museum tourist: air and space reception

One of the many lovely things about living (a) in the nation’s capital and (b) near my parents is that I occasionally get taken along to evening events at Smithsonian museums for whatever kind of member my parents are. Last week it was a reception for the new Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight gallery.

First of all, in case you don’t have your Hilton genealogy straight (some other guests and I discussed this, and they weren’t sure, either), Barron Hilton is Paris Hilton’s grandfather. He’s the one who thinks Paris has disgraced the family name. Conrad Hilton was the one who started the whole Hilton hotel thing, and he was Barron Hilton’s father. Putting Barron Hilton’s name on the exhibit continues a Smithsonian tradition, which seems to have picked up in the last decade or so, of putting the name of extremely rich people on the names of exhibits. Thus the Sant Ocean Hall and the Behring Everything.

Of course, extremely rich people are used to this sort of thing; their names are everywhere. Thus, Barron Hilton appears below August Busch III on this list of “Team Members”:

That’s the capsule that Steve Fossett used to become the first person to make a round-the-world non-stop solo flight in a balloon.

You have to be careful when you see something like “round-the-world non-stop solo flight in a balloon” – it’s easy to skim past the qualifiers. Other people had flown around the world non-stop before. An Air Force plane did it in 1949, with in-flight refueling. Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager did it without refueling in 1986. Another team had even managed to fly around the world non-stop in a balloon before – Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones, in 1999. (Read my story about the Piccard family.) Fossett’s record was that he was the first one to do it by himself. That was in 2002.

Moral: There are a *lot* of records to be set, so listen closely to the qualifiers.

Since I mentioned the Piccard/Jones flight, the red Tylenol-like thing in the bottom of this picture is the capsule from their balloon flight:

Anyway. Back to the gallery at hand. I honestly didn’t spend that much time looking at the exhibit, because I was distracted by things like this:

Holy cow, it was good food. I’m talking about things like “Individual Truffle Macaroni and Cheese” and Kobe beef sliders. And the desserts! Wow. I must think this kind of event is a curator’s nightmare – I saw lots of beers and wine glasses and food plates on top of display cases – but on the other hand, nobody was, like, throwing their mashed vegetables onto the wing of the bright red plane once owned by Amelia Earhart. At least, not that I saw.

Speaking of Amelia Earhart, I learned that in addition to writing about her adventures in books and for National Geographic, she was the aviation editor for Cosmopolitan magazine. Yow. Can you even get your head around that concept today? “77 Sex Positions in 77 Days…On a Plane!” “The Surprising Thing That Turns Men Off…On a Plane!” (I gather Cosmo was different in the 20′s.)

The new gallery also features the plane that made the first non-stop cross-country flight, a nearly 27-hour slog from Long Island to San Diego. This was in 1923. The thing that most impressed me was not the plane, which is, you know, kind of plane-like, but a newspaper clipping reproduced next to it. It was from the LA Times and quoted a telegram from Ezra Meeker of New York City, who wrote to the pilots:

Congratulations on your wonderful flight, which beats my time made seventy-one years ago by ox team at two miles an hour, five months on the way. Happy to see in my ninety-third year so great a transformation in methods of travel. Ready to go with you next time.

I find it kind of mindblowing that only 71 years before, Ezra Meeker was crossing the country by ox team. And in 1923, it took 27 hours and Air Force training to do it. And now, 88 years later, I can just buy a ticket and go to San Diego whenever I want. Crazy.

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