Visiting the Space Shuttle FFT & touring a B-17 at the Museum of Flight

A couple weeks ago, I watched NASA’s Super Guppy flying in the crew compartment section of the Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer (FFT). Today, I checked it out while it was being reassembled at the Museum of Flight here in Seattle.

Space Shuttle trainer assembly (1)

Yes, it’s made of wood, but every shuttle astronaut was trained in the FFT, and the last crew even signed their names under the nose — it’s an important part of NASA history. One of the wonderful things about Seattle getting the FFT rather than one of the actual shuttles is that visitors to the museum will be able to go through it, as we can do today aboard the first jet-powered Air Force One, a Concorde, and one of the last B-17 bombers still in flying condition.

As much as I’m anticipating a tour of the FFT, I was most inspired today by a walk-through — more of a crawl-through, really — of that Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. The “Boeing Bee” is one of only a handful of B-17’s still capable of taking to the skies. The bomber was manufactured just up the road from the Museum of Flight, and our docent was a retired Boeing engineer, able to rattle off both technical details and war stories with equal panache.

B-17 cockpit (1)

After squeezing around the ball turret, through the radio room, across the bomb bay, and into the cockpit, it wasn’t difficult to imagine how hellish it must have been for the ten-man crew, flying into German flak and fighters. But with thousands of pounds of bombs and eleven .50-caliber machine guns sprouting from just about every surface, the B-17 dealt death to the world below in equal measure.

Standing there in the July sun outside the Museum of Flight, I thought back to a quote I’d just read inside, from James Smith McDonnell, founder of the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation — builder of both fighter planes like the F-4 Phantom II and space capsules for the Mercury and Gemini programs:

“The creative conquest of space will serve as a wonderful substitute for war.”

Perhaps there’ll be a day when we pour as much technology and passion into the conquest of space as we do into conquering each other.