Tag Archives: National Air & Space Museum

Hiroshima & Nagasaki, Enola Gay & Bockscar, Little Boy & Fat Man… National Museum of the Air Force

Today, August 6th, in 1945 the Boeing B-29 Superfortress “Enola Gay” dropped over Hiroshima (Japan) the first nuclear bomb, “Little Boy“, used in combat. I guess you have had the chance to read about it in several places along the day. A couple of years ago I wrote a post about that story touching it from different points of view that I had experienced in the previous years: Hiroshima Peace SiteManhattan Project, Einstein’s “The World as I see it“, Genbaku Dome, Sadako Sasaki’s origami,  the  “Enola Gay“, Enola Gay’s Navigator’s Log replica at Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson…

… last November, we visited the National Museum of the Air Force (1) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. That museum enables the visitor to get more close-up experiences to the story of that August 6th of 1945.

As several other aerospace museums it counts with its own B-29 Superfortress… however, if the Enola Gay is displayed at National Air & Space Museum at Dulles, this one displayed at the National Museum of the Air Force (Dayton) is Bockscar, the aircraft which dropped the Fat Man” atomic bomb on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, three days after the atomic attack against Hiroshima. You can read about Bockscar in the site of the museum, here.

Bockscar, the B-29 which dropped "Fat Man" atomic bomb over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

Bockscar, the B-29 which dropped “Fat Man” atomic bomb over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

At Pima Air and Space Museum (Tucson) you could see a replica of Little Boy, however at National Museum of the Air Force (Dayton) they have in display a full size (a 4.4 tonnes, 3m-long bomb) replica of it:

Full size replica of atomica bomb Little Boy, launched over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Full size replica of atomic bomb Little Boy, launched over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Seeing the bomber B-29 Superfortress from up close is impressive, even more if they are either the Enola Gay or Bockscar, but a completely different experience is going inside the cabin of a B-29. At the National Museum of the Air Force (Dayton) they have at the exhibit dedicated to the Korean War a B-29 walk-through fuselage in display. See here its virtual tour.

B-29 fuselage.

B-29 fuselage.

See below some of the pictures we took of the inside:

Actually, you can get very close to experiencing that by going to the virtual tour at the National Museum of the Air Force (Dayton), where you can go through all sections of the bomber B-29 Superfortress Bockscar. Find the link here.

B-29 Superfortress Bockscar virtual tour.

B-29 Superfortress Bockscar virtual tour.

Finally, see a map displaying US Army Air Forces operations in the Pacific at the time:

Map of US Air Force Pacific operations.

Map of US Air Force Pacific operations.

(1) I haven’t yet written a post about that museum in this blog but my brother Jaime has, find it here; a superb piece of aeronautics information.

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North American X-15

I once wrote about how it took me some visits to different museums and reading a book to connect the dots and see what was the controversy in France about the Wright Brothers pioneering first flight.

It takes several museums to get a complete glimpse of the story of the X-15.

This experimental aircraft, powered with a rocket engine, was used to reach the edge of outer space and gather data for aircraft and space design. In doing so, it set several records of speed and altitude. To date it keeps the speed record of any manned flight with over 7,000 km/h (bear in mind that this a rocket engine, vs. the record for an atmospheric engine reached with the SR-71). The aircraft also flew several times above 50 miles, which by then in the USA was considered the limit for outer space, thus making some of its pilots being recognised as astronauts by NASA and USAF. The International Astronautics Federation (FIA), however, sets the limit at 100km of altitude. Still two of the X-15 pilots flew over that height being them also recognised as astronauts by the FIA.

The aircraft itself, the North American X-15, is displayed at the National Space & Air Museum at the Mall in Washington DC (which I first visited in December 2008) and USAF Museum in Ohio, while one of the mock-ups is displayed at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson (which we visited last May 2013).

North American X-15 the National Air & Space Museum in the Mall (picture from Ad Meskens).

The flight tests in which the X-15 set so many high altitude and speed records were performed at Edwards AF Base in Mojave (which we visited in May 2013). At the Flight Test Center museum you can read some displayes about its story.

Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards (public domain image).

Finally, the mother ships from which the different X-15 aircraft were launched were modified B-52 Stratofortress bombers. The two aircraft are displayed in the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson (which we visited last May 2013) and again the Dryden Flight Research Center which is also located at Edwards AFB.

NB-52, modified Stratofortress to drop X-15.

NB-52, modified Stratofortress to drop the X-15.

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Was Orville Wright’s the first flight ever?

Last Monday, December 17, it was 109 years since the first flight of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. However, there was some skepticism in Europe about the flight. I had already read about that skepticism in the book “The Airplane: How ideas gave us wings“(1) (by Jay Spencer (2))

In the book, the reader gets the idea of the skepticism, of how in France there was also a race for performing the first flight and how it was not until the Wright brothers flew in Europe years later (1908) that people got convinced of that first flight in 1903. When I read about that, the idea that came to my mind was French chauvinism.

Let me now start connecting the dots…

Flyer I (picture by 350z33, available at Wikimedia)

  • Visiting the National Air & Space Museum, in Washington D.C., you could see a real scale Flyer I, the aircraft with which the brothers first flew. When you see the aircraft you first notice that the surface controls are at the front of the airplane, or that the airplane has no independent ailerons but the wing is bent at the tip…
  • Reading the book “The Airplane” there is chapter dedicated to the evolution of each configuration item of the aircraft. One of them is dedicated to the landing gear. In relation to the Flyer…

[…] European experimenters put the Wrights to shame by adopting wheeled undercarriages from the outset. The Wrights stuck with skids far too long, perhaps because they viewed their airplanes as scientific proof-of-concept vehicles first and practical machines second.

  • Last summer, when we visited the Aviodrome (3) museum in The Netherlands, we found another Flyer model of the Wrights. This one was a bit more complete: it showed the skids and how the airplane was propelled into the air thanks to a system composed of rails and a kind of catapult.
  • Finally, when reading about French aviation pioneers for the previous post in this blog, I got to read in the Wikipedia article about the Brazilian residing in France Santos-Dumont the following passage:

The Wrights used a launching rail for their 1903 flights and a launch catapult for their 1904 and 1905 machines, while the aircraft of Santos-Dumont and other Europeans had wheeled undercarriages. The Wright Brothers continued to use skids, which necessitated the use of a dolly running on a track. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, founded in France in 1905 to verify aviation records, stated among its rules that an aircraft should be able to take off under its own power in order to qualify for a record. Supporters of Santos-Dumont maintain that this means the 14-bis was, technically, the first successful fixed-wing aircraft.

Thus, it was not just simple French chauvinism as the more simple explanation given either in “The Airplane” or Wikipedia article about the Wright brothers may point to, but there was at the time a discussion about the way in which the aircraft were indeed propelled into the air. That is a legitimate discussion, not chauvinism. (4)

Since I am not invested in either position, to me the first flight will always be the generally accepted of Orville Wright on December 17, 1903. That is the one I celebrate (see tweet below). However, you can see how sometimes to get a clearer picture and connect some dots it takes visiting 2 museums in DC and The Netherlands, reading a book and serendipity researching in the Wikipedia. 🙂

(1) “The Airplane” is a terrific book of which one day I hope to write a review. By the way I purchased the book at Boeing HQ in Chicago almost 2 years ago.

(2) Jay Spencer is also coauthor of “747” another great aviation book of which I wrote a review here.

(3) Aviodrome is a great museum north of Amsterdam, at the height of the Smithsonian institution National Air & Space Museum… if only it had free entrance as well. I will have to write about this museum too.

(4) That same federation did not accept as a first flight one made by the French Clément Ader in 1890, because it was an un-controlled flight.

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Radial engine

I found myself thinking back in the National Air & Space Museum recently. Firstly, because a friend announced that she had just visited it and secondly because yesterday we oversaw  reciprocating engines at the class of the theoretical course for the private pilot licence.

The class itself was not telling nothing completely new, but it reminded me that I had a video of a demo of a radial engine recorded last year at the NASM in Dulles. I filmed it in order to upload it at some point… here it is:

For those not initiated, you may find how reciprocating engines work here, and more specifically how radial reciprocating engines work here.

I’ll never get tired of praising the Smithsonian institution.

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Space Shuttle last ride

I already wrote that my childhood dream job was to be an astronaut and that led to pursuing aerospace studies. In the same post I recalled a small toy of the Challenger Space Shuttle and how this toy contributed to that dream. Well, this post is just an homage paid to the Space Shuttle, or officially the NASA Space Transportation System, STS.

The last mission of the STS is scheduled for next Friday, July 8th. When the Atlantis is supposed to make the last lift-off for the mission STS-135 which, after 12 days, will end the 30 years of Shuttle flights.

During our last visit to the USA, Luca and I had the chance to see one of the Space Shuttle vehicles at the National Air & Space Museum (NASM). The vehicle at display there is the Enterprise.

I already mentioned in that post there that the Enterprise is the only vehicle of the fleet which never went to outer space. It was used for training purposes, to let the astronauts train the gliding descend they would have to make once the vehicle re-entered in the atmosphere. Thus, some parts of that vehicle are dummies.

The Enterprise hasn’t got the same thermal protection tiles since it wouldn’t need them, however its surface replicates the tiles with some kind of rubber ones so the flow of air around them would be the same as in the other vehicles. Another difference is in the engines at the back. The 3 engines that the Shuttle has at the back are its orbital maneuvering system, which allow it to adjust its orbit (they’re not atmospheric engines to propel the Shuttle in its flight back to Florida). Again, since the Enterprise would never go to outer space it wouldn’t need to adjust its orbit and the engines it has are just dummies to provide the same distribution of weight and forms in the vehicle.

I also mentioned in the previous post about the visit to NASM that the vehicle was going to be named Constitution until a public campaign achieved its goal of naming it Enterprise after the spaceship featured in Star Trek.

Find below some pictures of the Enterprise at NASM:

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The Economist features this week 3 articles about the Space Shuttle program. I found parts of them very critic of the costs of the program, but nevertheless they give a somewhat complete picture of the history of the Space Shuttle and what may lay ahead for space exploration.

The different Shuttle vehicles (and other related materials) will be distributed among several museums and educational institutions. The Enterprise will leave the NASM and will go to the USS Intrepid in NYC while the Discovery will be hosted at NASM. You may find other locations in this article.

Finally, NASA just unveiled last Friday a wonderful documentary (80 minutes) about the history of the program: its launch, the vast engineering undertaking, the first mission, the Challenger and Columbia accidents, the improvements that the accidents brought, etc. To close the circle, the documentary is narrated by William Shatner, an actor of Worldly fame as he featured James T. Kirk, captain of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek. See a small trailer of the video:

PD: In the full length video, in the images shown of the mission STS-95 which brought John Glenn back to Space at age 77, appears Pedro Duque a Spanish astronaut that coincidentally was my teacher at the aerospace engineering school.

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National Air & Space Museum at Dulles

Let me quote from the Wikipedia:

“The Smithsonian Institution was founded for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” from a bequest to the United States by the British scientist James Smithson (1765–1829), who never visited the new nation. In Smithson’s will, he stated that should his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, die without heirs, the Smithson estate would go to the government of the United States to create an “Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men”.

“The Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum complex in the world, and many of its buildings are historical and architectural landmarks.”

During our last trip to USA, Luca and I visited both locations of the National Air & Space Museum of the Smithsonian institution. I had already been at the one in the Mall and I already talked about it briefly in a previous post. I wanted to write about the museum at Dulles, close to DC international airport.

That museum is named after Steven F. Udvar Hazy, who is the CEO of Air Lease Corp, an airplanes leasing company. Previously he was chairman and CEO of ILFC, another leasing company, together with GECAS, one of the 2 biggest. The guy is a living legend or commercial markets: when he blessed or criticizes an aircraft it is seriously noticed by the manufacturers. He donated 65M$ to the Smithsonian to set up this museum and that’s why it carries his name. Thanks Steve! What a museum! The NASM is awesome!

The museum has dozens if not over a hundred of airplanes, satellites, rockets, helicopters, etc., in display, all tagged with small explanation of the aircraft.

On our visit we joined a free guided tour, another fabulous feature of the museum. Our guide was Bill Laux, a veteran pilot from the Navy. He was originally from Omaha where we would be going in a couple of days while he would be heading also in a couple of days to Belgium… crossing roads.

We stayed with Bill for about 2 hours, following one explanation after the other, one curiosity here, another detail there, etc. I remember visiting Ellis Island in NYC 2 years ago with a ranger who also filled the tour with stories. This is something I really like: instead of paying for a quick tour or audio-guide, they make use of the willingness of these volunteers to pass on their knowledge.

I have to admit that the session was for core aviation geeks, and I want to commend Luca for standing it. At the beginning we were a group of 10-12 people, wives and children included. The guide asked: “Who has got an aerospace background?” 4 or so of us raised hands… after 30 minutes of tour only Luca and those with aviation background continued with the tour (no sight of wives and children). After 1 hour 30 minutes, only Luca and me. After 2 hours the guide went “well, we’ve seen pretty much everything” :-). Thanks Bill!

I scanned one of the sides of the map of the museum to post it here. The map covers the Boeing hangar, but bear in mind that there is another hangar missing (James S McDonnell, which hosts a Space Shuttle), an IMAX cinema, the restoration hangar and the control tower.

I wanted to post it here so you can get a grasp of what we’re talking about. Airplanes packed side by side, one of top of the other… and not any airplane, some are unique pieces. Let me just comment on a few of them (of which below you can find the pictures):

  • The Space shuttle Enterprise: which never went to outer space as it was used only for training purposes, to let astronauts command the powerless flight after re-entry. Believe it or not, it was going to be named “Constitution”, trekkies had not stepped in.
  • A Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird: the reconnaissance aircraft which set the record as fastest aircraft back in 1976.
  • The Boeing 367-80 “Dash-80”, which as I already mentioned in a previous post, was the prototype Boeing built to test and market a new configuration for commercial jet aircraft, a configuration which all commercial aircraft have followed more or less ever since.
  • A Concorde.
  • The infamous B-29 Enola Gay.
  • The Langley Aerodrome A: a model that Samuel Pierpont Langley (a manned flight pioneer and secretary of the Smithsonian institution at the time) used to try to set the first heavier-than-air flight… he didn’t, as the model crashed in the Potomac river.
  • A Junkers 52 built by the Spanish CASA.
  • A Boeing 307 Stratoliner: the first pressurized commercial aircraft.

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I would only give one point of improvement for the museum: now you cannot get into the aircraft except for simulators, if they would just change that policy it would be just perfect (in the Mall you can actually enter in some models, e.g. Spacelab).

I forgot to mention some extras: the museum is free (free as in zero dollars), it has a transport leaving every hour to and from Dulles airport which costs just 50 cents, has lockers for big luggage free of charge, has a nice souvenir shop with plenty of aviation books and even a McDonald’s to recover some strength at half way of the visit…

In future posts I will comment some of the details of some aircraft… give credit to Bill, our guide.

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