Sitting in the pilot’s seat

This past weekend I visited the Tillamook Air Museum near the Oregon coast. It was a Naval Air Station during World War II that housed — believe it or not — blimps used to patrol for Japanese submarines along the coast. Today it houses what it bills as “one of the top five privately owned aircraft collections in the nation.”

I went because they have a plane of the same type that Lieutenant Commander Christman flew during WWII — the plane that was the source of the piece of plastic that turned up in the belly of the albatross on Kure atoll in 2004, as I wrote in my earlier post.

I hoped if I saw the plane in person, if I touched it, rapped on it, smelled it,  I could get some tangible sense of what it was like to be in that plane in wartime, of what it was like to be Christman.

I walked into the massive, dimly lit hangar and looked around. I am no aircraft trivia nut. I never built a model in my life. In fact, I find it kind of hard to believe I have grown so interested in a WWII plane. My eyes pretty much glaze over at talk of engines and horsepower and model numbers. But I’ve read so much about what it was like for the soldiers — average age 24 — to fly in these planes: long hours over the vast blankness of the ocean punctuated by terrifying attacks by Japanese fighters in faster, better armed, better equipped planes. I’ve read about the position of the gunners, the radioman, the mechanic, the bombardier. How they cooked coffee and canned soup on a hot plate and slept in canvas bunks while the engines droned on through the surrounding black of night and water. I wanted a sense of it in person.

I didn’t see the PBY straight off, and I wondered if I really would be able to identify the real thing after seeing it in pictures. I strode off randomly to the right, passed by a few potentials and many that were certainly not it. I came to the end and headed the other direction. I walked all the way toward the back of the gigantic hangar (the largest wooden structure in the world, built from Oregon Douglas fir because steel was scarce during the war, but wood in Oregon was plentiful). Finally, I spied it from a ways off — the last plane back in the far left corner. I felt kind of relieved that I could immediately identify its familiar contours.

I walked around the plane, tapped it, peered inside. It is an impressive aircraft — 63 feet long with a 100-foot wingspan. If it parked on my street it would dwarf the houses on both sides. Its wings rise up above its body from a gracefully fluted center pylon;  the engines swell out of the wings; the body curves just like the hull of a boat.

It is the hull of a boat. The fact that a machine like this could both fly and float in the water, that all the terminology around it is naval terminology (aft, starboard, hull) seems incredible, a flying boat, a fantastical hybrid now rarely encountered. The PBY became famous for landing in rough seas and plucking out of the water soldiers shot down in planes or set adrift from torpedoed boats.

I spent a long time peering into the windows, walking around the hull, taking notes. I felt like I’d entered a kind of cathedral, a hushed and sacred space. Or I wanted to feel that way. As I picked up my stuff to leave I actually felt a little empty. The plane was after all just a machine, ingenious but dated: engines, propellers and gears, welded and riveted steel.

I still had some questions about the plane, though, some minutia about its construction (using plastic) I wanted to answer. On the way out I asked at the desk if there were a staff historian, and I met Christian Gurling, the curator, who made the plane more alive for me.  But that’s for the next post.

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