Visiting the National Museum of WWII Aviation without my wife was a bizarre experience. She’s the one who’s a WWII aficionado, the one who aced history classes left and right, the one with the PoliSci degree, and the one who doesn’t need a tour guide through museums like this. While she spent another Colorado Springs morning fulfilling the company business obligations that made this trip possible, I did the best I could to take photos and notes of what she was missing. Maybe she already knows it all, but if I could bring her just one new trivia tidbit, then this tourist’s mission was a success.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Each year my wife and I take a road trip to a different part of the United States and see what sorts of historical landmarks, natural wonders, man-made oddities, unexplored restaurants, and cautionary tales await us. From November 1-6, 2015, we racked up a number of personal firsts. My wife Anne was invited on her first business trip to Colorado Springs, all expenses paid from flight to food to lodging to rental car, to assist with cross-training at a distant affiliate. Her supervisor gave me permission to attend as her personal travel companion as long as I bought my own plane ticket and food. I posted one photo for each of the six days while we were on location. With this series, we delve into selections from the 500+ other photos we took along the way.
The museum opened three years ago as a natural expansion of WestPac Restorations, a company specializing in aircraft restoration and repair whose work was showcased in our previous chapter. Currently they have one warehouse for each company, with tours encompassing a walk through both. They also coordinate educational outreach and field trips with local schools.
In 2014 the museum received a seven-digit influx of funding (plus hopes for matching funds from other sources) courtesy of James Slattery, founder of San Diego-based Millennium Laboratories, a vintage aircraft collector and owner of over three dozen relevant vehicles. Unlike the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, the museum isn’t receiving millions from the government or from aircraft manufacturers. They dream of one day matching the size and sheen of the National Air and Space Museum, which we visited on our 2003 road trip to Washington, D.C. Their concept art includes plans for a flight deck, a coffee shop, and other ambitious dreams.
I was the youngest and loneliest member of our tour — over half of whom arrived as a single elderly group, most others as couples 50-up. Several were war veterans, a few with flight experience. Our guide Gus was likewise a veteran who flew several craft in his time, though on his charts the Delta Dagger was tops.
Before the tour we were privy to a short presentation about the war and a shout-out to buffs with a pop quiz that Anne probably would’ve aced. Random notes I took, both in my seat and while we walked:
* During our war preparations and operations, over 14,000 American aircraft were wrecked on U.S. soil alone, not including overseas casualties.
* London to Berlin is a 600-mile trip.
* Timing I never noticed: World War I began just eleven years after the Wright brothers’ hijinks at Kitty Hawk.
* The Battle of the Coral Sea, a 1942 sea-to-air Pacific showdown, saw combatants trying to pelt each other from 250 miles apart.
* America manufactured over 300,000 planes during WWII, fifty thousand of those for allies. More of those were built in Colorado Springs than anywhere else. Hence the museum’s location.
* Over 14,000 sorties took place on D-Day alone.
* One of the planes they have on hand was once flown in the war by a local resident, now age 100.
Our tour touched on the Tuskegee Airmen, as well as on the women who served in the WWII armed forces as mechanics and other critical roles, not just in the homefront capacity we usually hear about.
In the center of the main showroom is their worst-case scenario project, recovered from the sea near Papua New Guinea but not given up for dead just yet. Somehow this patient can be saved.
On our way from the main warehouse to the WestPac workspace across the way, we stopped in a side room to see a 1943 Link Trainer, one of the early flight simulators before the days of computers, Microsoft Flight Simulator, and bars with mechanical bulls.
Our tour finished ’round noon. Anyone who loved extra anecdotes was welcome to stick around while Gus answered questions and presumably talked for as long as they’d let him. Such is the life of the cheery volunteer docent, doing what he loves to do. I felt a little guilty for taking my leave of the tour and the museum at that point, but at least this way they could talk more freely without the youngster in the way.
Unpleasant surprise postscript: if you’d like to learn more about major benefactor James Slattery and can handle a few minutes of upsetting cognitive dissonance, here’s an article published two months after my visit, outlining alleged fat-cat 1%-er shenanigans involving Millennium Laboratories, the investors allegedly bilked for their benefit and his to the tune of billions, and the bankruptcy filing that will allegedly shield him from most forms of financial retribution. They might want to delete a few lines in the museum tour if they haven’t already.
To be continued!
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