Hop aboard a simulated air strike at the National Air and Space Museum's new Jet Aviation gallery. Form the cockpit mock-up with cathode-ray tube, flashing control panel and an F-18 training film from the pilot's-eye view, we seek a simulated enemy airport, locate the target, scan our infrared sensor, fly low to avoid detection while checking to be sure the bombs are ready, use a "pop maneuver to achieve a good dive angle for weapon delivery," get inside the missile range and, when the target's in the sights, fire.
Not that the travel posters decorating the exhibit aren't enticing, but they're just sugar coating for a heavy-duty exhibit. the new gallery is really about military hardware and bomb attacks.
"After a long mission," the Hornet exhibit intones, "it's time to go home . . . Automatic landing gear is clear to land." So ends our jaunt with the Navy's Hornet, a friendly fighter "that incorporates advanced technology to help keep tomorrow's peace."
Actually, war is more to the point. A Messerschmitt Me 262, the world's first operational jet fighter (complete with swastika on its tail), is parked in the new permanent gallery, accompanied by photos of the Reich's ace pilots and descriptions of the Lufwaffe's 1944 combat missions. Within spitting distance is a green Lockheed XP-80, prototype of the first U.S. jet fighter. In cramped quarters nearby, wings folded over its head, is the Neavy's first shipboard jet fighter, the McDonnell FH-1 Phantom.
As usual, the Air and Space exhibit designers have pulled out the stops to make complex subjects fun and dealy equipment appealing. Videotapes and computer graphics explain aircraft design. A 20-by-75-foot mural by aviation artist Keith Ferris depicts 27 aircraft, arranged chronologically from the 1939 Hinkel to the 1972 Airbus, the first European wide-body commercial turbojet. In keeping with the museum, it's all a bit over-whelming.
In its most elementary corner, the jet gallery compares a sleek F-16 and a red ballon: For every action there's an equal and opposite reaction. Newton. It helps to read the explanations of turbojet aerodynamics before trying to comprehend the Pratt & Whitney production engine around the corner.
Less sexy than moon rocks or Skylab, perhaps, the new jet aviation gallery is on a par with the museum's other boffo crowd-pleasers. Tim Wooldridge, associate curator of aeronautics and a former Navy pilot, predicts that most people won't stop and read the signs, but will be drawn to the audiovisual effects. Certainly "Sneaking through the Sound Barrier," a Sid Caesar-Imogene Coca 10-minute film clip, is one space oddity that's understandable without a degree in physics.
Jet Aviation's opening was timed to coincide with the museum's fifth-anniversary celebration, marked by free concerts and a Frisbee clinic. Kite "clinics" will be held in the Air Transportation gallery from 2 to 4. An outdoor lineup of eight home-built planes (on the Hirshhorn side of the museum) will allow would-be aces to pose with silk scarf, goggles and leather helmet provided by the museum, BYO camera. Airplane model-building demonstrations will rund from 10 to 12 in the Air Transportation gallery, and rocket model-making from 12 to 2 in the Space Hall.
As the top tourist attraction in town -- in the country, "possibly in the world," according to a spokesman -- the $41 million museum has drawn more than 45 million gawkers since it opened in 1977. And they keep on coming, with stars in their eyes.