16 February 2010

History underneath my fingernails

As I scrubbed the dripping de-greaser from the B-25’s left wheel well, I was struck by the notion that making models of the same aircraft as a child never included so many stinging dings on my hands from the unsoftened edges of pre-1940s metalwork.

I recently began volunteering with the Commemorative Air Force Minnesota Wing. It is based in a World War II-era hangar at Fleming Field in South St. Paul, and houses several vintage aircraft amidst a rather extensive museum collection of uniforms, equipment, and other historical bits and pieces. I’d daydreamed about becoming involved with the group for years, but made the plunge this year after one too many weekends at dance competitions.

What I’ve experienced so far has been eye-opening. I have built model airplanes since I was 7 years old, and thought I knew my way around a B-17 nose compartment or a P-51 cockpit. Models, being as small as they are, greatly simplify everything as a matter of economy. For example, a cockpit in a model kit, depending on the scale, could consist of a floor, and instrument panel, two control columns and two seats. In the real thing, it’s slightly different.

On my first day at Fleming, I was able to crawl around the inside of “Miss Mitchell,” a B-25J medium bomber, a type most famously associated with “The Doolittle Raid” on mainland Japan in April 1942. It was my first time inside of one of the aircraft I thought I knew so well. That familiarity ended the moment I crawled through the too-small floor hatch and into the dark insides of the aircraft. There is no way to convey the cramped, everything-on-top-of-the-other sense of claustaphobia I felt in that cockpit.

When I sat in the pilot’s seat and stared through the Plexiglas canopy, I remarked that the entire pilots’ area was about as big as the two front seats in the old Chevrolet Cavalier I used to drive. It’s something that has to be felt to be understood. I couldn’t even fit into the top turret, having shoulders that are apparently wider than those of the flight engineers who manned the same guns in combat 65 years ago. Later, I thought I was going to get stuck in the tunnel connecting the cockpit to the bombardier’s expansively windowed compartment at the front of the plane.

When I popped out of the same belly hatch I’d crawled into minutes before, I felt as though I’d been doing contortions. These machines were not designed with comfort in mind. They were designed for one purpose – to deliver a payload on an enemy target. If your feet didn’t go numb during the ride, so much the better. Part of me wonders how this people from today’s relatively soft “Sleep Number bed” society would handle the unforgiving nature of this design philosophy if it were inflicted on them today. They’d probably talk to their therapists, and then sue.

Another thing I’ve learned: these machines may be old, but they are astoundingly complex. I was amazed at how many parts were inside the wheel well I was cleaning, and how many of them had to work together to accomplish a specific task. It’s not just the big things, either – the little things are impressive, too. During my first visit, someone showed me some rust-encrusted gun sights that had been pulled from a wreck of a B-25 that had crashed in a lake years before.

The sights, which I’d never seen before, used a system of mirrors and lights to reflect the target and help the gunner more accurately aim. It was something so tactile and clever that I couldn’t help but be amazed. Many of the relics at Fleming fall into the same boat. Things from that era are still impressively engineered and well made, and I respect the creators all the more because they designed these things with slide rules and pencils.

I came home with part of history underneath my fingernails last Saturday after cleaning out that wheel well. When I got home, I looked at the stack of un-built model kits in the basement that await my time and patience, and found them somehow lacking in comparison to what I’d just done. For years, I’d only tasted pale imitations of the historical machines I’d admired from a distance. Now, I’m getting my hands dirty, and it feels great.

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