One of the best things we did on our vacation was something we slotted in during the short time we had between arriving in Seattle at the end of our cruise and boarding our plane for home. During those few hours, we went to the Museum of Flight, which is every bit as wonderful as you’d expect a museum in Boeing’s home town to be. (It is not, in fact, a Boeing museum, although it incorporates Boeing’s original, albeit relocated, “red barn” into the exhibit.)
The museum has all the things you’d want to find in an institution dedicated to flying. There are meticulously restored aircraft, ranging from a perfect model of the Wright Brothers’ first plane, to the Air Force One that ferried presidents from Eisenhower to Nixon, to an actual Concorde jet. In between are mail planes from the twenties and thirties, exhibits about women aviatrixes, histories of the giants of flight, and all sorts of cool memorabilia from the heyday of flying, when it was still a cool, jet-setting experience.
That last, naturally, was in the days before hijackings and bombings, when people waltzed onto planes, and lived the high life. Regardless of the reality of long hours in a cramped seat, flying then was redolent of romance and adventure. Here’s a great song to put you mind of an experience some of you may actually remember:
What really made the museum, though, was the newly opened Personal Courage Hall, dedicated to aviation during World Wars One and Two:
Meet ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances as they demonstrated the highest qualities of courage, dedication and heroism. The Personal Courage Wing . . .
- Features exhibits dedicated to telling the stories not only of those who flew, but the people who designed, built and maintained these amazing aircraft.
- Provides a fitting tribute to that “greatest generation” and an inspiring experience that motivates and encourages the next generation of innovative thinkers and inventors.
- Highlights stories of the American Fighter Aces and the American Volunteer Group—the “Flying Tigers”—who now make The Museum of Flight their official home.
Revisit the sights, sounds and sensations of bygone eras. The Personal Courage Wing . . .
- Tells the history and evolution of World War I and II fighter aviation through state-of-the-art exhibits, flight simulations and interactive experiences unlike any this Museum has ever created.
- Gives visitors a feeling of reliving history through innovative exhibits and displays with highly dramatic lighting, realistic sounds and theatrical sets.
- Provides a highly immersive environment using dioramas and displays such as observation balloons, French and German airfields, a pilots’ lounge, a French farmhouse, a battlefield trench, a Quonset hut and an aircraft carrier flight deck.
- Includes new technology and multimedia presentations such as an aircraft ID kiosk and database, in-depth oral histories, vintage film footage and photos.
- Offers an exciting new educational live theater program—Amazing Skies Theater—in which actors interact with visitors and bring aviation history to life by recreating characters from the military past and by retelling the courageous exploits of fighter pilots.
See the planes and artifacts that helped forge the history of a century and learn how that history shaped our world today. The Personal Courage Wing . . .
- Showcases 28 restored World War I and World War II fighter planes in two galleries—including one of the finest collections of historic fighters found anywhere in the world—the internationally known Champlin Fighter Collection.
- Includes famous fighters such as the Spitfire, Sopwith Camel and P-38, as well as the less celebrated, but extremely rare, Soviet Yak.
- Provides a “black-box” environment that controls exposure to harmful ultraviolet light and humidity, enabling the Museum to display personal artifacts and fragile items like documents, uniforms, letters and vintage photos that previously could not be displayed.
The above description doesn’t give you a sense of the immediacy of the exhibit. There’s something riveting about staring directly at the white silk scarf a long-ago aviator war during a WWI dog fight, or seeing the heart breaking, blue ink letter one pilot wrote to another describing a third one’s death during an aerial battle over Germany in WWII.
It helps that the wars themselves have an emotional resonance. World War I, which was truly the birth of the modern era, was still fought with an almost insane 19th century valiance. And World War II was, of course, the Good War. That Allied troops may have erred and sinned occasionally does nothing to diminish the fact that these men (and women) fought with incredible courage against one of the greatest scourges in history. The museum gives you a strong sense of the bravery, sacrifice and, frequently, good humor and eccentricity, that characterized these long-ago aviators.
My kids were riveted by the exhibit. What engaged them from the first moment they walked through the doors was the small section dedicated to America’s Medal of Honor winners. Side by side, mounted in towers about four feet high, stood two computers monitors. On one, you could view information about every Medal of Honor winner, since the Medal’s inception. (It’s the same information you can see here.)
The other computer featured interviews with living Medal of Honor recipients who fought in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. In each, the recipient told his story while footage played illustrating some of the details he described. In keeping with the Medal’s purpose, each man narrated, with great humility and, almost, surprise, the way in which he rose above himself to achieve an impossible military goal or to save his comrades from certain death (or, often, both). It was only the knowledge of our own plane’s imminent departure, coupled with our desire to see at least a bit more of the museum, that forced us to drag the kids away.
If you ever find yourself in Seattle, I urge you to carve out the time to visit the Museum of Flight and, specifically, the Personal Courage Hall. It is worth your time. And if you’re very lucky, you might get the added bonus we got. As our taxi dropped us at the museum a few minutes before it opened, we saw at least a hundred people in the parking lot, all staring fixedly at next door Boeing field. We stared too. We would have done better to cover our ears (which we eventually did). Within one minute of our arrival, with staggering speed and noise, an F15 took off, followed almost immediately by an F22. We were awed by the combined magnificence of American engineering and aerial skill.
Because this post is dedicated, in significant part, to the sacrifice our troops have always made for us, I’d like to leave you with a moving video, from which comes the quote that is this post’s title. (H/t American Digest.) My kids are learning this lesson, not through the schools, but through me. I know yours will too. Let’s hope we can reach the others out there as well: