time to time.

So as we stroll through a museum, are the exhibits really static after all? Well, they may not be physically moving, but there is a dynamic aspect to museums of all types. They tell a story, sometimes chronologically, that is designed to inform and intrigue the patron. If successful, that person pursues the lead established by an exhibit and continues to learn about it on his or her own.

As pilots, we already think we know more about planes than the non-pilots in the museum, but you’d be surprised to talk with some of those aviation enthusiast non-pilots who frequent museums. Many are far more knowledgeable about what they are looking at than we are. Granted, they may not be able to fly the thing, but is that really all there is to being a good pilot? I say no; there is more than that and the history of aviation is the additional knowledge that truly makes us experts of the air.

So plan your next vacation around a visit to an aviation museum and see how stimulating the experience is. And by all means, don’t forget to donate a little something for the ongoing education of the public.

This month’s Pilot Primer is written by Donald Anders Talleur, an Assistant Chief Flight Instructor at the University of Illinois, Institute of Aviation. He holds a joint appointment with the Professional Pilot Division and Human Factors Division. He has been flying since 1984 and in addition to flight instructing since 1990, has worked on numerous research contracts for the FAA, Air Force, Navy, NASA, and Army. He has authored or co-authored over 160 aviation related papers and articles and has an M.S. degree in Engineering Psychology, specializing in Aviation Human Factors.