By Hal Bryan – 12 April 2007
Last week, my job drug me, not kicking and with an utter lack of screaming, south for a week in sunny San Diego. Among the things I failed to miss at home was some surprise April weather, which left a dusting of about 1.5 inches of partly cloudy on the ground.
The reason for the trip was my third visit to the annual Mutual Concerns of Air & Space Museums seminar, sponsored by the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum, hosted this year by the impressive San Diego Air & Space Museum, hereafter referred to as SDAM. This event is described perfectly by its rather weighty sobriquet (though they announced that next year’s event will be a conference as opposed to a seminar, whatever that means) – air and space museums from around the world get together for a series of meetings and presentations in which they discuss concerns that are, as one might expect, mutual.
There are presentations throughout the event on topics like “Designing Effective Interactive”, “Appropriate Selection and Treatment of Aircraft Fabric Coverings”, and, my personal second favourite, “Building Education Systems in Museums – Pimp Your Outreach”.
My first favourite, naturally, had to be “Put Your Visitors in the Cockpit”, as it was presented by yours truly, along with Mike Singer, and an ex-Navy fighter jock called Snake, which was one of the main reasons I’d made the trip in the first place.
Last year, another colleague, Mike Lambert, and I gave a similar presentation when the event was held in Washington, DC. It was a bit tentative at first – normally, only those people directly representing museums are invited to speak, while commercial interests setup vendor tables to show their wares between presentations. In addition, there was some question on our end about the value of making the trip. However, it turned out to be an unqualified success – our presentation was lively and very well received, we made innumerable and valuable contacts, and found ourselves wholly welcomed into the air & space museum community. So much so that we were invited back, and this year’s presentation was a worthy successor, if I do say so myself. Which I did.
In addition to highlighting a few representative Flight Sim installations at museums around the world, we spoke about the Missions system in FSX, and showed a customer-created video that highlights the viability of an add-on loaded Flight Sim as a visualization tool. As I told the audience of screaming fans assembled group of professionals, I’m not an expert of exhibit design, goal-based experiential displays, education, or personal hygiene, but I’m just smart enough to know a good and useful tool when I see one. It was, as always, a singular pleasure to watch a room full of very bright people start thinking at a million miles a minute after we planted a simple seed or two.
The highlight of our presentation for me, aside from every second I was in front of an audience, was when Snake, a docent at SDAM, took the room on a quick virtual flight around the San Diego area. Snake demonstrated the 5-minute intro lessons he gives to kids several times a day on the museum’s impressive cockpit / projector setup. I managed to watch a number of kids use the sim on my trip – it’s fantastic to see an installation like theirs that’s accessible, but still teaches, and isn’t just a free-for-all. The look on kids’ faces walking away from the cockpit having successfully landed the Piper Cub is a heartening reminder of why, along with the huge buckets of cash, I do this job.
Much of the event was held at the 32-acre Town and Country resort – presumably so named because “Sprawling and Utterly Unnavigable” wouldn’t fit so well on the Lucy-and-Ricky-era signage out front. The staff was courteous and helpful – each time I got lost (which correlated directly to each time I left my room), one of them would invariably offer me a ride on one of their peculiar golf cart train contraptions. Given the fact that I was far too embarrassed to admit where I’d been and where I thought I was going, I always turned them down.
One full day of presentations was held onsite at the SDAM, which is impressive to say the least, starting with the Convair F2Y Sea Dart mounted out front – the product of an unrelentingly optimistic era when aviation innovation could still be described in short brainstorm phrases – “Let’s take a jet fighter, and put it on water skis!” Other highlights include the Ryan X-13 Vertijet (“What about a jet fighter that stands on its tail!”), a 1911 Deperdussin, and the Apollo 9 command module.
That evening, there was a banquet in the museum’s rotunda – anyone who has never had dinner underneath a PBY and a Ford Trimotor is really missing out. The speaker was Wally Schirra, the only astronaut to have flown missions in the Mercury, Gemini (pronounced Gem-i-nee), and Apollo space programs, quite a trip from his birthplace of Hackensack. Schirra is 84, but doesn’t look a day over 60, and stands about fifteen feet tall. His talk was engaging, and his wit is almost too sharp to keep up with. Shaking his hand afterwards was a rare honour.
Dinner that night was also a great chance to catch up with some of my friends and colleagues from the last year, as well as meeting some new people. The entire universe turned upside down and inside out for a moment when I heard someone say “Oh, I need to go say hello to Hal!”, and turned to see Maj. General Bill Anders USAF (Ret.) coming to shake my hand. Bill was the Lunar Module Pilot of Apollo 8 (and the photographer of the most-reproduced photo in history), a test pilot, the CEO of General Dynamics, and a warbird collector and pilot who flies his Mustang and Bearcat with the USAF Heritage Flight and the Navy Tailhook Legacy Flight, respectively.
I, on the other hand, make my living by sitting in the corner of a large room playing video games and messing about in Photoshop, so it’s only natural that Bill would be so excited to come talk to me.
The other big dinner was held at a semi-private museum in El Cajon (Spanish for “The Cajon”), on the Gillespie Field airport. Known as the Allen Airways Flying Museum (home of the world’s most understated website) it consists of a couple of oversized hangars housing the immaculate and brilliantly-displayed collection of Bill Allen, Jr. Bill has done something that most of us pack-rats in the world will never manage – he’s gone pro, successfully navigating the path from enthusiast to collector, skating effortlessly past wild-eyed-lunatic-obsessive and landing gently at “Curator”. With a a half dozen airplanes, and 10,000 additional artefacts, Bill’s collection is inspiring, and, at times, staggering. In addition to loaning artefacts to the Smithsonian for display, Allen has published a book consisting of a number of aviation-related posters (the heart of his collection) which is highly recommended, as is a trip to the museum itself, if you can manage an invitation.
My membership vows in the two-bit writers club demand that I trot out a hackneyed bromide about how hard it was to “come back down to earth after a week with artefacts, aviators, and astronauts”, but I just can’t do it, so I’ll just say that it was a great trip and leave it at that.
Excerpted from my blog, Coincidental Floss.