The Hiller Aviation Museum 
Not to mention the Oakland, Pacific Coast, and Travis Air Museums 
by Hal Bryan 
         

Hiller Aviation Museum

A couple of weeks ago, I made my first trip to the Hiller Aviation Institute and Museum in San Carlos, California, finally accepting the gracious invitation of Jeffery Bass, the President and CEO.  When I was a kid, we hangared our airplane in San Carlos, but any memories of the airport itself were gone, thanks to 32 intervening years of distracting things like television, video games, and girls.  The museum itself, however, immediately felt like home, even though it didn't open until more than 20 years after I'd left the area.

The museum emphasizes the rich aviation history of northern California and was founded in 1998 by Stanley Hiller, Jr. Hiller was a pioneer in the world of helicopters, having started his own company at age 19. Hiller Helicopters pursued fascinating work with coaxial and tip-jet rotor designs that could fly without tail rotors and developed a main-rotor stabilization system called the "Hiller Paddle."  The museum naturally features a number of Hiller designs as well as an impressive collection of other aircraft, both fixed and rotary wing.
 
Jeff met me at the entrance, and we did a brief walkthrough of the museum before sitting down in their Flight Sim Zone to talk about how we can work together more closely. I'm a strong and longtime advocate of using Flight Simulator in museums, and I've been lucky enough to work with curators and see it in action all over the world. While I'm invariably impressed at the creativity that goes into these installations, I have to say that I think that Hiller's setup is among the best I've seen. 

Using multiple monitors (via the Matrox TripleHead2Go), Saitek yokes and throttles, and Cirrus rudder pedals from Precision Flight Controls, they've created a series of realistic hands-on cockpit stations. By setting these stations on tables in an open area, they've made them very visible and inviting and usable by more than just the person doing the flying. This balance between immersion and accessibility is a tough one to strike, and I think that Jeff and his team have nailed it.

The Flight Sim Zone experiences are guided by real-world pilot volunteers; because of this, the exhibit strikes another balance, this one between fun and education. The volunteers impose just the right amount of structure, coaching visitors through the planning and execution of a short cross-country flight in the local area.

By making the area accessible but not patronizing, the cockpit stations don't appeal strictly to kids— plenty of adults enjoy taking a virtual flight as well.  I was especially glad to see this, because it's a tough lesson to get across to most museums. In many of their minds, Flight Simulator = Video Game = Children. While I am, conservatively, about eleventeen million percent in favor of using FS as a way to get kids excited about aviation (and science, math, geography, meteorology, etc.), there are plenty of adults who enjoy it as well.

Kudos to Hiller for understanding that.
 
There's another especially noteworthy use of Flight Simulator in the Hiller museum, and it, too, strikes a balance, quite literally. One of the more unusual areas of Hiller's research was their development of a series of flying platforms. The flying platform was effectively a ducted fan engine that a pilot didn't so much fly as ride, standing on top of it and steering by leaning— a steampunk Segway from the mid-50s. The museum has the first prototype, Model 1031, on display and, before you can say "I wonder what that's like to fly?!? And what's "˜steampunk', anyway?", you notice that there's a recreation of it on the floor right next to it, along with a computer and monitor and a distinct lack of signage telling you to keep off.

What the Museum team has done here is truly brilliant; they've taken one of the most unusual and evocative artifacts in the museum and built a very credible simulator that anyone can try out for themselves. Visitors by the tens of thousands each year scramble aboard and then lean, twist, and laugh as they (in most cases)hurtle virtually out of control into the San Francisco Bay. After trying it out, you view the real thing with a healthy respect, and it makes the period footage of test pilots flying the platform nearly hands off—and even firing a rifle while hovering—all the more remarkable.

It has to be seen to be believed, and it has to be tried to be appreciated.

While the driving purpose behind my visit was to meet with Jeff and to see their Flight Simulator displays in action, I was able to spend a couple of hours wandering through the museum taking pictures and soaking up more fascinating bits of aviation history. My mind soaks up this kind of mental flotsam like, if not a sponge, at least a mid-range paper towel. Once there, the bits wait quietly until they can be flung into casual conversation with some combination of relevance and brute force, usually favoring the latter:

"Hi, welcome to Taco Town, can I take your order?"

"The first Hiller flying platform, model 1031, flew in 1955!!!!"

Here are just a few of my favorites:

 

 

 

 

One of the Flight Sim Zone Cockpit Stations

Not a kid

The Avitor, an unmanned hybrid airship / airplane built for heavy lifting - in 1869!

 A 1908 Aerocycloid

 

 

 

 

1931 Buhl Autogiro

The 2 small blades off of the main rotor make up the Hiller Paddle

Hiller 360s

Bell Rocket Belt

 

 

 

 

Rotorcycle

Hiller Commuter

Boeing 2707 SST Mockup

 Coleopter

 

 

 

Hiller Hornet

Flying Platform Simulator

 AD-1 Oblique Wing

 

I don't see how anyone wouldn't be at least a little curious to see things like a Rotorcycle, a Coleopter, and an Aerocycloid in person. The Hiller Museum is definitely a must-see for anyone with at least a passing interest in aviation history. And I'm not just saying that because they use our software, or even because the manager of their gift shop now has a lien on my house.

While I was in the area,  I made some quick side trips to three other aviation museums (not to mention a Denny's in Vacaville, but that's another story): the Pacific Coast Air Museum in Santa Rosa, the Travis Air Museum, and the Oakland Aviation Museum.

The Pacific Coast Air Museum

If you're like me, one of the things you won't notice on the PCAM Web site is the fact that their operating hours are Tuesday and Thursday, 10:00 – 4:00, and Saturday and Sunday, 10:00 – 4:00. Not noticing this information isn't a problem, unless you're really *really* like me, and decide to drive from San Francisco to Santa Rosa on a Wednesday.

I snapped a few pictures through the fence and was thinking of giving up, but I was too hot and tired to muster the energy, when the museum office door opened and an older gentleman walked out.

"Hello! Is your name Mort?" he asked.

"If it was, would you let me in?" I asked, pithily.

After admitting who I wasn't, I explained who I was, and, as luck would have it, even though the museum was closed, this particular docent was there for the day and happily opened up the doors. Like so many mid-sized airfields scattered across the United States, the airport now known as Charles M. Schulz - Sonoma County was an Army Air Corps training base during World War II.  A number of the artifacts on display reflect that history, history that would otherwise all too easily disappear. The prime attraction, certainly, is the aircraft collection parked outside—no velvet ropes, no Plexiglas acrylic resinTM, just a field full of airplanes, many of them kept in at least close to flyable condition.

The museum was undergoing something of a remodel while I was there, and one of the areas being refurbished had the makings of a nice-looking Flight Sim cockpit, so you can be sure I'll keep in touch. The whole place has a homespun, optimistic feel to it, and a visit is highly recommended.

Tell "˜em Mort sent you.

       
Cockpit in progress You tell 'em A C-97 Gazebo F-8 Crusader
       
F-14 Tomcat Lockheed T-33 Ilyushin Il-14 Grumman Albatross
       
F-4 Phantom Convair F-106 Republic F-105 F-84F Thunderstreak

Travis Air Museum

Unlike the PCAM Web site, which tells you not to show up on Mondays, Wednesdays, or Fridays, the website for the museum at Travis Air Force Base seems to suggest that, if you're not a government employee, you might not want to show up at all. It is an active duty air force base, so there are security concerns and ease of access varies with the current terrorism threat level. The day of my visit, it was something like "Cautiously Optimistic", so it didn't take long at all to get a visitor's pass from base security.
 
Once I made it to the museum  and wandered in, and I was the only one there. I mentioned that later to a friend of mine who said, "Oh, they must have been happy to see you, then!" But my friend didn't get it; there was no "they" to be happy to see me. I was, literally, the only one there. So I wandered through the interior exhibits, taking pictures and muttering to myself (something I'll claim I wouldn't have done had I not been alone) then stepped back out into the heat to look over the airplanes parked outside.

The collection of aircraft and artifacts is truly impressive and well worth the truly modest delay imposed by security.

       
Which one's mine? Oh, yes - the rented Hynundai... Cessna AT-17 - the first airplane I ever flew C-141 - Golden Bear Waco CG-4A Glider Cockpit
       
Beech AT-11, Douglas C-124, and Beech C-45 Lockheed F-104 "Missile with a Man In It" Fairchild C-123 Finding shade under a Boeing B-52
       
Sikorsky H-34 Choctaw Boeing B-29 F-101 Voodoo F-86L Sabre

Oakland Aviation Museum  (Formerly the Western Aerospace Museum)

The first thing you notice when you pull in and park at this museum is the NASA AV-8C Harrier parked out front. You might think that the first thing you'd notice is the gigantic flying boat, a Short Solent  Mk. 3, parked behind it, but it's so big that you've already noticed it several times since long before you got there.  This particular Solent  stood-in quite credibly for a Pan Am Boeing 314 in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark (unlike the woefully inaccurate Pan Am An-2 --- composited backwards, no less --- in the most recent Indiana Jones outing), and it really does command your attention.

The Oakland Aviation Museum has a similar feel to the PCAM; you get the sense that it runs more on dedication and perseverance than on financial contributions. They have a couple of computers dedicated to Flight Simulator 98—hopefully, we'll be able help encourage them to upgrade.  Also like PCAM, it's a rich and eclectic collection, very accessible, with most aircraft having been quite lovingly restored.

One thing to remember, if you drive from San Francisco: the toll to get across the bridge is $4.00. In my case, it was $3.00 (all the cash I had) and a big, charming smile that said "I'm not from around here," but there's no guarantee that everyone would be so lucky (or so charming).

       
The Short Solent AV-8C Harrier Computers! UTVA Aero 3-F
       
Arrow Sport Model F Wright "vin Fiz" Flying Replica ADM 20C Quail Decoy and Lockheed Electra A-7 Corsair II
       
T-A4 Skyhawk F-86 Sabre Short Solent - Doesn't look so short from here... Link Trainer cockpit

My thanks to Jeff at Hiller for his hospitality, to the docents at PCAM and OAM for theirs, and especially to the staff at the Travis Air Museum for leaving the door open for me. Each of these organizations is doing their part to save history, preserving tangible reminders of other times that might otherwise be lost to vagaries of memories like mine. It's my privilege to spend time at places like these, and we're proud to support their efforts wherever we can.