Thursday, January 29, 2009

Fascinating planes at airports fly no more

I am not able to articulate why there is a relationship between timeless motorcycles like the Royal Enfield Bullet and vintage warplanes, but it exists. Perhaps, as mechanical objects evocative of another time, they share an original seriousness of purpose that has become a bit quaint and nostalgic.

It's hard to imagine being nostalgic about a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, so I was surprised to see a reference to "B-52 Memorial Park" when I visited Orlando, Florida this weekend. Sure enough, following signs around the edge of the airport, I came to this giant, eight-engined jet bomber on display in a small park.

This was about as close as I've ever been to one of these Cold War airplanes, although I was once buzzed by one while camping on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Designed to fly in the stratosphere, the massive bombers were instead configured to fly at only a few hundred feet to sneak in under enemy radar. The one I encountered at dawn in the mountains seemed to darken the sky in the seconds before it was gone. I was left gaping and trying to explain to my wife what I had just seen.

Other B-52s are still flying but the one on display at Orlando International Airport is there to remind visitors that today's civilian airport once was McCoy Air Force Base, home to the big bombers.

The Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport near my home also has a military history; it was Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale. As a young aviator, former President George H.W. Bush trained there during World War II on Avenger torpedo bombers. The airport does not have an Avenger to display, unfortunately, but there is a naval anti-aircraft gun mounted at a small museum in a distant corner of the airport.

Far more prominent is the Grumman Wildcat fighter plane on display in Terminal Two at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago (below). The now very rare World War II naval fighter is there to honor heroic pilot Edward "Butch" O'Hare, for whom the airport is named.

Other airports with memorials include Milwaukee, with its B-25 Mitchell bomber. I'm always happy to see these reminders of the past when I travel. Something about remembering seems like paying homage to those who defended us then and those who still do.

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