Located just a stone’s throw—or for us two weeks ago, a failed launch away—from the Astronauts’s Hall of Fame and the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum (VAC). Because we’ve done research on how aviation museums represent World War II (published in the book Bombs Away! and the journal Curator), we stopped by VAC one morning during our trip to the Space Coast.
We were greeted by docent Ralph Arlin, a volunteer with the local police department as well as a new volunteer at VAC. That’s one of the amazing things about aviation museums: the enthusiasm and knowledge of a cadre of volunteers. At VAC, most of the volunteers work to restore decrepit aircraft that sometimes arrive missing pieces or in pieces. Ralph pointed out not only some of the artifacts and aircraft in the memorabilia room and the main exhibition hangar, but also took us on a quick tour of the restoration hangar where two aircraft were being rebuilt. It’s rare to get such a close-up look at restorations in progress, to see the innards of aircraft. The at-arm’s-length view of these in-process planes reveals the juxtaposed references of solidity in a shiny steel wing structure and the seemingly chaotic complexity of half-finished wiring looms. We came away impressed by the machine’s ability to simultaneously embody sturdiness and fragility.
The memorabilia room, the main exhibition hangar, the restoration hangar, and the museum’s ground—its front and back yards—are jam-packed:
The one-of-a-kind aircraft among the collection is the F-5E used in NASA’s Shaped Sonic Boom Experiment. Initially, the project was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The fuselage was reshaped in hopes of demonstrating that its sonic boom could be reduced. Indeed, analysis of recordings from various positions indicated that the sonic boom was reduced by a third. Occasionally, an aviation museum will have a plane that is the last of its kind, or the last of its kind flying, but this version of the F-5E is the only one of its kind ever. It stands as a stark reminder of the power of museums and archives to preserve to unique.
VAC also hosts a three-day airshow. The next one is scheduled for March 11-14, 2011, and commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Flying Tigers, an American volunteer group in the Chinese Army that flew fighters painted with shark faces.