Easter Getaway to Seattle’s Air Museums

The Aircraft Pavilion at the Museum of Flight, Seattle WA

The morning was typical of mid-April, cold and windy as the sun desperately tried to break through the clouds. We had just arrived at Boeing Field in Seattle, WA, to wet our airplane appetite at the Museum of Flight. As we noticed a Constellation parked near the museum entrance, we both giggled like little school girls as we could hardly contain our childish excitement.

We headed straight for the Great Gallery, a massive hall filled with aircraft of every era; planes, bi-planes, spy planes, helicopters, you name it. In the beautiful madness of it all, I was drawn towards a long and sinister craft with a wide-body wing and twin starship-like nacelles. It was none other than the SR-71 Blackbird, one of the greatest spy planes and most ambitious engineering feats in the world.

The SR-71 looks like no other aircraft today, even 50 years later. It was capable of flying at 70,000 feet on the edge of space and could exceed 2,000 mph, making it the perfect spying machine during the Cold War.

Above it, I was awe-struck to see aircraft hung up like toys in a child’s room, all caught in an endless mid-flight moment of glory.

Little things, like the pressed grommets in the airframe, massive radial engines protruding from the nacelles, or the hand-painted artwork, popped up everywhere.

The duct work, paint and engineering of this engine nacelle on a 1929 Boeing Model 80A-1 is just beautiful to look at.

As I made my way through the gallery, it all made me appreciate the past and the present, and what a long way we’ve come.

A 1935 Lockheed Model 10-E Electra, same model aircraft flown by aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. In 1937, Earhart and her Electra disappeared over the Pacific during an attempt to circumvent the globe.

Speaking of history, I came up to a section that was very close to my heart, and easily one of my favorite. The Vietnam War. There were several relics from the war, including a special telephoto lens that photographed enemy locations from up above, and an F-4 Phantom fighter aircraft in wartime livery. For me however, the really special piece was the Huey helicopter.

The UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopter was the U.S. Army’s main workhorse, serving as gunship, medivac and transport for countless U.S. & South Vietnamese troops.

It was a dream come true to see one in real life, especially since (at least to me) the Huey is extremely symbolic and had a crucial role in the Vietnam War. Depending on which side of it you were on, it meant either salvation or destruction, and from a practical standpoint, it was the first time in history when helicopters were actively used in combat operations. No doubt, the Huey is right up there with psychedelic rock, blunts and the M16 assault rifle.

The Huey only had two main blades, though they were massive. Also why its distinctive air-thumping sound was instantly recognizable from miles away.
As a troop carrier, air ambulance (medivac) and gunship, the Huey did it all brilliantly.

Eventually stumbling out of the Vietnam War section, I ran into this little surprise, which, funny enough, I mentioned days earlier in my post about flying cars; the Taylor Aerocar!

No bigger than a Smart car, the Aerocar has a comical appearance. It’s still a marvel of engineering, and one of the earliest attempts at making a real flying car.

Before we made our way towards the Aviation Pavilion (even BIGGER gallery of aircraft) I had to stop and take another look at the SR-71. It looks alien in 2019, imagine what people thought when they saw it flying in 1950s.

Unsurprisingly, everyone thought it was a UFO.

We made our way over a bridge overlooking the first Boeing factory, a cute little building that could be easily confused for a barn today.

On the other side of the museum, we were greeted by a space exhibit, just before exiting back out into the chilly and windy pavilion outside.

To my own disappointment, this wasn’t a real space shuttle. Still, pretty cool.

What I saw next became my fixation for the rest of the trip, and made me feel both speechless and sad. Like a spaceship that just landed straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a British Airways Concorde stood right at the entrance. I had seen one before parked (G-BOAD) just outside the Intrepid Museum in New York City, partially gutted with its engines out on display and its flaps permanently down. This was another BA bird, G-BOAG, and fortunately still intact.

The Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde.

I approached it, almost with silent excitement; I never got the chance to go onboard a Concorde before, so it was definitely a big moment; kind of like meeting your heroes, and I had already experienced that minutes prior with the SR-71 and Huey.

The Concorde could ferry passengers in complete luxury at Mach 2 (2,100 mph) from New York to London in under 3 hours. Even today’s jetliners struggle to get across the pond in 7 hours.
Me standing in deep thought beside the Concorde’s rear landing gear. More I looked at it, I thought, This is the future. Why is the future in a museum?

Concorde’s story is a sad one. The supersonic airliner saw only 27 years of service before being permanently retired in 2003. High operating and maintenance costs, a fatal accident in 2000, and plummeting demand brought the end of an era. I couldn’t help but wonder what life would have been like today if this wonderful machine was still gracing the skies.

After wiping a tear, I kept walking through the Pavilion. Some of the highlights include a B-29, a B-17 Flying Fortress, a 787 Dreamliner, and, to my surprise, the first-ever Boeing 747.

The one that started it all. Boeing cancelled its own development for a supersonic airliner and focused on volume rather than speed. The gamble paid off big, and the wide-body 747 was a commercial success for the company.

More importantly, this 747 was a test mule for an array of technology, including prototype engines, cargo transport, even refueling in mid air.

This setup was installed at the back of the 747 to test a mid-air refueling system for the U.S. Air Force. A modernized yet similar system is in use today on the KC-46A Pegasus.

Bursting with rich Cold War and Vietnam War history, I turned towards the first-ever Air Force One, a highly-modified Boeing 707, code-named SAM 970.

Air Force One (SAM 970)

SAM 970 is important. We’re talking about major historical events that changed the course of millions of lives, a lot of which were decided aboard this very plane by the presidential likes of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, among others. Notably, it was during the Vietnam War that SAM 970 really came into play. It’s also what U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger flew on during his secret flights to meet with North Vietnamese officials in 1970 and 1971, and even became a VIP ride for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev when he decided to visit America for the first time.

You just know from the size of the chair that no one other than a president sat there.

Our museum visit ended a bit early, as we had to make our way back to Everett for the Boeing Factory tour. Sadly, we weren’t allowed with cameras or cellphones or any kind of recording device into the facility, so there’s no photos of that experience.

I can, however, tell you about the tour itself, which, regardless of whether you are into planes or not, is one still worth taking. We were first bunched together into a hall where we were shown a bunch of videos on Boeing. There, we were briefed on safety and what to do and who to follow; pretty standard stuff. After that, we hopped on a bus and then drove towards the main factory, which grew bigger and bigger as we got closer.

This Boeing factory is one of the largest buildings in the world by square footage. It’s so big that you could fit all of Disneyland inside and still have 12 acres left.

The colossal building was of an indescribable scale. Massive hangar doors were decorated with murals of various Boeing aircraft, notably the 787 Dreamliner, which is built here, in this very factory. We were all taken to an underground service tunnel (which was so long we couldn’t even see the other end of it) and hopped on a big elevator to go to the top floor. It was here that my jaw dropped; I couldn’t even make a sound.

A glimpse from the top floor of the Everett assembly plant. (Boeing)

My biggest takeaway from this tour was to see the process in which a full plane is built; starting with a few basic panels and a skeleton, and ending with a fully-built and fully-painted airplane. I feel fortunate to have seen what likely is among the last 747 to be built; it was a cargo model, so it’ll be around a few years, however civilian 747’s are being phased out in favour of 777 and 787 variants. The tour ended an hour and a half later, but the memories remain with me.

While we couldn’t take photos during the tour, everyone was welcome to plane spot overlooking Boeing Field runway and factory in the distance.

Needless to say, it was a pretty aircraft-heavy day. We ended it there with a trip down to Mukilteo waterfront to rest our legs, have a beer and process it all.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close