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Arizona March 2000 Previous

Pima Air & Space Museum and Titan Missile Museum

We got off to a late start at 10:00 and so didn't get to the Pima Air & Space Museum until 11:30, two and a half hours after opening. Gary drove, while I sat in the back of the car and read Gertie's manual. David sat in front and told cop stories, Army stories...nonstop stories all the way to Tucson.

The stories were interesting—I listened with half an ear—and I learned a lot from the Lazy Daze owner's manual too. It said up front that it's their policy to give the customer a manual when the order is placed, so that s/he will have a few months to study it while the rig is being built. Good idea! I did exactly this when I bought my '73 Audi...I had five months to read the manual while the car was on order, so when I took delivery I was already very familiar with it. Of course I'm trying to do the same thing now by studying up as much as I can on RVing in general and Gertie in particular. By the time I actually have Gertie, I will have been educating myself for over a year.

Sikorsky Skycrane

But I don't want to sound smug! I'm very aware that I'm just at the beginning of an endless learning curve. I've lived in Gertie for a week while connected to city power, water and sewer. I haven't driven her at all. I haven't boondocked at all, although I've been trying to practice water conservation. I haven't done any real maintenance on the rig. In short, I have a helluva lot to learn. But I'm headed in the right direction. If I had to take Gertie out on the road right now, I could probably do so without making a complete ass of myself. Well, maybe.

WWI propaganda

The entrance to the Pima Air & Space Museum is unique, to say the least: you walk in under an "archway" formed by a gargantuan Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter (known to troops in Vietnam as the "Jolly Green Giant.") This monster helicopter, one of the largest ever built, was designed for lifting heavy loads. It's really just a bubble of a cabin suspended from an incredibly long body that sits high off the ground so that cargo pods can be rolled underneath. It looks vaguely like a mantis or a stick insect—very leggy.

Inside the museum there's a variety of interesting displays, from a full-sized replica of the 1903 Wright flyer to extensive exhibits on air racing, World War I aviation (complete with propaganda posters like the one shown here) and other aspects of flying. There are rarities here that I haven't seen anywhere else: china and silverware from the Graf Zeppelin, bearing the imprint of the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei; a Forties-vintage Link trainer—the father of all flight simulators—and even one of Hiller's infamous one-man Flying Platforms, one of the most dangerously unstable flying machines ever built.

Crash dummies

Gary, David and I wandered around for an hour or so, enjoying the wonderful variety of flight-related exhibits. I snapped a good picture of David sitting with a couple of crash-test dummies. We could have spent much more time, but considering the hour, we figured we had better get outside before the day was gone. So after a little lunch, we headed out into the glaring sunlight...and the real show.

You see, it's not what's inside that is the real attraction at Pima A&S—it's the scores of aircraft parked all around the museum. Nothing rusts out here in the dry desert air, so the only thing that takes its toll is the sun. (The Davis-Monthan Air Force Base "boneyard," where the military store their unneeded aircraft by the thousands out in the open, is a few miles up the road from the museum for exactly that reason.) Our late start meant that we didn't see about half the museum's collection, but what we did see was amazing.

This is not like the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, where everything is meticulously groomed for display. This is just a huge dirt field full of planes. Rows of MiGs, century series jet fighters, helicopters, bombers, transports, everything you can imagine. Rows of B-52s....just think about that for a minute. It was wonderful!


One plane that you can see from the highway even before the rest of the museum comes into view, is this Aerospace Lines "Guppy." In fact, this was how we knew we had found the place—I looked out the car window and called "I see a Guppy!" This grotesquely swollen hybrid airplane was used by NASA to transport largish items like Saturn 5 moon rocket boosters. If you look at the enlarged version of this picture, you'll see a dividing line just behind the cockpit. That's where the entire front end of the aircraft—nose, cockpit and all!--hinges open at one side to reveal the cavernous interior that more than anything else resembles a dirigible hangar.

David made an interesting comment about the Guppy: "You know, somebody had to be the first to fly this thing. Can you just imagine finding a test pilot and telling him, 'We have this...uh...unusual...aircraft, and the engineers say it ought to fly...but we want you to try it out for us.' Yeah, right!"

SR-71 drone

There was an SR-71 Blackbird (not exactly out in the open, but under a sort of open-ended carport arrangement)...but I won't bore you by reciting its staggering speed and altitude records. What intrigued me more was the (comparatively) small D-21 drone sitting next to it. It looked like an SR-71 engine nacelle with stubby wings and an even stubbier tail. Of course, at Mach 3+ you don't need much of an airfoil to keep you aloft! This is where the museum's minimal placards on outdoor exhibits let me down: I really would have liked to know more about what this little hot-rod was used for, but there was no information. Fortunately, a friend later filled me in on this interesting but little-known piece of hardware, which was originally flown on top-secret recon missions over the Soviet Union and China, carried to its target piggyback on an SR-71 predecessor. Near the SR-71 and D-21 was another placard labeling a "stealth cactus."

We saw and toured Air Force One—a DC-6 that was used by presidents Kennedy and Johnson in the Sixties for hops to smaller airports that couldn't accommodate the Boeing 707 version. What a contrast to the spacious and luxurious quarters in the current 747-based Air Force One! To use an RVing analogy, it was like the difference between a converted minivan and a 40-foot Class A rig.

I noted a few amusing touches: over the president's desk were three big brass indicators showing heading, altitude and airspeed. Apparently Johnson used to frequently call up the cockpit and ask where they were and how fast they were going. Eventually the flight crew got tired of these interruptions, so they had a set of duplicate instruments installed in the president's quarters.

The one that made me laugh out loud, though, was a small thing. Mounted on the wall near the main entrance door was a curious-looking wire shape with three half-loops: UUU. I stared at it for a minute before it dawned on me that that each loop was a perfect fit for a John B. Stetson hat. Since JFK didn't wear headgear, it was all too obvious that rack was put there expressly for Lyndon's ten-gallon hats!


The Titan Missile Museum

After lunch we managed to find our way to the Titan Missile Museum, 30 miles away, just in time for the final tour at 16:00. This is the only remaining Titan missile silo (the other 54 have been decommissioned and sold or destroyed), and the only one open to the public as a museum. It was very interesting from a technological perspective, but at the same it felt a little like touring Dachau or Buchenwald: a place of great evil, though in this case (thank god!) the evil was only potential and never realized.

It was a little like being shown a concentration camp that had never been used: "Here's the administration building, and here's the gas chamber, and here—the centerpiece of the facility!--are the ovens designated for the citizens of Leningrad...and over on the other side of the valley you can see the ovens we built for the citizens of St. Petersburg..." Because in truth, the stolid black cone at the tip of the Titan is exactly that: a portable crematorium for ten million people like me...people who happened to speak the wrong language and have politicians who didn't get along with our politicians.

I wonder...if we had taken our 54 Titans and used them to launch 54 politicians—half of them American and half Russian—into space, wouldn't we all have been better off? Let's say we sent the lot of them off on cometary orbits. Heck, we wouldn't even have had to add life-support systems...

Fueling the Titan

I've noticed that people in their teens and twenties can't take nuclear war seriously. To them it's a fairy tale, a foolish bogeyman of their doddering parents. But those who, like me, grew up with the daily threat of radioactive holocaust hanging over our heads can't help taking it seriously. This missile silo is a reminder of what could easily have happened...and may yet.

The drive back to Sierra Vista seemed much longer than the drive out. By the time we got home I was getting sleepy. Judie and Lisa had cooked up an excellent pasta and salad dinner—I even had seconds—but soon afterward I excused myself to come back to Gertie and type up these notes (and of course transfer my photos into the computer, as I've done every day) and go to bed.

By the way, Bev came down with a cold a couple of days ago and so was not able to come with us—more's the pity. It looks as if I will not see her again before I leave, which is too bad as I wanted to thank her for driving us around Fort Huachuca, Bisbee and Tombstone and showing us her office. She did get her picture in the fort's newspaper this week, though, with an article about her Desert Aura website. Nice to see her getting credit for a job well done.

Beverly is quiet, perhaps even a bit shy, but loaded with talent. Her photography is very good (see the aforementioned site), her website design is very clean and attractive—as is her HTML. And like Gary and Judie, she has been very generous with her time during my visit. She gave up most of last weekend to drive us around, took an extended lunch on Monday to tour the Fort with us, and was willing to spend half a day this coming weekend driving me to Tucson airport if necessary. All this for someone (me) whom she'd never met in person before. This trip would have been much less enjoyable without her.