Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The time my son sat in Indiana Jones' Flying Boat (and got a black eye from a Harrier Jet)

I've written here many times about visiting aviation museums. Today, chatting online with a friend about China's new Flying Boat that is as big as a Boeing 737, I realized I'd never written about touring a Short Solent Mk. III Flying Boat at the Oakland Aviation Museum at the Oakland, California airport.

It must have been sometime in 1999. My wife was working a few hours at her job with a network equipment manufacturer on a Saturday in San Leandro. Our nine year old son and I dropped her off, then went to look for something to do while she worked.

I'd ridden my bike past the museum many times, but never stopped in. I explained to my son who Amelia Earhart was as we looked at an Electra aircraft similar to the one Earhart flew when she departed on her fateful flight from Oakland in 1937. Oddly, I do not see that aircraft on their current list of aircraft on display.

Update 7-27-2016: The museum director responded to my email and told me the Electra is now at the nearby Hayward Airport.

The highlight of the day though was the largest Flying Boat I've seen, a Short Solent Mk. III.

It is of course not even close to being the largest flying boat ever built.

It's wingspan of 112 feet is not even close to Howard Hughe's Spruce Goose 312 feet. 

Or even the Boeing 312 Clipper wingspan of 152 feet. The Boeing was the famous China Clipper, the huge flying boats that Pan Am had flying the world for a few years prior to World War II. None of these iconic aircraft survive even as non-flying displays.

There are even larger flying boats still flying, like the two Martin JRM Mars flying in Canada. They have a 200 foot wingspan.

We walked around the museum for a while; it wasn't crowded. A docent told us they would let us in to the flying boat at a particular time so we were loitering nearby when they opened it up.

The story they told us was interesting. This aircraft and two sister ships had been owned by an investor circa 1958. The intent was to refurbish them and use them flights from San Francisco to Hawaii, as I recall. The web page for this aircraft says it was planned to fly an even more romantic route: Hawaii to Christmas Island to Tahiti and back.

Unfortunately, the British Government decided to test nukes at Christmas Island so landing permissions were withdrawn, making the route for the aircraft impossible.

The aircraft passed through several owners, meanwhile they were stored at the Richmond waterfront, slowly deteriorating.

And then along came Indiana Jones.

For a scene in the first movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, producers needed to show Indy boarding a China Clipper.  As mentioned above, none of those large flying boats exist.

They heard about the three airplanes rusting away in Richmond.  "Could one of the six engines start?" they wondered.

Mechanics found one engine in far better shape than the others. It had been stored on the inland side of its aircraft. Cannibalizing parts from the other five engines, they built a working engine.  One fateful day, they prepared to test it.

The film crew thought they might as well film the test.

And it is a good thing they did.  The engine started with the oddly exciting roar of those old piston engines.

And then promptly exploded.

No one was hurt, nor was the plane damaged, but the engine was toast and not going to be fixable.

The clip of the engine starting you see in the film?  It is that test, cutting off just before the explosion.

My memory of this was faulty.  I seem to recall that the film showed a closeup of the engine from the front.  I wonder if this scene was changed when making the DVDs?  Of course, it was 34 years ago.

My son and I got to explores this amazing aircraft. He even got to sit in the same seat Harrison Ford had. There was even an Indiana Jones hat for him to wear while he was in the seat.

This was the days before cameras in cell phones so I didn't have a camera with me since the trip was impulsive.

When we finished the tour, the docent said ours was the last tour of the day, and would my son please help him button up the ship?

David got to close hatches, and crawled through the passage way in the cockpit up to the nose of the aircraft and close the hatchway there.

I told him then, and reminded him again as I write this, that few nine year olds have gotten to do this.

There is one flyable version of this aircraft.  It is a Kermit Week's Fantasy of Flight.

Oh, and the black eye?

When the docent called to me that we could come into the plane, I called to my son who was looking over the plane next to it, a TAV-8A Harrier .  My son turned towards the sound of my voice, and proceeded to walk directly into the wingtip of the Harrier.  It caught him right in the eye, doing no damage, but leaving him with a black eye for a day or so.  That too is probably something few children have experienced; a black eye off a fighter jet.

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