This past week, we attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Washington, DC. As we usually do, we applied a divide-and-conquer method to deciding which panels and presentations we would attend individually. Doug attended an especially intriguing panel on science writing, featuring David Everett, Nancy Shute, James Shreeve, and Christopher Joyce. We’ll have more to say about the science writing panels at this and last year’s AWP in future posts, but for this week, we’ve latched onto one of the panel’s takeaway ideas: the best science writing isn’t as much about science as it is about people.
We extended our AWP travel by a day to traipse up to Baltimore, where we had solidified our relationship a decade earlier during weekends walking the cobblestone and eating crab cakes at John Steven. (The people—especially our two bartenders last weekend—were as important to our great experience as the food and beer.). On the way back to National Airport, we stopped at the College Park Aviation Museum, a facility that recognizes that the best aviation museums aren’t as much about the planes as they are about the people.
Sure, the aircraft are important and impressive focal points as artifacts both of technology and history, but aviation museums aren’t simply storage spaces for engines, wings, and instrument panels. No, the best aviation museums collapse the distance between the viewer and the lives of the people who built, flew, and maintained the aircraft. These spaces use the buffed, shiny aluminum fuselage panels of a P-51 or a DC-3 as a mirror, allowing us to see ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder with the men and women who made the last century aviation’s century.
Perhaps no aviation museum does this better than the one in College Park, as it brings aviation’s pioneers into focus. In fact, because the museum focuses on the early days of controlled flight, the aircraft on display could easily feel more distant and less dazzling than the jets and rockets just a few miles way at the two National Air and Space Museum buildings. Instead, the mannequins, voice recordings, and written narratives invite visitors into the story, all of it tied directly to the College Park Airport where the museum resides. Located a stone’s throw from the expanding campus of the University of Maryland, the College Park Airport is home to a hundred years of tentative takeoffs and greased landings. With its birth in 1909, this small airfield is the oldest continuously operating airport in the world.
We’ve written about this museum before in scholarship and at Lofty Ambitions (click here), and we were frequent visitors in the early 1990s, when the artifacts—no planes—were housed in a doublewide trailer. Now, the artifacts—including numerous aircraft—are housed in an airy, inviting building. But the focus remains on the story of the College Park Airport.
Wilbur Wright began giving flight instruction on this site on October 8, 1909. The first Airmail Postal Service began at the College Park Airport on August 12, 1918. In a publicity stunt and Liberty Bonds promotion, actor Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., sent himself as an airmail package that year. In 1921, College Park lost its role in the airmail system, and five years later, airmail was turned over to private businesses. On September 5, 1931, the first flight to use radio navigation to fly “blind” occurred at the College Park Airport. The airport remained a venue for air shows throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and we attended air shows there in the 1990s. In fact, Anna wrote a poem called “Fascination: The College Park Airshow, 1992” to capture the sense of history—the hints of story—that the museum now portrays.
The museum’s western wall is an open vista of windows overlooking the active runways. The day we visited, first one, then two, and eventually a half-dozen hawks whirled and gyred over those runways and nearby stand of trees. Their unhurried arcs were a stark reminder that, while human ventures into the air surpass nature’s in quantifiable measures of speed, height, and distance, our efforts remain hollow echoes in beauty, grace, and the appearance of effortlessness.