It might be fifteen years ago that we took a family trip to Niagara Falls. The falls were spectacular, with lots of rumbling water and drifting spray, but I best remember seeing a B-17 as we drove along Route 20. Visibility was good under the clouds that were overcast at about 3000 feet, and there were a few lower clouds scattered around to give the gray view a bit of dimension. Amidst this rainy- day sky I was thrilled to see the B-17 and a P-40 come into view, grow bigger, and pass by close and low as we drove along.
We saw the plane again as it flew over Niagara falls two days later, and we saw it yet again as we neared Genesseo the next day. At that time, I had no involvement with aviation, but I had learned that the B-17 was based in Genesseo. The temptation was too great, and we made our first of many visits to the National Warplane Museum.
Back then it was quite informal, with planes parked in the grass and the one large hangar filled with working airplanes, repair jobs, and restorations. Ramshackle "T" hangars and a long wooden storage building held other miscellaneous treasures. There was a sort of grass-airport honor system whereby you could do most anything as long as you were careful and considerate. We climbed up into the B-17, the Fuddy Duddy, explored it unescorted, and took pictures of the kids in the pilots' seats, and then did the same thing in their PBY.
Even then, I felt lucky to have such a neat collection of "old iron" so close by, and I never dreamed that the museum would move to Big Flats and become what it is today. Neither did I think that someday the B-17 would fly over my house on such a regular basis that I might not even look up if it sounded too distant. Its passage has become a fixture of pleasant summer Sundays as I work in the shop or the yard. Although I might not look up, I always hear it, smile, and say a thank- you that I have heard the rumble of four big engines and propellers just one more time.
Jets pass overhead too, but their stubby wings and their engine noise suggest that they make their way by artlessly burning a hole through the air. The Fuddy Duddy's long wide wings reach out and embrace the sky. It patiently floats on and off of the runway in comparison to the smoke and commotion that accompanies jets as they come and go. To me, it is as soothing as listening to a Johnny- Popper working a field, or the distant clip- clop of a horse and carriage.
The Museum moved in right next door while I was working at the Elmira Airport, and like any other sorts of neighbors, there was a steady flow of traffic between our back doors. In some ways it was like the old grass field days when you could fly in and sit right down during coffee break and share stories. My back- door privileges gave me a front row seat to all of the museum's restoration activities.
I no longer work at the airport, I just sort of pass through at odd hours. Usually the museum is closed when I am there, and seldom am I around when it is open. Sometimes though I am able to cross paths with the guys and catch up on things that are going on. Last week was interesting because they were working late to accommodate the arrivals of two Russian jets.
In a recent bit of horse- trading, the Museum acquired a MiG 21 in exchange for floor space for a MiG 17 restoration project. Everyone wins in this trade because we can view the -21 as a static display, and view the -17 as it is torn down and built back to flying condition. From time to time people all over the country will be able to see the Mig-17 in flight at airshows.
Last Sunday's dreary morning left me no excuse not to drive down and visit the museum, this time through the front door. I hadn't seen the B-57 since its completion, and there was a number of other things that I knew would be interesting to see in the restoration hangar. I had put off a visit for too long, and for that matter, my membership had been lapsed too long.
I will never be in a position to volunteer 40 hours a week in the restoration hangar like some people, but at least I can say a thank- you to the folks who do. I appreciate having so many beautiful airplanes on display, and I appreciate the sight and sound of the B-17 each time it passes overhead.
On a nice day, The Museum's B-17 will overfly my house on several siteseeing flights from the Elmira Airport to the southern edge of the Finger Lakes. Flights are made on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays during the summer.