Love of First Flights

January 26, 2012

The 1924 Berliner helicopter has two propellers, one on the right wing, one on the left.

Many a milestone was attained in the airspace over the College Park Aviation Museum. There were big, sexy victories, like the first controlled helicopter flight, in 1924. And there were quieter, personal triumphs, like Mrs. Ralph Van Deman’s. In 1909, she became the first woman airplane passenger in the U.S. “Oh, this was simply splendid,” she said of her four-minute flight, piloted by Wilbur Wright.

Backstory: The museum sits on the grounds of the world’s oldest continually operating airport (also open to visitors; see Collegeparkairport.org). The site was initially used in 1909 to train pilots on the Wright Military Flyer — created by the Wright brothers for the U.S. Army — then served as the Army Aviation School from 1911 to 1913. The first Postal Air Mail Service operated here, from 1918 to 1921. The museum building opened in 1998.

Highlights: The original and replica flying machines parked in the hangar-like central space include the oldest fully intact chopper in the world, a 1924 Berliner. It looks like a plane with a propeller on top of each wing, rather than facing front. Aviation buffs can wax profound about the collection’s Curtiss Jenny, Monocoupe, Taylor Cub and Boeing Stearman.

The other big draw is the Experimentation Room, off the main gallery. Except for the rack of pilot costumes for kids, all the activity stations offer fun for grown-ups who aren’t too cool to queue with first-graders. The flight simulators are big enough for adults and, at the demonstration of the Bernoulli effect (it’s what creates lift), both toddlers and their handlers were transfixed trying to keep beach balls aloft on jets of air.

Gift Shop: The Prop Shop has to be first among D.C. museum stores in number of toy planes for sale.

College Park Aviation Museum, 1985 Corporal Frank Scott Drive, College Park; 301-864-6029.
Holly J. Morris is Express' managing editor for features.
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