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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Flying Heritage

We Northwesterners love airplanes. From the moment millionaire timber baron Bill Boeing decided it would be fun to build them, to the moment a hundred years later when billionaire software baron Paul Allen decided it would be fun to collect them, we’ve been drawn to flying machines like a slug to a dahlia sprout.
Given our soupy weather and mountainous terrain this obsession with all things airborne seems incongruous. But the Northwest has two things in abundance that were critical to aviation in its infancy: Wood and water. The former was the carbon fiber of its day (actually it is carbon fiber) – light, strong and flexible enough to get a plane with only slightly more horsepower than a Yugo into the air. The latter provided miles of space for floatplane takeoffs and landings in the days before there were runways and neighbors complaining about the noise.
We also have prodigious numbers of scary-smart people willing to spend long, dark winters studying things like physics and aerodynamics instead of cow-tipping. Of course that ingenuity and intellectual curiosity also gets directed at outside-the-box ideas like shoving aircraft engines into boats. But the result in my grandparents' day was tasty Canadian booze whisked over the border through nests of islands and hidden coves by Prohibition-era rumrunners. And in my day, we got hydroplanes tearing around Lake Washington in a roar of roostertails before thousands of inebriated fans in runabouts tied to a logboom. So really, everyone benefits.
So it was with great enthusiasm that Steve and I took off for Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage museum on a drizzly day-before-Fathers Day. Under skies the color of the underside of a 747, we made the trek to Everett, where we joined hundreds of people for the prospect of seeing World War II-vintage planes take to the air.
Alas it was not to be. The relentless gray air and spits of rain precluded anything other than a display of an engine start on a Focke Wulfe 190. Even this, though was thrilling to the crowd of elderly vets, middle-aged geeks and young families. Facing a thicket of long camera lenses and a storm of flashes that would have unnerved a supermodel, the old warbird gamely coughed to life. After a few throttle adjustments to get all 16 cylinders firing in some semblance of synchronicity, the pilot unleashed a roar that resonated through my chest. Just as I was trying to imagine what an airfield full of such planes could have sounded like, a thunderous howl filled the air above us, momentarily drowning out the Focke Wulfe. I looked up and saw a 747 only a few hundred feet above us, flashing through a hole in the clouds before disappearing into the gloom. The crowd erupted into cheers.
In the parking lot traffic jam after the show we were stuck for ages behind an SUV waiting for the light to change. The wipers whumped, my husband grumbled under his breath, and the traffic hissed by on the main airport road. But my head remained in the clouds.

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