ClearAir Turbulence in River City (or)
Sorry,Weather is NOT CAFB* today
[NOTE:The following is an allegorical parable only; no reference is made to authentic, living individuals, nor is there any aspect of what follows that relates to a specific or identifiable institution anywhere within a hundred miles of the Capitol of the State of California. Any resemblance to persons, institutions or entities living or dead is purely coincidental.]
Yesterday, the air museum I am associated with held another of its periodic ‘open cockpit day’ events. This is an occasion wherein the museum invites the community to visit the museum facility and take a look at the cockpits of its many preserved and restored airplanes that are a feature of its ‘air park’. This is, at least to some extent, an opportunity to examine close up and personal the cramped and intimate control stations on warplanes where life-and-death aerial battles occurred on a daily basis in the not too distant past.
As the crewchief (a sort of glorified museum custodian)of one such former warbird aircraft, I unlocked the canopy of my plane (a single seat, jet-powered, Mach 2+ Air Defense Interceptor of the ‘Cold War’ era built by the Convair company called the F-106A ‘Delta Dart’), dragged up the portable stairs that provide access to the cockpit, and positioned myself by the aircraft to show it off to our anticipated guests. I brought the usual ‘show and tell’ props (my flight helmet/mask set, informational pamphlets on the plane’s history and photographs of it at various phases in its 30 year service history, and prepared to offer a capsule history of why this particular plane was so special in the annals of modern (‘Cold War’) aerial combat.
It’s quite an interesting aircraft, actually, having been produced as one of a relatively small run of 340 or so stable-mates, as a delta-winged, pure air-defense interceptor. The idea was that in the ‘Cold War’ years of the late 50s and 60s, when we feared a preemptive nuclear strike by the Russians, ground-based radar systems (called SAGE, or ‘Semi-Automatic Ground Environment’) would detect a hostile incursion into US airspace by Soviet nuclear bombers and direct their interception by these highly advanced (for the late 50s, at any rate) missile-equipped flying weapons systems (such as my aircraft). Once intercepted, the aircraft would launch offensive guided missiles and destroy the bombers, returning to base immediately thereafter. Equipped with four internally carried air-to-air rocket powered AIM-4 guided missiles (two that were radar guided and two that were infrared seeking) and a 1.5 kiloton nuclear warhead tipped monster called the ‘AIR-1B Genie’, the mission of my delta-winged high-performance jet interceptor and its cohorts was to insure that no Soviet nuclear weapons reached their intended targets within the continental United States.
For slightly more than 30 years (from about 1957 through 1988) the entire US air defense against hostile Soviet airspace penetration depended principally upon these unique and purpose-built jet aircraft. Fortunately for all of us, they posed a formidable and highly credible threat and no F-106A aircraft ever had to fire a missile in anger against a Soviet aircraft in the entire course of their service. Of course, in the 1960s the Soviet nuclear bomber threat was suddenly replaced by nuclear Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), against which there was no reliable defense, but the air-intercept mission of the manned delta-winged interceptors continued against attempted airspace violations by hostile aircraft nevertheless.
The Convair F-106 ‘Delta Dart’ is an inherently attractive exercise in aeronautical engineering, with design features that literally cry-out ‘fast & deadly’, no matter from which angle you view the bird. From a strictly aesthetic standpoint, its beautifully shaped ‘area-rule’ curvilinear fuselage is a visual delight that harkens back to advanced aeronautical design precepts originally explored by German scientists during the latter stages of the Second World War. Many people today have no idea, viewing post-war American aircraft like this, that without Germany’s pioneering researches into high-speed, jet turbine powered, delta-winged flight, these aircraft would likely not exist in the US Air Force inventory. But given the inexorable advance of aeronautical science, even the most radical aircraft is shortly eclipsed by even newer, more modern designs that ultimately relegate the prior generations of military aircraft to entries in history books. Such is the case with the 1959-built Convair F-106A I have been given charge of at my museum. Having been struck off the list of active first-line military aircraft in about 1989, it and most of its stable-mates were since expended as aerial targets used in air-to-air missile weapons testing. Today, less than two dozen or so of these beautifully elegant (and deadly) air defense interceptors have managed to survive and serve as museum displays, my own aircraft being one of those ‘lucky’ few.
Naturally enough, in the greater overall history of military aircraft development, and also within the context of world history, such aircraft as this one are merely a part of the much greater backstory detailing recent decades of international conflict. Those of us at the museum, however, believe it is important that such weapons of aerial warfare be preserved so that the public will have some knowledge of how they figured into the greater scheme of 20th Century warfare. Toward that end, I and a group of others at our museum who perform a similar function as ‘warbird keepers’ strive to communicate with visitors to our museum in hopes of transmitting at least some awareness of what they represent and recognition of how they functioned as defensive weapons, protecting the integrity of our nation’s borders (and by extension, our American way of life).
For the above reasons, our museum was begun more than 15 years ago with that mission foremost: to educate, instruct and inform the public first of all about general aeronautical history, and to a lesser (although no less important) degree how the history of aircraft as weapons of modern warfare evolved subsequent to the first manned, powered and guided flight by a human being over 150 years ago.
Starting off as an active military airbase air museum, when the base was originally established at (as an extension of the US Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH). it was closed as part of the late 1990s effort to reduce defense budget expenditures; the museum was thereafter completely reorganized as a privately funded public museum foundation. Funding private museums has never been an easy challenge to meet, since private museums that depend entirely on non-federally subsidised funding are continually struggling to secure the financial wherewithal to maintain their existence. When it comes to keeping museums like ours solvent…not just specialised museums like ours, but all museums…most people are simply not inclined to donate gifts of money in any quantity. Aside from occasionally visiting a museum and coughing up the modest admission fee, all awareness of the typically precarious and often downright dire financial status of an institution is typically lost on the average public person. The occasional exception to that rule will be an individual who has had some prior or past connection with the world of aviation, whether as an airline mechanicor pilot, a commercial or private pilot, or as a former military serviceman. In this latter instance, any such involvement with flying presupposes a certain keen awareness of the importance of aviation and in many cases these individuals seek to affiliate with an air museum in some capacity or another (as a volunteer, a docent, or even as part of a restoration team). Much of the benefit derived for them therein consists of sharing the camaraderie of past experiences with other like-minded individuals and helping support efforts to perpetuate the museum’s mission of raising the public’s awareness of aviation’s important role in the modern world of science and technology.
In the case of our own museum, the privatization of our foundation unfortunately began just before the series of international economic setbacks occurred that resulted in a recession back in the mid-2000s, so it was immediately apparent to us that we needed to be particularly dedicated to accessing both the capital and operational funding required to keep the museum in the black.
This acute awareness required a rather austere agenda across the board, but a capital funding loan of about seven million dollars was secured and efforts were made to ratchet down budgetary concerns through an extraordinary level of control that eliminated all but the most important financial aspects of operation. This understandably posed many potential problems and imposed considerable constraints, since although most of our airplanes are technically only ‘on-loan’ from the US Air Force, the museums they are displayed in must assume the entire cost and upkeep responsibility for their maintenance. Since keeping aircraft in a suitably presentable display condition in the harsh outdoor environment they exist in costs a substantial amount of money, clever funding options must continually be availed to provide the needed daily operating funds that are not committed directly to capital funding obligations (debt service, etc.). To a large extent some of this cost can be contained (or minimized) through the help of museum volunteers who are able to apply their prior aircraft maintenance experience towards aircraft preservation efforts, but for the most part funding of any sizeable quantity must come through grants and large sum donations by wealthy private individuals and corporations.
An interesting fact is that in today’s financially cutthroat economy a great many institutions (and individuals) have necessarily become heavily dependent upon Federal Government subsidies, but given the stringent requirements they often carry with them, alternate means of funding must additionally be sought out. Given the often frantic competition by a wide range of institutions like ours for these alternate funding resources, one of the main areas of such ‘secondary’ funding has been identified as grants and entitlements obtainable through association with ‘educational’ objectives. That is, if an aviation museum can argue that it is engaged in educational programs aimed at providing learning opportunities (particularly for youth), it may qualify for significant educational grants.
For this reason in the main, the higher powers of our own museum gear museum efforts towards presenting and establishing a validating CV aligned with those ‘educational’ requirements by offering courses inaviation related technology and science. This typically consists of scheduling ‘learning opportunities’ for school children, providing educational field trips for schools, and supporting similar educational programs: whatever meets and satisfies the criteria of being a grant-qualified ‘educational’ institution.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with use of this tactic, however tenuous the actual link to public education may sometimes be, it has become obsessive at our museum to the extent that nearly everything else not remotely identifiable as a ‘learning related activity’ shakes out far lower on the museum agenda than it would otherwise. In its strong intent to ‘reinvent’ our air museum as an ‘educational facility’ that will satisfy creative funding criteria, a near manic stance has been assumed with regard to the policies by which the museum regulates its activities and concerns, and therein lies the rest of the story.
At our own museum we are fortunate to count among our number a great many former servicemen who were previously involved to varying degrees with (military) aviation. They comprise the core of our museum volunteers and docents and it is inarguable that without their dedication and help, the museum simply couldn’t exist. Many of our volunteers are, however, extremely unhappy with the present status quo that exists within the greater context of the ‘education related’ paradigm we operate within for several specific reasons.
This seems to be at least to some extent due to the rather autocratic manner in which the museum’s operation has been structured (to stress ‘education’, with minimal emphasis on artifactual history concerns), since by at least one popular interpretation of the function of museums, ours is encumbered to provide what is euphemistically called a ‘hands-on experience’. That is, an emphasis upon displays and activities that focus on implicit interactivity potentials, since leading proponents of younger school children’s education feel that this is more effective and meaningful way of reaching today’s ‘dumbed-down’ school child, whose ability to focus and concentrate on serious matters in depth has become severely attenuated by unrelenting exposure to modern electronic audio-visual media and social networking technology.
Thus, a strong emphasis is placed (at least in our museum) on exhibits and displays that permit a rather broad range of tactile input potentials. Artifacts are not kept physically protected by barriers, but are in most cases displayed in the open, wherein touching and feeling of machines and equipment are encouraged. This contrasts significantly with the older and far earlier concept of a museum properly being a place where artifacts are carefully kept ‘safe’ from direct contact with visitors (i.e. behind glass or in transparency fronted display cases, etc.).
While the philosophy of ‘hand-on’ interaction is a fine one in theory, this concept falls flat on its face in that modern children of a certain age are usually not carefully supervised by their parents and under direct control. In far too many situations (at least in our museum) parents appear absolutely unmindful of the need to ‘control’ their smaller children when visiting at our facility, with the result that for the volunteers and docents normal duty more often resembles that of a correctional officer, rather than that of a guide or interpreter. Quite frequently parents need to be confronted over the behavioral liberties taken by their children when visiting venues such as ours, a circumstance that is never a happy development no matter how gentle and conciliatory the remonstrative interaction between parent and museum volunteer might be.
With regard to the open cockpit day events referenced at the onset of these paragraphs, once the aircraft are opened up and crewladders and stairs positioned to allow access to crew spaces, all too often small children act as if these cockpits are little more than a kinetic playroom. This is particularly true for small children under the age of about 5 years, since at that age there’s little chance of the experience being cognitively meaningful. After years of being exposed to the extremely deleterious effects of prolonged ultra-violet radiation (sun) most of the instruments, switches and controls in our aircraft are substantially deteriorated, many being brittle, friable and somewhat fragile. Often all it takes is some small child’s vigorous manipulation of these controls to damage or break them, a serious concern since restoration is not only costly, but often near impossible, given the scarcity of replacement components.
Further, in today’s environment of ‘hands-on’ interactivity, the old cautionary caveat of appropriately respectful ‘look but don’t touch’ behavior seems to be as extinct as the Dodo bird, as far as parents are concerned. If a child has inherent behavioral problems (such as ADD), these extreme behaviors can be incredibly destructive, so when combined with parental ignorance, the results can be and frequently are rather impactful.
Sadly, at least in my direct observation, a great number of families with small children who visit our museum have almost no awareness at all of what constitutes acceptable behavior in the children’s regard. Their children are not only unsupervised in most cases, but are actually ‘turned loose’ to run around and do whatever they feel like doing once they are in the museum, without any effort expended by their parents to maintain nominal control of their youthful excesses.
In the case of my aircraft, the museums’ Convair F-106A ‘Delta Dart’, I have experienced instance after instance in which the parent will place a very small child in the cockpit of my bird (slang for ‘aircraft’) solely for the opportunity of taking a 'cute' cell-phone picture of their precious little three or four year old sitting in the cockpit of ‘the great big airplane’. Since children of that age are not yet capable of understanding the meaning of what they are experiencing, the circumstance that results does not constitute a constructive educational experience or awareness-elevating situation….rather it becomes simply a Disneyland-like playground experience, the meaning of which is totally lost on a small child. In fact, several days ago at our most recent open cockpit day (‘OCD’), I heard a series of loud metallic noises coming from nearby and found a small gang of young children playing in the rather fragile cockpit of our old C-53 cargo aircraft (a military cargo version of the commercial DC-3 airliner) who were literally taking things apart. Unconcerned, their parents were outside the plane looking at other displays. As old and rather severely worn artifacts, existing in an already substantially deteriorated state of condition, behavior like that can be terribly harmful to our museum aircraft.
This has become such a recurrently predictable occurrence at our museum open cockpit events that I have recently posted signs proscribing all children under the age of 5 years from sitting in my aircraft. I have found that most children over that age at least have some cognitive potential to learn from the experience, but below 5 years a cockpit is nothing more than an exciting interactive playpen full-up with bright gizmos to yank, pull, twist and shove.
Another experience on the same day involved a family of about 12 (8 of which were smaller children) the parents of whom decided that it would be great fun to get a cell-phone picture of all the kids sitting on a precariously balanced aircraft bomb that was on display beside an aircraft. After the 5th child had climbed on board, the bomb began to shift its position, tilting backwards, and disaster was only very narrowly averted. At other times we’ve actually found children who had been boosted upon to wing surfaces (by parents), where they began running around and jumping up and down on control surfaces! Again, such people appear totally clueless and at best they evidence absolutely no concept of what is appropriate ‘public behavior’ in a museum setting, a trait that is more and more evident in ‘dumbed-down’ modern American society. Finally, we found (yesterday) a child inside the museum who had been throwing things off the 2nd floor balcony to the display floor below; the same child shortly ended up with a bloody forehead, although the circumstances are not yet clear how that came about.
These are, assuredly, just a few of the many similar incidents that cause a great deal of consternation among our museum volunteers and docents, who probably feel as if they were on patrol at a youth detention facility instead of interpreting displays for interested, intelligent and cerebrally engaged visitors.
Of course, there are many contributing dynamics that have led to this distressing state of affairs, one of them being that for the most part ‘museums’ have little meaning for the current generation of youths. They are far too much caught up in the virtual reality of materialistic electronic entertainment media and consumer goods, demonstrating a total lack of interest in anything beyond the immediate moment of popular sensory gratification (read: reality TV, electronic gaming, action videos, social networking’, and other related types of ‘fantasy as a substitute for reality’ experiences). With little sense of anything that has gone on before their own life, they seem to have no discernible awareness of important cultural events like world wars, international economic and/or historical struggles and/or world-wide events, nor do they evidence any obvious interest in learning of them. History, for its part as a traditional school curriculum, seems to have withered away and disappeared in schools altogether. With English literacy and science/mathematics alarmingly on the decline as it is, the added handicap of having no sense of history threatens to result in a modern youth culture that is totally detached from any vestige of real-world discernment whatsoever. And these are the kids we are trying to make history relevant for at our museum! Is it any wonder that our volunteers and docents are in despair?
Further compounding our own museum is the fact that due to the previously alluded to ‘autocratic’ management philosophy at our museum, communication of these concerns from the bottom of the hierarchy to the top (read: board of directors) is stringently discouraged, if not outright forbidden. The predictable result of that is a pool of volunteers and docents who feel as if they are regarded as second-rate citizens by the museum’s management, with a proportionate falling off of both their morale and vital enthusiasms.The policy of the upper levels of museum management eschewing any effort to take those ‘lower down’ into confidence about museum goals, objectives and aims is certainly a daunting dynamic, needless to say.
I am fairly certain that ours is not a unique situation and that our concerns are shared by other institutions at which politically correct attitudes fostering the ascendency of funding sources over all else equally obtain. Unfortunately, once you’ve destroyed the matrix of the very core support base that keeps things going, all the funding in the world has relatively little meaning anymore. It’s hardly any wonder that our older members of American society, those of us who have served in the armed forces and who have experienced war, fighting and the savagery of ritualised international conflict hesitate to talk about their experiences these days. When what you have to say that might have incredibly valuable meaning and substance to others (in terms of insights and understanding) falls on deaf ears, there is little incentive to share that precious and hard-learned wisdom further and a strong disinclination to do so. Pearls before swine? Very probably.
There are several other museums in our area, all of which attempt to preserve the experience of flight and the history of aviation for future generations, but several of them have enough collective sense to fully realise the value therein possessed by their core volunteers and docents and put great stock in fostering their enthusiasms and inputs. Sadly, ours is not one of them as we madly scramble after big money donors to keep from falling on our faces and thereby threaten to lose the very support base that enables us to thrive.
Lastly, some have observed that in today’s modern(American) world, museums dedicated to preservation of military history are now somewhat archaic throw-backs to earlier times, that museums dedicated to preserving history of military and civil aviation are no longer a relevant or viable enterprise that has much interest for modern youth. They argue that America has now become so totally enslaved by its socio-economic system of hard-nosed, Yankee-style materialistic capitalism…a culture ruled and controlled by a system that regards all human beings as merely conveniently manipulated consumers of material diversions and preoccupying entertainments…that modern youth are now little more than perfect little auto-programmed automatons, living financial relay devices that are switched on and off by formidably powerful marketing forces that actively discourage any vestige of reflective intelligence by younger people. As a result, they end up being biological robots that are conditioned to endless acquire material things that completely occupy whatever reflective energies they have left in them. This is a paradigmatic setting in which there is little room left over for stuffy subjects like history that require powers of reflectivity, critical analysis and intelligent discernment.
If these feelings have any validity, not only is our museum endangered, the entire American culture (and by extension the world is also threatened, since everywhere in the world people regard the American way of life as eminently enviable and desirable) is doomed to ultimate extinction. As the reins of electronic communication and entertainment technology are tightened for the sole purpose of endlessly ‘selling material stuff’, all bets favoring an appreciation of ‘dusty old stuff in museums’ are off in my opinion, and I find myself being relieved over and over again that at least I didn’t bring any little human offspring into this increasingly dismaying, modern, corporately dominated wasteland of a culture we regard as distinctly American.
Of course, on the positive side of the equation, in a few more years I will no longer be around to regard our sorrowful world with the cynical disapprobation that is a consequence of a lifetime of observation, since by then, it’ll be a QED case of ‘Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn!’
Until then however, I suppose I’ll simply continue to fight the same old daily battle of trying to make sense of it all whilst attempting to tolerate actually having to coexist with it.
"CAFB" = 'Clear As a F**king Bell!', a phrase much loved by military meterologists and weather briefing officers in past wars.