What does it take to organize a fly-in at the National Air and Space Museum? Lots of time and lots of good friends! As we head into our sixth year of Become a Pilot Day, it’s a great time to look back at how it all started and where we go from here.
As a pilot myself, the idea of a fly-in was a no-brainer. The Udvar-Hazy Center, immediately adjacent to Washington Dulles International Airport and with lots of outdoor space to tie down aircraft, was perfectly situated to host such an event. After some convincing of my boss and the Museum’s leadership, and the generous support of a donor ready to support the event, I was ready to coordinate the first ever fly-in at the Smithsonian.
It was a little nerve-racking to now be in charge of finding aircraft and pilots for an event that had no precedent. For the first year event, we decided to accept planes and pilots that had someone at the National Air and Space Museum who could vouch for them. We had 30 aircraft scheduled to attend (27 made it), and each of them knew either me or the Museum’s curator of general aviation, who is also a pilot. It was a great day, everything went smoothly and the weather was great. A few airplanes were nestled up at nearby Landmark aviation the night before, including mine, so even if the weather had been bad we would still have planes on the ground. My husband was drafted to lead the “airplane conga line” in our Navion from the parking area at the airport to the Udvar-Hazy Center.
From the pilots and aircraft flying in to the people helping on the ground, Become A Pilot Day could never happen without our volunteers. That first year, I knew I was going to have a bunch of pilots landing at Dulles, which can be a bit of a challenge for someone used to flying at a small field. Instead of the usual taxi of less than a mile, they’d have to taxi about six miles across the airport to the Udvar-Hazy Center. I knew I’d need some of the best aircraft parkers in the world. As it happens, my husband and I volunteer at Oshkosh (now AirVenture) which is the largest general aviation fly-in in the world, so I called up the co-chair of vintage parking and another senior aircraft parker and said, “Hey, you guys want to come to the Museum and park some planes?” They said “Sure, sounds like fun.” Considering they both lived in Colorado and came out on their own dime, that’s a big deal! They’ve returned to support us every year since.
We have no shortage of folks willing to help and share their love of aviation with the public. Everyone from Museum volunteers & staff helping with logistics & public programs, to Civil Air Patrol Cadets, Jr. ROTC cadets, and scouts helping with everything from crowd control to the 6AM FOD Walk (FOD stands for Foreign Object Damage) to make sure there’s nothing outside on the ground that might be sucked into a jet engine.
We had a great mix of aircraft and pilots the first year, and each year we’ve had a few more aircraft, from farther away and representing even more diversity. We’ve had many different kind of pilots including record setting pilots, famous pilots, commercial jet pilots, flying businessman, a elderly gentleman with an equally elderly aircraft, weekend pilots, glider pilots, hot air balloon pilots, aircraft mechanics, dentists, military pilots, hang gliders, and just about everything else, but one thing that remained constant, they all volunteered to be here and they all love flying.
We add or do something different each year, but we always have the same basic foundation: great volunteers who are enthusiastic about air and space and sharing their love for aviation with our visitors. For our visitors, it is a rare opportunity to meet pilots, see working airplanes up close and in many cases, climb into the pilot’s seat. This year will be no different, with about 50 airplanes and lots of activities, including a demonstration from wing walkers (on the ground, of course).
I would like to personally thank all of our volunteers and sponsors we’ve had for the past six years of Become a Pilot Day. It’s an enormous amount of work, but when the day comes and the ramp is full of kids of all ages climbing in and out of working airplanes, all smiling and having a great time, it’s worth every bit of effort and then some. On this day one can’t help but feel that the sky is not the limit.
Margy Natalie is the docent program manager at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at the National Air and Space Museum.