Michael McCafferty - European Biplane Tour

The Air and Space Museum

I tried to sleep late this morning, hoping it would help clear up my laryngitis which has persisted over the last few days. Still having much difficulty speaking. My plan for today was to see the Air and Space Museum, assuming that I would not have to use my voice for anything in a museum, and I could give my throat a rest. It was definitely on my list of things to do, so I figured it was better than staying in bed.

I admit to feeling like it was going to be a dull day because I have been to quite a few airshows and air museums in the US, and I figured on seeing a lot of the same stuff. Wow, was I wrong!

The French call this place "Musee de l'air et de l'espace" and it is located at LeBourget airport, the site of the Paris Air Show. It consists of 7 buildings which house aircraft segregated by type. In one building there is only spacecraft, including a real Suyoz T6 command module which still shows considerable re-entry scorching. All the rest of the approximately two dozen spacecraft are mostly replicas of various satellites, including the first one ever in space, the Sputnik I, as well as the Vostok I capsule which carried Yuri Gagarin to become the first man in space. It looks for all the world like some Jules Verne underwater diving helmet right out of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea". There was even a Russian lunar land rover.

A separate building was devoted to prototypes, and my visit gave me a whole new appreciation for the extraordinary variety of aircraft which the French have developed. And with such style! I wish I had the words to describe the most unusual, eccentric, and yet undeniably lovely shapes which they gave their aircraft. They surely did not spend their time waiting to see what the Americans were doing so they could copy it!

Another building housed a collection of aircraft from 1919 thru 1940 (between the wars). One of my favorites was the huge twin engine Farman Goliath F-60 which looks like a flying streetcar, and carries 12 passengers seated in wicker chairs (which seem not to be bolted to the floor!). The passengers are comfortable inside the plane, but the pilot must endure the elements flying in an open cockpit. There was no tailwheel, only a skid. The wheels were held in place only by bundles of bungie cords.

My true favorite among the planes in this building was the Potez 53, a 1933 monoplane with retractable main gear and a tailskid. It achieved 380 kph at the time. One of the most curious things about this plane is the glassed-in area for the pilot's head is only about 6 inches across, an incredibly tight fit which seemed that it would be impossible to turn your head even a little. I liked this plane because it just looked so good, so I share a photo of it with you here.

The 1933 Potez 53

The largest of the buildings showed off the Concorde prototype #001. I was possible to walk through it and inspect it in detail. I toured it twice. For me it was a great memory because I flew on the Concorde from New York City to London about 10 years ago. I remember barreling down the runway with the entire plane shaking like crazy and wondering to myself "My God! How fast are we going? This plane should have taken off by now!" I finally got my answer from one of the museum tour guides. The rotate speed is 280 kph, which is certainly faster than I had ever gone on the ground in any type of vehicle. I also remember being impressed with just how small the plane is inside. The passengers' windows are tiny, just barely bigger than a pack of cigarettes. It only holds 100 passengers, but it achieves twice the speed of sound, and has been doing this for more than 30 years! It is the only major commercial airliner which has never had a fatal accident.

One of my fondest memories of my trip on the Concorde was inviting myself into the cockpit while flying at 59,000 feet at Mach 2, and standing there having a very calm conversation with the pilot and engineer. Since it was a foreign airline, there was no restriction on passengers in the cockpit during flight. It was awesome!

Someday soon, you will be able to tour this fantastic museum from the comfort of your favorite chair and be able to fully understand everything about them in English (I had to figure it all out with my limited French). Soon, all the museums in the world will be on the Internet. Won't that be good news for your feet!

One of the highlights of my visit was a 3-D movie which showed an old biplane (I think it was a Bucker Jungmeister) flying low over the countryside, and in the Alps, over lakes and cities. It was spectacular photography, and it really made me feel very much lonely without my lovely biplane. I watched it 3 times!

Tomorrow I'm going back to see the rest of the museum, especially the building which highlights the earliest stages of flight. If the weather is good, I will find the exact spot where Lindbergh touched down when he first crossed the Atlantic.

Taking a break from the museum, I stopped by the Waco display to see how my biplane was getting along. Of all the great planes in that museum, I still like my Waco the best!

My timing was a bit off. As soon as I got outside the museum, it started to rain! I got to stand under the wing of the Waco for a couple of hours while the storm moved through. During all this, Carl took some time to install a new tailwheel and a mechanic from Euralair removed my HSI for inspection and (hopefully) repair. Bernard Chabbert introduced me to Catherine Maunoury, the 1988 Aerobatic champion. We arranged that she would fly me in her plane and I will give her a ride in mine, when we are together in Megeve, in the French Alps, (only 10 minutes by air from Mont Blanc) in mid-July.

Now that could be some interesting flying!

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