A couple of very good deals
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, January 2013
"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 2012/January 2013 issue of Air & Space.
The last time you spent your hard-earned cash on something—a car, a coat, or a computer—I bet you hoped that whatever you purchased would last. Durability is one good measure of a product’s value. With photo spreads in this issue of Air & Space/Smithsonian, the editors are honoring two airplanes that have proved more durable than most.
The first spread, on page 8, shows a Boeing B-52 bomber, which made its first flight an astonishing 60 years ago, on April 15, 1952. It was the country’s first swept-wing, long-range bomber, and in 1957, three of the heavies made the first non-stop, round-the-world flight by a jet—a record set to make the point that the U.S. Air Force could reach any target in the world.
Although it was designed as a nuclear bomber, the B-52 saw its first combat in a conventional war: Vietnam. It has built a reputation for flexibility—one reason for its long life—by flying high-altitude bombing missions, low-altitude penetration missions, and strikes, out of the range of anti-aircraft missiles, with stand-off weapons.
I have great respect for the B-52 not just because I witnessed its capability but also because I personally benefited from one of its strikes. In 1972, I was flying a McDonnell RF-4B Phantom on a photo-recon mission just north of the demilitarized zone in Vietnam. I hadn’t bothered to check in with the controlling agency, because every time I transmitted my position, I got shot at. This mistake accounts for my being in the same area as B-52s on a bombing mission. I heard the controller announce the time for the strike but thought I’ve got time for one more run; they never drop the bombs at the announced time. Well, this time, they did. Suddenly, right behind us, the whole world blew up. For weeks after that, nobody shot at us when we flew across that area. I believed at the time that when the enemy saw a lone RF-4, they thought it was a sure sign that the B-52s were coming back.
The other airplane honored this year for its durability is the Piper J-3 Cub. As you’ll see in a photo spread on page 72, Cub owners have just celebrated the airplane’s 75th birthday. In the 1930s, with a businessman’s instinct, William T. Piper made refinements to a small, high-wing airplane and sold it at a price almost anyone could afford. Cub sales really took off when flight schools and institutions received funding for the 1939 Civilian Pilot Training Program. Seventy-five percent of the program’s students learned to fly in Piper Cubs. By that time, Piper had standardized the airplane’s color, today known as “Cub yellow,” and maybe it’s the ease of recognition that has made “Piper Cub” a household name. We’re fortunate to have the first Piper J-2 and one of the ubiquitous J-3s in the National Air and Space Museum’s collection.
No two airplanes could have less in common than the giant B-52 bomber and the tiny Piper Cub, but they have two similarities: They prove that new is not always better, and they’ve given their owners a lot of bang for the buck.
J.R. Dailey is the director of the national Air and Space Museum.