Review: The Museum of Flight

Open 10am-5pm (closed Christmas and Thanksgiving)
9404 East Marginal Way South, Seattle, WA 98108-4097
+1 206 764 5700

Long before the advent of computer-generated imagery, better known as CGI, filmmakers relied on actual planes to recreate the thrills and dangers of aerial combat. Most of these aircraft would later be intentionally wrecked or sold for scrap parts. But fortunately, some of them managed to survive – landing a new starring role at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington.

The entrance to the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. It is the largest privately owned air and space museum in the world, with an extensive permanent collection.

Situated alongside the King County International Airport (formerly Boeing Field), the 23-acre facility is the largest privately owned air and space museum in the world and features more than 175 aircraft and spacecraft.

The museum also houses the original Boeing Company ‘Red Barn’ workshop, a NASA Space Shuttle Trainer, and a rare exhibition of the rocket engines used to launch Apollo astronauts to the Moon.

America’s Pacific North-west has deep roots in the aviation industry – largely thanks to a lumber baron whose vision extended well beyond the treetops. William Boeing, the son of European immigrants, caught his first glimpse of a ‘flying machine’ in 1909 at a World’s Fair in Seattle.

The Pfalz D.XII. This aircraft is a survivor of World War I and was one of a large group of German aircraft brought to the United States for evaluation after the war.

He later co-founded the Pacific Aero Products Co., which soon changed its name to the Boeing Airplane Company. The aerospace manufacturer emerged as a major defence contractor during World War II, producing thousands of military aircraft, ranging from the P-26 ‘Peashooter’ to the B-29 ‘Superfortress’.

The museum’s five main galleries stretch across East and West campuses and include a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park, with a B-52G Stratofortress. Nearby, the outdoor Aviation Pavilion showcases several notable non-military planes, such as a supersonic Concorde, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and the first jet Air Force One, which served four US Presidents.

As for those famous warbirds from the silver screen, the roster includes:

Pfalz D.XII Having flown primarily in Bavarian Jagdstaffels during the final months of World War I, the Pfalz D.XII could reach a maximum speed of 170km/h. Its armament consists of two 7.92mm Spandau machine-guns.

Spitfire IX, which is on long-term loan to the museum. The IX was the second most numerous of all variants produced (after the V), with 5,665 built in total.

The museum’s bi-winged fighter can be seen in Howard Hawks’ WWI drama The Dawn Patrol (aka Flight Commander). Hawks, a former World War I flight instructor, even played a German pilot in an uncredited role.

The 1930 movie enjoyed both commercial and critical acclaim – especially for its realistic stunts and dogfighting scenes. Much of the aerial footage, which included Nieuport 28s and reconfigured Travel Air 4000s (popularly known as ‘Wichita Fokkers’), was reused in the 1938 remake starring Errol Flynn.

The original version, an early Warner Brothers talkie, also involved plenty of drama off-screen. The production commenced around the same time that another film-loving pilot, Howard Hughes, completed his own aviation epic Hell’s Angels. And when Hawks hired several of the same pilots and cameramen, Hughes attempted to sabotage the rival film by suing for plagiarism. Ironically, the two Howards would go on to collaborate on the 1932 film-noir classic Scarface.

Spitfire IX This iconic British fighter possesses a lengthy CV that includes the rare feat of seeing action both on D-Day and in its movie version, The Longest Day (1962). The plane also appeared in numerous scenes in Battle of Britain (1969), and was later owned by actor/pilot Cliff Robertson.

The museum’s Bf 109 hangs from the rafters of the WWI and WWII wing. At the time of its first flight in May 1935, it was the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft.

Manufactured in early 1944 at the Castle Bromwich aircraft factory in Birmingham, Spitfire IX MK923 was initially flight-tested by legendary air-racer Alex Henshaw, and was assigned to 126 Squadron with code 5J-Z at RAF Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire. As part of Culmhead Wing (led by British ace Peter Brothers), the unit engaged in small-scale attacks (known as ‘Rhubarbs’) surrounding the Normandy Invasion.

After the war, MK923 flew in the Royal Netherlands Air Force, taking part in combat operations on Java and Sumatra during the Indonesian National Revolution. The well-travelled aircraft then had a brief stint in the Belgian Air Force before turning to showbusiness. In 1972, Robertson had the airframe overhauled and refitted with a Rolls-Royce Merlin 76, taken from the port engine of a de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito. Over the next three decades, the Spitfire entertained crowds at air shows across the US and Canada, before retiring to Seattle in 2000.

The B-17, which appeared in numerous films. It is considered the finest restored aircraft of its type in the world, with almost entirely authentic components.

Bf 109 The museum’s website describes its WWI and WWII wing as ‘a two-story gallery that highlights the stories of courage, dedication, heroism and the triumph of the human spirit’. Fittingly, a Messerschmitt Bf 109E hangs ominously from the rafters, directly across from its aforementioned Battle of Britain nemesis.

The German aircraft had been originally assembled in Spain as a Hispano Aviación HA-1112 for the Spanish Air Force, a licensed variant of the Bf 109G. The fighter is one of 17 airworthy HA-1112s used during the production of Patton (1970), starring George C Scott in the title role as ‘Old Blood and Guts’ (the film’s original title).

A statue of an American airman forms the centrepiece of the museum’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park. Designed by artist James J Nance, it stands in front of the restored B-52G Stratofortress 59-2584 ‘Midnight Express’.

Shooting took place mostly in Spain, where the filmmakers benefited from the country’s German and US military equipment surplus. Additionally, the production employed thousands of Spanish troops as background extras. In 1972, the plane was bought by firearms manufacturer and aviation enthusiast Doug Champlin. Congruent with its patchwork history, the cowling and Daimler-Benz DB-601A engine were most likely cobbled together from the Dornier-Swiss-built Bf 109E J392. Now registered as NX109J, the current livery reflects the paint scheme of Luftwaffe ace Hans ‘Assi’ Hahn.

B-17 As one of more than 12,000 ‘Flying Fortress’ long-range bombers built during WWII, the Museum’s B-17F (N17W) rolled out of Boeing’s factory, about a mile north of its current location, in March 1943. It spent the next two years as a flight trainer before relocating to England, operating in a non-combat capacity. On its return to the US, it flew as a firefighting operator, crop-sprayer, and air tanker before Hollywood came calling in 1968. The aircraft made its debut in The Thousand Plane Raid and appeared the following year in Tora! Tora! Tora!.

In 1990, the B-17 finished its illustrious showbiz career in the WWII drama Memphis Belle. Starring Matthew Modine and shot on location in England, the movie is loosely based on a real Flying Fortress crew and their 25th (and final) mission. Director Michael Caton-Jones managed to create the illusion of a large fleet by having most of the bombers adopt multiple identities. During the take-off scenes, the N17W is adorned with the nose art ‘Clooney Baby’ and ‘Buck Aroo’ on its port and starboard sides but is shown as ‘C Cup’ while airborne. After the film wrapped, the B-17 underwent a thorough restoration before going on permanent display as the newly christened ‘Boeing Bee’.

A view of the inside of the museum’s vast aircraft hangar. More than 175 aircraft and spacecraft are on show here, along with tens of thousands of related artefacts.

In addition to its permanent collection, the museum recently launched a new travelling exhibition, The Walt Disney Studios and World War II. The retrospective presentation depicts how the animation studio contributed to the war effort by integrating Disney characters in a variety of films and print campaigns. The exhibition includes 550 examples of these rare historical objects and film clips.

One of the museum’s most popular events is its annual Hops & Props, featuring more than 100 craft brews, as well as gourmet food and live music. Aviation enthusiasts looking for other stimulation can experience the interactive i360 flight simulator.

Its two-seat capsule allows a ‘pilot’ and ‘gunner’ to engage in simulated air combat, with a choice of nine historic aircraft, including the P-51 Mustang, F-4 Phantom II, and F-16 Fighting Falcon. According to Ted Huetter, Senior Public Relations Manager, visitors can ‘dogfight, barrel roll, and fly upside down to your heart’s content!’

However, please be advised that consuming a large meal or necking pints of craft ale beforehand is certainly not recommended. You have been warned. •

All images: Christopher Warner