Viewport: Child's Play
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, January 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 December 2009 / January 2010 issue of Air & Space.
I had the same problem building models that Bruce McCall admits to in his fine essay "Ode on a Canadian Warbird". I admire others who can do it, but I don't think I ever completed a whole airplane. I always broke them. Still, like McCall, I loved airplanes as a kid and still do.
I have the feeling that many readers will react to McCall's memoir just as I have. It made me remember my own childhood experiences with the warbirds of World War II. My dad was a Marine fighter pilot—he flew Corsairs—and I grew up on Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in southern California. Near our quarters was an ordnance school, and it had a Corsair for students learning how to load ordnance. The canopy was locked with a hasp and padlock, but I found a hatch in the belly just forward of the tailwheel. A 14-year-old—me—could wriggle up through the belly, push the floor boards up, and get in. One day I was in there "flying" when the ordnance officer came out and found this kid inside an airplane that had been secured with a canopy hasp and lock. I can still hear him yelling, "How'd you get in that airplane? Get outta there!" The next time I came, I saw that somebody had spot-welded that hatch. When my dad was a group commander at the base, he had a Corsair parked outside his office. It was his airplane; his name was printed on it. By this time, I'd learned my lesson, and I would ask permission before I'd go out and sit in the cockpit. I later joined the Marine Corps to fly Corsairs, but by the time I was commissioned, they were being phased out. I never got the chance to fly the F4U, but I have a lot of hours sitting in one.
On display at the National Air and Space Museum, we have several of the airplanes that inspired McCall as a boy, including the Westland Lysander (see In the Museum, Dec. 2005/Jan. 2006). The man who restored and donated it, the late Dwight Brooks II, found it in a farmer's field in Alberta, Canada. I have to agree that it's "gawky," but it was good at what it did: inserting British spies into Nazi-occupied France on some of the most intriguing and perilous missions of the war.
I can only imagine what it was like flying from England, at night and low-level, without navigation aids, trying to find a field in France. That's tough enough to do in the daytime; it's the kind of landing you'd attempt today only in an emergency. Agents on the ground would light the fields with flashlights. It didn't take long for the Germans to figure that one out, and to trick the pilots, they'd put flashlights in front of concrete abutments. Maybe the mystique of World War II aircraft endures because of just such dangerous, desperate missions.
Read Bruce McCall's memoir. Then come see us at the National Air and Space Museum. When you walk around the warbirds on display, I guarantee they'll either trigger youthful memories or inspire admiration for the daring pilots of the Second World War.