The National Air and Space Museum on the Mall has long been a favorite of children fascinated by flight, but there's an attraction taking off from another site well within the metropolitan radar screen. It's the College Park Aviation Museum.
While the Air and Space Museum spans the period from Kitty Hawk to the Space Age, the focus at the College Park museum is on the earliest days of mechanical flight. And while the museum appeals to all ages, the 27,000-square-foot facility was especially designed with children in mind.
The $6 million museum on the grounds of the College Park Airport is small compared with Air and Space, with which it shares the same architectural firm, Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum. But that means it's manageable, and it's right where it should be. The airport, which dates to 1909, is the world's oldest in continuous operation and, beyond that, it's a field of firsts: Here was the first Army aviation school, the first U.S. Postal Service flight, the first mile-high flight, the first test of a bomb-dropping device and of a machine gun from an airplane, the first test of radio navigational aids, the first female passenger to fly in the United States, the first enlisted man to die in an airplane accident, the first controlled helicopter flight. The list goes on.
It was to College Park that the Wright brothers came, in 1909, after the Army bought two of their planes, to train the first two military pilots. Their images in rarely seen film footage flicker on screen monitors hidden inside crates in a re-creation of Wilbur Wright's College Park hangar. And then there's old Wilbur Wright himself, an "animatronic" figure that, informed by a ceiling sensor of approaching humans, begins to speak and to gesture. A can of linseed oil sits on his workbench. "Wilbur" is holding a propeller in one hand and a rag in the other as he talks of the early days at College Park. The site was chosen for its then rural setting, 260 acres now shrunk to 40. But still, a hundred small aircraft are based here, and the small planes take off and land right in front of the museum's north glass wall.
I brought along four beta testers, all boys, ages 4 and 7, for an experience the other weekend, and if their reactions are typical, the museum is on the right flight path. For starters, they were entranced by the animatronic Wilbur, though Aaron, 4, found him a bit scary. Finally, as our visit was concluding, Aaron asked, "Can I talk to him?" Then Aaron said simply, "Hi."
Another 3-D scene, a work in progress during our visit, shows the inside of a hangar. In working order, the men will be seen and heard sawing, hammering, talking. To get the attention of today's techno-hip children, museum director Cathy Allen said, "You have to do extra special stuff."
The older boys liked the life-size mannequin of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. standing on a propeller -- taken from a photograph of the famous actor who "air-mailed" himself in a stunt to sell World War I bonds. None of the boys could resist the computer flight simulations (in which misguided planes crash and splinter into pieces on the screen) or the actual control panel that allowed them to "fly" a U.S. mail plane, with all dials reacting to their hands-on movements.
In the "Wings & Other Flying Things" section, they gazed at a "wall of propellers," took turns turning the real thing and donned flight jackets, caps and scarves to imagine what it was like to dress up as an old-time pilot.
They learned that Henry "Hap" Arnold, who went on to become the first five-star general of the Army Air Corps, performed the first mile-high flight right here at College Park, in 1912. The altitude is equal to nine times that of the Washington Monument. To illustrate this, there's a four-foot-high plexiglass "monument" with a small metal plane spiraling down a wire. Child-assisted, of course.
The boys marveled at a restored 1918 Jenny, a 1924 Berliner "helicopter" with two propellers on a horizontal wing and a third near the tail and a 1932 Monocoupe that was popular in air shows. Soon to come, but unfortunately not by opening day: a full-scale replica of the 1911 Wright B, the early "aeroplane" the brothers sold to the military. It's currently being built at a cost of $280,000. It is not to be flown, or touched.
The boys' experiential learning was enhanced by an occasional single-engine plane actually ascending from the runway right in front of the museum. This was enough to send them into orbit, as they scrambled to view the takeoff from the picture glass window, an important feature of the museum designed to make the most of natural light.
The museum's interior is also suggestive of a Wright aircraft, with ceiling struts approximating a wing's, and lines crossed on the window like wires on a biplane. That's an architectural subtlety lost on our beta testers, but it's impressive nonetheless.
For them, the sensual experiences stood out: using a joystick to move the wings and tail of a model plane. Or operating the training flight simulator, "controlling" height, speed and direction. Or listening: By opening day, children will be able to pick up a receiver and hear live control chatter from five airports, from tiny College Park to mega-sized Dulles.
In addition, the museum has five pedal-powered biplanes suitable for young pilots under 6 years of age. Aaron and his friend Charles thoroughly enjoyed their rides, though Aaron found the directional stick difficult to handle. In this virtual test, they pretty much had the run of the museum floor. In museum real time, children will pedal the biplanes around an oval-shaped outdoor "runway."
At the behest of David, my 7-year-old, I had bought a disposable camera for him and a roll of film for brother Aaron, who used David's old camera to snap pictures. The museum even provides an airplane backdrop behind which kids can pose as pilots, and David and his friend Paul did just that.
As the aviation world gears up for the centennial of flight in 2003, look for more attention to museums such as this and marvel at the distance we've come since that tentative first 12-second flight at Kitty Hawk. In five years, perhaps airplane travel will even be fun again. Till then, at the College Park museum, kids can harken back to the barnstorming days, when flying really was fun.
"That museum's really neat," David said two hours later. "It's not just for people that fly. It's for people who want to experience flying."
-- Eugene L. Meyer