A stroll through the Hill Aerospace Museum

Posted 01 Feb 2017    Edited 01 Feb 2017

There is an American military facility 8 kilometers south of Ogden, Utah: Hill Air Force Base. about a tenth of a square kilometer in the northwest corner of the base is dedicated to the Hill Aerospace Museum. The museum showcases over 90 retired military aircraft and vehicles. There are a couple of the planes and a helicopter that could still fly, but all of the exhibits are "decommissioned" or whatever.

I visited the museum last week.

I was freaking out at how cool everything was. I'm taking a fluid mechanics class right now, so I kinda looked at all the aircraft from that perspective: What aspects of the design contributed to speed? - Which contributed to strength? - How many engineers were responsible for each component of the aircraft? - What was the range on a single fuel-up? - etc ...

I really got off on explaining the inside information I had as an engineer. I had a moment of especial smugness as I explained the purpose of the forward-facing shiny metal tubes that were prominent on almost all the aircraft (these were pitot [pee-toe] tubes that use measures of static and dynamic pressure around the plane to measure wind speed relative to the surfaces of the aircraft). At the end of the loop we did through the exhibits there was a little placard explaining that "the little metal tubes you see on the planes are called pitot tubes. They measure pressure outside the plane to give operators a reading on relative wind speed..." I was like, "Yeah, too bad we all know that cause I explained it already."

The tour guide who showed us around the more modern aircraft had served as a crew leader in a Sikorsky MH-53. He claimed to have clocked, over the course of his career, 7500 flight hours in a helicopter, with 3500 of those being in active combat conditions. I don't know if I believe that, or if that is even possible, but that's what he said.

Here's a picture of him (blue shirt) showing my brother Dax (brown shirt) and his friend Nathan (red shirt) the helicopter that he flew.

He was awesome. He knew a lot about the planes he showed us. There was a light in his eye when he explained his specific role as the "helicopter boss." He was really nonchalant about the danger he faced in active duty missions (the main purpose of the MH-53 was to transport special operations units of the U.S. military - the first flight of an MH-53 was 1967, and the fleet was retired in 2008).

At the very end of the tour, he took us to the SR-71 Blackbird exhibit.

We had entered the Holy of Holies.

In my opinion, the SR-71 is the most amazing thing ever built by a group of humans. Way cooler than any spacecraft. Way cooler than any architectural structure. Way cooler than any vehicle or aircraft ever. Its virgin flight took place 22 December 1964 and it still holds the record for highest flight airspeed ever recorded for a manned aircraft [if you wanna get technical, there have been spacecraft entering earth's atmosphere that were technically "flown" back to earth and went way faster - but that's not what we're talking about here].

It was designed by Kelly Johnson who was an aerospace engineer for Lockheed Martin. He was sick. Besides his incredible work on the SR-71, he made a ton of groundbreaking innovations in his career that I'm not going to list out here, but that you should check out on his Wikipedia page, at least.

The SR-71 is 32.7 meters long with a 19.9 meter wingspan. It's way bigger than you'd expect the fastest plane in world to be. Its highest point is 5.6 meters above the ground when resting on its landing gear.

It is fast as crap: Mach 3.3.

Mach 3.3 means 3.3 times faster than the speed of sound at standard sea level conditions. Mach 3.3 means 3505 kilometers per hours (2178 miles per hour). Mach 3.3, for the Blackbird, means that its windshield heats up to 316°C - just a few degrees short of the temperature where lead melts.

3505 km/hr is going from Los Angeles to Orlando in an hour. Let's step 3505 km/hr down to get a better idea of how fast that is: 3505 km/h = 58.4 kilometers per minute. That's going the distance it takes you 45 minutes to arrive at in your car on the freeway in one minute. 58.4 km/hr = just under a kilometer per second. Count to one. Stop. The Blackbird passed over you when you decided to start counting and when you said "one" it was 973 meters away from you. At that speed, it takes the Blackbird (all 69,000 kilograms of it) one second to cross a distance equal to the height of this building - the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (if you made the spire on top three times taller).

By the way, Mach 3.3 is the highest "recorded" speed of the Blackbird. This one pilot Brian Shul said that he got it up to Mach 3.5 once to outrun a missile that was fired at him over Libya in 1986.

Besides the Blackbird's incredible speed it has tons of features that I'm not going to really explore here. But it is definitely worth a Google and spending some time going down the hyperlink rabbitholes for a while (I think an hour or so of reading should give you a pretty good feel for the other features, maybe two or three hours if you're nerdy). Read about the design decisions that went into the chines (the extensions of the wing contour that surround the entire fuselage) and other aspects of geometry to make the Blackbird faster and stealthier. If you're into that kind of thing at all, you will not be disappointed. If you're not into that kind of thing, I don't imagine you're still reading this entry...

Considering all the amazing features of the Blackbird, I think the number one thing that appeals to me most about it is its purpose. The Blackbird is not a combat aircraft. Although it was amazingly successful outflying enemy planes and missiles, it never engaged in an air fight. It couldn't possibly, because it isn't equipped with any weaponry.

The SR-71 is a pure reconnaissance craft. It can carry a payload, but that payload is mostly made up of surveillance equipment. I think another big purpose of the craft was to say, "Hey Russia, yeah, we just made the fastest, highest-flying thing ever."

And that's what I like about it most - it's nice. It wasn't used to end life (directly, at least - I'm guessing somebody probably used the surveillance results to kill people). But, still, a reconnaissance craft is a sharp contrast to most of the other exhibits I saw at the museum, and an especially sharp contrast to one exhibit in particular.

i don't mean to step things down from talking about the awesomeness of the Blackbird to giving some spiel on the horror of war, but the real experience I had at the Hill Aerospace Museum left me with a heaviness that is still with me after two weeks, and I want to address it.

Basically, I had this awareness that almost every aircraft I saw had been used to kill people. And, I get it that shit like that happens. I am a pretty extreme pacifist, but I also recognize that war has been a reality since forever. So, maybe I should be waiting to write about all this until I've processed it more, but I want to express some impressions I had while the feelings are still fresh.

One of the first exhibits they showed us was a tribute to an American bomber pilot who participated in the first WWII airstrike on Tokyo. The tour guide (a different guy than the one who showed us the SR-71 and the MH-53) told us, "In strict military terms, the airstrike on Tokyo wasn't that effective. It was more of a demoralizer designed to frighten the Japanese people so they would encourage their leaders to accept American terms of surrender."

I guess that is true for the one specific airstrike that he mentioned, but he failed to recognize that a huge bombing campaign against Tokyo was carried out after the first strike. From November 1944 to August 1945, Tokyo was systematically bombed by American forces. The bombs used initially contained normal, all-purpose explosives. However, American war strategists determined that sufficient damage was not being done with this method. In February 1945, they started dropping incendiary bombs.

An incendiary is also known as a fire bomb. On impact (or a few seconds after impact, depending on the bomb design), it releases a load of napalm which is like sticky gasoline. It gets on everything and burns for a long time. Because there were so many wood and paper materials used in the structures in Tokyo, this was a particularly "effective" tactic that resulted in large-scale structural destruction and many, many deaths.

A single raid in March 1945 known as Operation Meetinghouse destroyed twenty-five percent of Tokyo's structures and resulted in over one hundred thousand deaths (and a million injuries). The combined deaths resulting from the campaign are difficult to estimate, but probably about three hundred thousand people were killed in the year-long onslaught.

Operation Meetinghouse remains the deadliest single air raid ever.

I chose not to include images from the firebombings, but there are plenty available and will give you an idea of the raids' result. It's gross, but I think it's good to know what happened to the men, women, and children of Tokyo from November 1944 to August 1945.

The most impactful exhibit that I saw at hill was one of the smallest. The entire two-part display fit on about three or four square meters of floor space.

I didn't recognize it immediately, but I had seen this exact replica of the "Fat Man" once before. When I was about five or six years old my parents took me to the Hill Aerospace Museum. I don't remember anything I saw there besides this display. Even as a kid - not knowing anything about WWII or the bombings or anything - I sensed some kind of gravity around the bomb and casing.

When I saw it a couple weeks ago as an adult, I almost felt nausea. Our tour guide explained the planes surrounding this exhibit, but didn't stop to talk about it. Between two other planes, he said, "This is a replica of the Fat Man bomb. That's the one we dropped over Nagasaki." And that was it.

I hung behind the tour group for a couple minutes watching the display. I thought about the scientist/engineers that worked on the Manhattan Project to develop WWII nuclear technology (I learned later that the Manhattan Project employed more the one hundred thirty thousand people). I thought about the pilots who flew missions to drop the devices (there were two bombs dropped: the Fat Man model shown above, and a more compact "Little Boy" design dropped over Hiroshima). I thought about the officers and strategists who had to make the decision to deploy the weapons. I thought about the tens of thousands who died in each city.

I know that the narrative I've always heard has been that the decision to attack Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear devices led to an earlier end to the war than would have happened otherwise and probably resulted in less loss of life. First, I don't know how anyone could know that, and second, I know that in any situation there are infinite options - never just either/or sets of outcomes. Third, even if that's true that more people would have died without the use of nuclear means against Japan, that doesn't really justify its use in my mind.

From the little I've read, it seems that the bulk of the responsibility for Japan's losses is put on Japan's leadership by pretty much everyone - including many Japanese historians. I can see that (I don't know if I agree, but I see it). If Japan had accepted Allied (American) terms of surrender earlier, knowing that victory was out of its grasp, a lot of the stuff described above probably would have never happened.

One thing that is very clear is that the propaganda campaign that Americans waged against its enemies in WWII (really, throughout its history, but especially in WWII) was designed to dehumanize the enemy. Most Americans did not see the lives lost in Tokyo, Hiroshima, or Nagasaki as that big a deal because they were the "enemy." Because of this, I tend to favor a model of thought in which American leadership and American citizens are more morally responsible for the events of 1944-45.

I don't really know how to wind this down. I am obviously not going to offer any kind of solution. I'll just say that in my opinion, war is avoidable. Not that we as a species will arrive at that tomorrow or the next ten or twenty or fifty years, but, eventually I think war can be eradicated. That is a possible world; we will never get close to that, though, if people hold on to nationalist ideologies.