Visitors take flight, literally, at EAA museum

I am flying along Hawaii’s Na Pali Coast, admiring a string of glorious but severe cliffs on the small island of Kauai, when the unthinkable happens. My perspective tilts 180 degrees, so the aqua coastline seems like sky. I lurch left, then forward, groping at whatever I can to win back equilibrium.

Amazingly, the path evens out, and the flight continues uneventfully, until I decide it’s time to bail out and seek a different skyscape, like the rich hues of a sunset in San Francisco.

My real-life setting is Oshkosh, behind a flight simulator at the Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture Museum. The indoor and interactive options are a year-round thrill for all ages.

There are ways to feel a part of the first flight at Kitty Hawk, or aloft during an EAA summer convention air show. Elsewhere in this 145,000 square foot building, a five-minute ride inside of an enclosed, two-seat F-16 simulator hints at what it’s like to travel as fast as a jet.

“You’re in complete control,” reassures Nicole Raudabaugh, manager of visitor services. Those with steely stomachs can maneuver themselves upside down and around while taking aim at moving targets that appear on a screen inside the riding chamber.

Want total immersion? Then the EAA’s fantasy flight camps may be the best match. The occasional weekend adventures are one way for aviation buffs to get to know all about a specific type of aircraft. The next session, devoted to the B-17 “Flying Fortress,” is Dec. 1-3.

Less than 15 of these World War II bombers still can be flown, and the EAA has one of them. Up to 28 fantasy flight participants (typically ages 40-60, but they have been as young as 14 and old as 80) each pay up to $745 to eat, sleep and breathe B-17 history. (Companions with a lukewarm interest in aircraft talk may share lodging and meals, at a lower rate, space permitting.)

They stay at the Air Academy Lodge, a comfortable retreat with eight private rooms plus four-bunk, dormlike quarters. They sip coffee and cocoa around a towering stone fireplace, get access to experts, aircraft and hangars not open to the average tourist.

Fantasy flight campers will learn how the B-17 came to be built, how and where it was flown, its flying characteristics and mechanical systems. They are allowed to inspect the inside of the plane, instrument panels to pilot’s seat.

Hal Weekley of Georgia, a B-17 pilot shot down while flying over France, will come to Oshkosh to tell war stories and answer questions. The group also takes a behind-the-scenes museum tour.

After breakfast on Sunday, eight people at a time ride inside the B-17, taking turns sitting in the gunner, radio operator, co-pilot and other crew slots (except pilot). You don’t need to be a pilot, or conversant about World War II aircraft, to appreciate the experience, says Marion Blakely of the EAA’s education department, although the weekend tends to attract people with a relative who was on a B-17 crew.

“The plane is built like a tank,” she notes, “so it’s different from today’s commercial aircraft” and “has a mystique about it that people love.” She considers it a symbol of World War II heroism, “and a way to connect with our parents’ and grandparents’ history.”

Fantasy flight camps for 2007 will begin in October, involving the Bell 47 (made famous on the “M.A.S.H.” television series), the Ford Tri-Motor (designed for domestic air travel in the 1920s; later used for barnstorming), the Spirit of St. Louis (a replica of Charles Lindbergh’s cross-Atlantic aircraft) and the B-17. A September weekend will be for people to learn about aviation photography. For more: www.fantasyflightcamp.org.

The EAA’s B-17 is flown to airports and air shows nationwide, providing additional opportunities to learn about and ride the aircraft. For more: www.b17.org, 800-359-6217.

So the pilgrimage of aviation enthusiasts to Oshkosh need not be limited to summer and the EAA’s annual AirVenture fly-in. More than 150 notable aircraft and replicas hang like artwork at the museum, and dozens more are in storage at nearby Pioneer Airport hangars.

A Wright Flyer replica is near the museum’s indoor entrance. An original Curtiss Jenny and Curtiss Pusher, built in the 1920s, are the oldest aircraft on display.

In the air racing gallery, contributions include the bright yellow “Bonzo” flown by Oshkosh’s Steve Wittman, an inventor as well as a racer. He was the first to come up with a skinny wheel, spring-out landing gear for aircraft.

French race car designer Bugatti built one aircraft, before World War II, and the EAA museum has it. Also on display is the Pittcairn Autogiro, a precursor to the helicopter. The world’s smallest airplanes, with wingspans of no more than 8 feet, are here. So is an aerocar, one of five built as “roadable aircraft,” a combination car and plane.

Sleek and unconventional designs by $10 million X-Prize winner Burt Rutan dominate the Innovations Gallery, and that includes replicas of his SpaceShipOne and a Voyager fuselage. Before the 2007 EAA convention, a new gallery about space exploration will open, further showcasing SpaceShipOne and the future.

“Timeless Voices” is an accessible archive of videos and oral histories from pilots, mechanics, aircraft designers, ground crew workers – anyone with a passion for aviation who has a good story to tell. The words of about 500 people have been documented; they eventually will go online.

An aircraft restoration shop shows the work of rebuilding and repairs. The Eagle Hangar is devoted to military aircraft. KidVenture teaches many things to all ages, from the sound of a sonic boom to how many pounds of thrust pedaling legs can generate, compared to a Boeing 747 or a space shuttle.

The museum, like the EAA organization, thrives largely because of volunteers and donations. Almost 200 volunteers assist with the museum and Pioneer Airport; almost 3,000 donate their time during the summer fly-in.

For more: www.airventuremuseum.org, 920-426-4818. The EAA AirVenture Museum is at 3000 Poberezny Road, Oshkosh.

Discounts for admissions and programs go to EAA members. It costs $40 to join. For more: www.eaa.org, 800-564-6322.