Viewport: All the Sky’s a Stage
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, May 2010
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the April / May 2010 issue of Air & Space.
It’s airshow season again—my favorite time of year, when skies all around the country fill with pilots flying maneuvers that seem with every show to grow more intricate and exciting. In North America, airshows entertain about 18 million spectators a year, thrilling fans, supporting aviation, and earning revenue for local communities. You’ll find highlights of the season's offereings here.
The National Air and Space Museum has a stellar collection of airshow and competition aerobatic aircraft that have been flown by the best in the business. At the Museum on the National Mall, the Extra 260 in which Patty Wagstaff became the first woman to win the title of National Aerobatic Champion is suspended as if she were flying her inverted ribbon-cut maneuver.
Most of our aerobatic aircraft are on display at the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, where we have installed them so they appear to continue flying their routines. When you enter the Museum, look up, and the first airplane you’ll see is the Pitts Special “Little Stinker,” a snappy red and white biplane made famous in the 1950s by aerobatic champion Betty Skelton. Skelton often flew it just as it is displayed—inverted.
Walk along a mezzanine and pass by Al Williams’ two orange Gulfhawks, used to promote military aviation. Bevo Howard’s Bücker Jungmeister makes an inverted pass by Woody Edmondson’s Monocoupe 110, and, high above, Art Scholl’s de Havilland Chipmunk is in a steep bank around Leo Loudenslager’s Laser 200, which is shooting up in a vertical climb. Nearby, Suzanne Asbury-Oliver’s Pepsi Skywriter sets up for a pass over Gerry Molidor’s Sukhoi Su-26M. On the hangar floor at the Aerobatic Exhibit Station, you can learn more about the pilots, aircraft, and art and science of precision flying.
One of the most unusual aircraft in this world of highly modified showplanes is the distinctly unmodified North American Rockwell Shrike Commander 500S, an executive business aircraft flown by the legendary Robert A. “Bob” Hoover (see “Simply the Best,” in this issue). Hoover, who will be the Charles A. Lindbergh Lecturer at the Museum on May 18, was a North American Aviation test pilot who flew sophisticated military designs to their limits and performed in many types of aircraft at more than 2,500 civilian and military airshows. He flew the Shrike Commander in a breathtakingly smooth aerobatic program. No less an expert pilot than the late Jimmy Doolittle called Hoover “the greatest stick and rudder man who ever lived.” For proof, watch a YouTube video of Hoover expertly rolling his Shrike while pouring iced tea into a glass and not spilling a drop.
In 2003, Hoover performed his last “roll to airshow center” finale—in this case taxiing the Shrike into the north end of the Udvar-Hazy Center and into history.