Commemorative Air Force Blogs

Welcome to the Commemorative Air Force Blogs. A great way to stay informed about what is going on with the CAF.

Living History Cruise

Living History Cruise

My wife and I recently spent an enjoyable day aboard the SS John W. Brown, one of only two WWII Liberty Ships still afloat. The boat is berthed in Baltimore and, a few times each summer, runs a day-long “living history cruise” out into Chesapeake Bay. This was partly a research trip (I’m interested in how living history techniques might be applied to the CAF National Airbase) but it also happened to be my birthday present!

ssjwb

Although the SS John W. Brown is a maritime attraction, I felt some strong parallels with the mission and activities of CAF.   Like our airplanes, the ship is presented not as a static display but as a real, live working artifact. The most memorable part of the day was the opportunity to go deep down into the bowels of the ship to see, hear and smell its triple-expansion steam engine at work.  It's easy to imagine the physical and emotional stress of having to work in that incredible heat, under constant threat of being torpedoed by a U-Boat.  You also realize how slim the chances of escape would be.

It was a good reminder that people have similar thoughts and feelings when they can get up close to CAF airplanes, especially when they have the chance to fly in them.

The SS John W. Brown operation is largely made up of volunteers.  Chatting with several of them, it was very much like talking to members of a CAF unit.  Some familiar issues arose (organizational politics, lack of funds, etc!!!) but most important of all, and it's the same with CAF, I felt a deep, endearing passion for keeping the ship afloat and sharing its story with future generations.

Crew members are dressed in historic clothing and we had entertainment from an Abbott & Costello act and another as the Andrews Sisters. There were various other interesting characters on board, including Gen. Omar Bradley, several German POWs and even Rosie the Riveter. 

Halfway through the voyage the ship stopped in the water and we were treated to a mini-air show with warbirds provided by the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum. Several of the onboard guns have been converted to fire propane blanks, and created a cacophony of noise when the boat was “attacked” by a Japanese Kate replica.  I’ve attended many air shows, and this was certainly one of the most unique and exciting experiences! There were about 400 other passengers on board, and judging by their enthusiastic reaction, they seemed to agree.  A little bit of storytelling and "showbiz" goes a long way. 

Overall it was a most enjoyable day out and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone.  I left with a deeper appreciation of the history of Liberty Ships, and found the "living history" approach to be useful.  Good luck in the future to the volunteers and crew of the SS John W. Brown as they endeavor to "Keep 'em Sailing".  If you're interested, they are currently booking living history cruises in May and June 2015 - click this link to find out more. 

One final story.  A 10,000 ton cargo ship in full working order is certainly an impressive artifact but perhaps the most emotional and evocative thing we saw all day was a small piece of paper.   One of the volunteers we spoke with had crewed aboard a Liberty Ship in World War II. He showed us a "Dear John" letter that he received in 1943 from his sweetheart back in Baltimore.  I'll attach a photograph so you can read it for yourself.  Walter can laugh about it now but I'm sure this was a very hurtful letter to receive at the time!

DearJohn

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Dispatch Article

In case you missed it, below is a link to an article I wrote that appears in the October 2014 issue of CAF's monthly magazine Dispatch. It contains a full update on the CAF National Airbase project. 

Oct-Dispatch-article_20150104-182629_1.pdf

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Six Things that Caught My Eye at Oshkosh

Six Things that Caught My Eye at Oshkosh

AirVenture Oshkosh 2014 has just concluded, an excellent week with big crowds and the kind of cool temperatures the organizers pray for.  Steve Brown and I spent a few days exploring opportunities for CAF and the National Airbase project. We had very productive meetings, and got some exciting projects moving. 

Having a golf cart is invaluable in getting around the huge site for meetings.  The Oshkosh tradition is that, if you’re privileged enough to have a golf cart, try where possible to stop and give rides to pedestrians. Steve picked up one gentleman making the inward trek from the parking lots.  “Where are you headed?” we asked. His weary face brightened: “The warbirds… I love those warbirds!”

This is not an unusual reaction. Every year EAA does a survey of the reasons people visit AirVenture and the warbirds are consistently ranked #1. I’ve sometimes heard it said that interest in World War II will dwindle as the “greatest generation” dies away. I disagree, if anything, the interest seems to be growing through the descendants of those who participated. And the aircraft we fly have an enduring public appeal.

Anyway, here’s a quick review of a few things that stood out for me at this year’s Oshkosh. 

1. Warbirds in Review

I’ve been saying for a long time that the Warbirds in Review program is one of the best things at Oshkosh.  Under the leadership of Connie Bowlin it just seems to get better and better each year.  The basic idea has always been to pair incredible airplanes with interesting people.  But the program stepped up a level in 2014 with a new format that made the whole thing feel more like a “show” experience.  The (excellent) living history group got involved, there were live singers doing period music and a three-camera setup feeding into a jumbotron.  We have been thinking of similar things for the CAF National Airbase, and seeing the packed bleachers at Warbirds in Review encourages us to continue in this direction.

2. ICON 

Whatever you think about ICON it’s hard to deny the little amphibious LSA has been masterfully marketed.  I spent time in their tent studying how the airplane was displayed.  Why?  Because of the way they use sound, light and video around the aircraft to create a powerful, dramatic atmosphere.  The more I’ve worked with aviation museums, the more I’ve come to believe in the importance of techniques like this to impact the visitor experience. ICON do it really well.

3. Growler Simulator

I queued for 40 minutes in the hot sunshine to get inside an enclosed 18 wheel trailer that had been brought in by Boeing to build public support for federal funding of their EA-18G Growler.  It was billed as an exciting flight simulator experience.  The reality?  A complete waste of time!  Sometimes you can learn by observing how not to do something, this was one of those times.  It also reinforced what a good job the CAF Red Tail Squadron has done with the “Rise Above” traveling exhibit.  They did not have the budget and resources of Boeing, but did an infinitely better job.

4. Dick Cole's flight in Miss Mitchell

CAF was well-represented at Oshkosh with Diamond Lil taking pride of place on the central display ramp and several other CAF airplanes present too.  It was nice to see Gunfighter participate in the missing-man tribute to EAA’s founder Paul Poberezny, and I was impressed by the industrious T-shirt sales operation around Devil Dog.  But as a CAF highlight it’s hard to top the emotional flight that 98 year old Dick Cole who to a ride in the Minnesota Wing’s B-25. 

5. One Week Wonder

I thought this was the best thing at the whole event.  It began with a good idea – build an entire airplane in public, in just seven days.  And the project was superbly executed.  What I liked best was how the team took time to educate and involve the public along the way.  For example over 2,500 people (including hundreds of kids) actually put a rivet in the airplane and signed their name next to it. We’re cooking a set of ideas about how to do public aircraft restorations at the CAF National Airbase.  Some museums have tried this in the past but I don’t think anyone has ever nailed it cold.  The One Week Wonder gave some very helpful clues.  Maybe next year EAA could try building a WW2 bomber in 24 hours… it’s been done before.

6. iflytheairshow.com

This interesting new company were doing a proof-of-concept demonstration, streaming live HD video from airborne aircraft to the internet, where viewers can take a “virtual ride” choosing from several camera views.  Steve and I saw some of the footage and it was of extremely high quality.  We talked to the company and can see some interesting uses of this technology.  For example, I’d like to see the CAF National Airbase as a hub for distance education, serving educational programs into schools all around the country.  The majority of schools in the USA are now tied into distance learning networks that allow this.   And how cool would it be if classes could fly along in an airplane and even talk to the crew?  If this sounds far-fetched I can tell you that several aquariums are already taking school classes under the sea with scuba divers.  And we now have a technology that allows us to do it in the air.

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Public Meeting

Public Meeting

Last week we held our first meeting with members of the local community.  A couple of months ago Bob Stenevik, David Oliver and I attended a public meeting at the airport, where neighbors were expressing their concerns about the airport development plan.  It was a noisy and raucous affair, reminded me of some stormy trade union meetings when I ran a coal mining museum back home in Scotland. (Here’s a piece of free advice: never pick a fight with a militant Scottish coal miner!) 

But any concerns we had about the CAF’s community meeting were ill-founded.  There was a healthy turn-out - I counted 62 people - and a respectful tone prevailed throughout.  Our president Steve Brown kicked off with a 40 minute presentation where he covered the basics of what the CAF is, what we plan to do in Dallas, and our commitment to be the best neighbors that we can be.   He also tried to answer some of the questions and concerns that had been brought to our attention ahead of time.

Steve was assisted by Brad Lang, who reviewed the activities of the Red Tail Squadron.  As I've told many people since joining CAF, this unit is a microcosm of what we're trying to do with the whole National Airbase project.  Yes the squadron flies an amazing airplane, but they go much, much deeper.  They understand the message the airplane carries and, using first-class display techniques, create a powerful experience that inspires and educates.  This has brought both fundraising success (over $2 million) and significant outreach impact - roughly 50,000 kids a year go through the traveling experience.  I recently spent a day with the Squadron at a middle school in Virginia and will write an expanded blog about that soon.

Back to the public meeting, Steve and Brad's presentation was followed by about an hour of open question-and-answer.  Some of the questions were ordinary and expected, others were quite "pointed", but at the end of the evening we felt it had been a good and productive exchange of information.  There were a lot of appreciative comments afterwards.  Even from my wife, who was in the audience.  I received a mild ticking-off about all the things she learned in the meeting that I’d never told her. 

I felt one of the best exchanges was on the subject of diversity in the CAF.  This was a very fair question to ask.  And to be honest, the issue of diversity is an embarrassment to the whole of aviation.  The US pilot population is 94% male and 6% female; and ethnic diversity almost non-existent.  The question is what are we doing about it?  CAF is the third aviation organization I've worked for since moving to the USA and I can honestly say it's the most progressive, in terms of what the leadership is trying to do.  Is there room for improvement? You bet.  But is progress being made? I thought Brad Lang spoke very sincerely on the culture change he's seen in CAF over the past 17 years. As we made the decision to move to Dallas Executive, diversity was a very real part of the discussion.  We talked about the opportunity to take a leadership role.  For example, 37% of the population of Texas (and 42% of the population of Dallas) is Hispanic or Latino.  One of the most exciting ideas we've got for the CAF national airbase is the opportunity to restore and fly a P-47 Thunderbolt in honor of the "Aztec Eagles", the only Mexican squadron to fly in World War II. 

I noticed the "heat" in the room got turned up whenever the questions turned to the City and their plans for the runways.  We certainly heard the frustration, but these are not questions CAF can answer.  We'll be a tenant at the airport like many others, we're not running it.  I hope this point did come through, and also that the airport in its current configuration is plenty adequate for CAF's needs.

I also felt some frustration that we were unable to share the full and exact terms of the economic development agreement CAF has made with City officials.  We ask for everyone's understanding that we need to follow due process.  Right now we're halfway through turning a "handshake" agreement into the leases and legal agreements that will be presented to the City Council for approval, and everything will be subject to public scrutiny at that time.  But to reiterate a few points made at the meeting:  (1) we expect to be a significant net contributor to both the culture and economy of the City of Dallas; (2) there is no "free ride" - the deal is constructed in such a way that CAF must deliver on its plans and promises before receiving a cent of public money; (3) the City support will account for about 20% of the overall capital project; (4) there are no provisions for financial support of ongoing operations; and (5) all buildings and improvements at the airport made by CAF will belong to the City.

There was some negative feedback about the high cost of airplane rides.  We make them as affordable as we can, but as every CAF unit will affirm, World War II airplanes are not cheap to operate!  I wouldn't overstate the importance of rides in our vision for the CAF museum attraction, my expectation is that something in the region of 2% of visitors will actually take a flight in a historic plane.  For them, it's the ultimate living history experience, often the ride of a lifetime.  For the rest, it's a chance to see and hear the airplane fly; and there will be PLENTY other things to do, including some cutting-edge uses of flight simulation.  And don't forget that Steve Brown also talked about free airplane rides.  I once ran a program called Young Eagles which since 1992 has given a free airplane ride to over 1.8 million kids.  My wife and I have personally donated over 400 flights to this program, and it’s something we look forward to doing at Dallas Executive.  I was very pleased to see that one of the first things the new airport manager (Darrell Phillips) did was organize a Young Eagles event that gave a free airplane ride to 80 local kids. CAF will actively support initiatives like this.

One of the questions was “why was the community not consulted before you made your announcement?”  As Steve Brown explained, in an ideal world that would have happened, but we found ourselves on a very tight timeline, juggling three locations that were trying to attract the CAF.  Also, the Dallas Morning News had published this clearly-worded editorial in September 2013.  At the meeting where the final decision was made I showed this piece to the CAF Board and we discussed it.  We were pleased to have the newspaper’s support, and figured that if there were major objections to the idea of CAF moving to Dallas Executive, we’d have heard them after such a public article.

Some questions during and after the meeting have related to safety, of aircraft operations and of air shows.  I'll give my personal perspective.  First, if we’re going to have airplanes and airports we have to accept, yes, they do sometimes crash and people die.  In America this tends to range between 400 and 500 people per year, about the same number as die falling out of bed.  My mother worries about me flying small planes.  I tell her it’s more dangerous than driving a car, but less dangerous than riding a bicycle, motorcycle or horse (and I try not to tell lies to my mother.) 

One thing worth mentioning about air safety in America is that the regulations are designed as a balance between the individual liberty of the pilot, and the protection of the unknowing person – passengers, homeowners, air show spectators and so on.  Or put in more crude terms, the regulations give a pilot the freedom to risk their own neck, but wherever possible to avoid harm to anyone else. 

As a Brit who moved to the USA, this is one of the finest concepts I’ve ever seen and a practical demonstration of freedom and liberty at work in America.  It plays out in lots of different ways but perhaps most pertinent is in air shows.   There are hundreds of air shows each year attracting 10 million plus spectators.  And in any given year there will, unfortunately, be a handful of accidents.  But it’s always the air show performer that gets hurt.  It’s a verifiable fact that there hasn’t been a spectator fatality at an air show in the USA since 1951, when the rules were changed by a terrible tragedy in Colorado.  [Note... some spectators were tragically killed watching an air race in Reno, NV in 2011.  A casual observer may not see the distinction but there are huge operational and regulatory differences between air shows and air races.]  Great care is taken at air shows to manage the positioning of aircraft and people.  The aircraft fly within what’s called a “box” and this cannot extend over residential properties.  So, for the demonstrations CAF intends to conduct at Dallas Executive the footprint of the “box” will be contained within the physical boundaries of the airport. 

Does CAF have an unblemished safety record? No, its members have been flying since 1957 and there was a time in the early days when the safety record was actually quite poor.  But does the modern CAF take safety incredibly seriously?  Absolutely.  It’s our moral responsibility and we know the future of the organization rests on our ability to fly safely and responsibly.  In fact, my first personal exposure to CAF was a few years ago when I ran historic aircraft operations for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, WI.  We’d experienced a couple of accidents and were overhauling our safety program.  Where did we find the industry-leading model that we wanted to emulate?  At the CAF.  The thing that impressed us most was the organization’s commitment to a culture of safety.  Since I joined the CAF staff it’s been reassuring to see and feel that culture at work every day.

Finally, I received an email after the public meeting that contained some skeptical thoughts about whether CAF can actually pull off its ambitious dreams of a world-class museum attraction. ("Magical thinking" was the phrase used, and it wasn't a compliment!) To this I also say "fair comment"....indeed if there were no skepticism I’d be worried.  One of my great privileges in life has been to work with Burt Rutan, the most brilliant aviation innovator of the modern age. One of Burt's favorite sayings is that he gets truly interested in a project when about 50% of the people around him say "it can't be done" and the other 50% say "hmmm, maybe this is possible." This way of thinking led Burt to change the entire paradigm of the space industry... and “change the paradigm” is what we plan to do to the world of aviation museums.  Personally I find it motivating and invigorating. Yes we're dreaming big, and we're taking on some risk... but aren’t those the things that move the human race forward? 

We’re assembling a world class team and believe we have all the ingredients to succeed.   And if we fail?  Our worst case scenario is that the fundraising effort falls completely flat, in which case CAF will build a headquarters and modest museum on a budget of about $5 million.  A more likely contingency (especially as the fundraising dollars are already starting to come in) is that we fail to hit the full $40 million fundraising target, in which case we’ll scale or phase our efforts accordingly.  From where we sit today we are several years away from a decision like that.  And remember what I wrote earlier, this is a low-to-no risk deal for the City – before we receive any financial incentives we must first deliver. 

So that’s my take on the public meeting.  I enjoyed it and look forward to more in the future, as we move through the project I want to get community input on the detailed design and operations of our facilities.  Further comments and questions are welcome in the comments section below.  We are firmly committed to being the best neighbors we can be.

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IMAX: D-Day, Normandy 1944

IMAX: D-Day, Normandy 1944

For the last thirty years the 40 minute IMAX film has been a mainstay of large scale museums, science centers and similar attractions.  I must have watched dozens of them and, at their best, they're unmatched in terms of combining an educational story with a “wow” experience.  My all-time favorite is Space Station 3-D, which is about as close to the actual experience of flying in space as it’s possible to get while staying on terra firma.  

But it’s commonly acknowledged that the IMAX brand has been damaged in recent years, and their films have somehow lost that “must see” aura.  Why is this?  There are various theories, but my personal belief is simply that the standard of movies dropped.  I’ve seen several films recently that were like an average TV documentary shown on a very large screen.  They left me yearning for the IMAX movies of old, with lush cinematography that could take your breath away and make you feel something.  (I’ve heard such scenes described as “IMAX moments”.)

I think IMAX Corp. may have recognized this problem, as they recently announced a $50m fund to make ten high quality documentaries over the next 5 years. And judging by the new release “D-Day, Normandy 1944” the improvement has already begun.  It’s the best IMAX film I’ve seen in a long, long time.

The documentary is narrated by Tom Brokaw and has been released as part of the 70th anniversary commemorations of D-Day.  One of the things that impressed me was that it was cleverly structured to work on more than one level.  For someone with little knowledge of D-Day, whether a third grader or an adult, it told the basic story of what happened, who did what, and why it was important.  But there was also a lot of value for someone that’s studied D-Day closely.  The use of computer animations were especially good in this regard, they looked fantastic and helped create insight and understanding.

The bottom line is that I sat down with low expectations but left 45 minutes later with genuine tears in my eyes.  As we filed out of the theater, it was clear from the faces of others moviegoers that it had affected many of them too.  The closing sequence was incredibly moving, flying low over the Normandy cemeteries in the golden light of sunset with beautiful music by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.   An “IMAX moment” if ever there were.

Will there be a large format theater at the CAF National Air Base?  It’s something I would like to take a look at, even though some museums are reporting problems with the IMAX business model.  There are alternative approaches – for example the “Beyond All Boundaries” presentation at the National WW2 Museum in New Orleans, a “4-D” production supported by Tom Hanks, has clearly been a huge success, an exhibit that transformed the entire museum in a positive way.  But one thing is for sure, if we do something along these lines, the content will need to be first class.

 

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