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Working Together

Started: 2022-04-21 19:48:45

Submitted: 2022-04-21 22:21:13

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All the planes at the Pima Air and Space Museum; also, cactus!

On my last day in Tucson with my kids, I had booked a flight departing in the evening, leaving us the day to see a few more things.

We ate breakfast in the hotel, checked out, and headed to the Rincon Mountain section of Saguaro National Park, on the eastern edge of Tucson on the slope of the framing the city. This took us past the "boneyard" at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, where hundreds (thousands?) of military planes in various states of preservation and disassembly rest in the desert, donating parts to keep other planes in the air or (maybe) awaiting their own return to the skies or (more likely) eventual scrapping. We could only really get a look at the boneyard from the car windows as we drove past, as the planes stretched for miles in neat rows.

Calvin and Julian with a saguaro cactus
Calvin and Julian with a saguaro cactus

We stopped at the visitor's center to get some context on the desert landscape and the eponymous saguaro cactus. We drove into the park and took the Cactus Forest Loop road through the landscape. This was a "forest" only in the loosest sense (the wide spacing of the megaflora reminded me of Joshua Tree). We stopped to walk around the short Desert Ecology Trail (which seemed like the best option for a walk, since I only had a single liter of water and I was still recovering from straining my hamstring the previous week), which pointed out many of the species of cactus and other plants in the desert (including my favorite, teddy bear cholla).

Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park

I find vast deserts of the American Southwest comforting and familiar, in a strange way, having grown up nearby in Colorado and visited the Southwest on multiple family road trips as a teenager. It's beautiful, in its own alien way.

Cactus Forest Drive in Saguaro National Park
Cactus Forest Drive in Saguaro National Park

I put The Joshua Tree on the car stereo as I drove, high on a desert plain, where the streets actually do have a name.

Octillo and saguaro
Octillo and saguaro

We departed the national park and drove back to the west, to the Pima Air and Space Museum, one of the reasons I came to Tucson. As soon as we parked, Calvin walked back to the military vehicles on display next to the main gate: an armored infantry vehicle and a minesweeper.

Inside the museum, Calvin was enthralled by nearly every plane we saw, especially the military aircraft. Julian was somewhat more erratic, grazing at different aircraft before planting himself in front of a video (ignoring the A-10 right behind him) documenting the flight of the world's largest paper airplane (which was mostly cardboard, for an expansive definition of "paper"; it turned out that cardboard lacked the tensile strength to make a large aircraft). At noon I finally gave in to his request for lunch; we headed to the modest on-site dining and found enough food to fuel ourselves for further explorations.

Julian and Calvin wait for lunch at the Pima Air and Space Museum
Julian and Calvin wait for lunch at the Pima Air and Space Museum

We headed out into the 80 acres of plains parked out in the open under the desert sun. It was hard to know what to see: there were so many planes in every direction that my mind boggled.

Calvin walks towards a Lockheed C-141B Starlifter
Calvin walks towards a Lockheed C-141B Starlifter

The planes were vaguely sorted by categories, but the one plane I wanted to see the most was tucked around the far side of the map, away from the other aircraft, on a section of the tarmac closer to the parking lot than anything else. I tried to steer us in the direction I wanted to go, with the caveat that I kept seeing planes in other directions that I also wanted to see, and Julian was rather more interested in playing in the dirt in the shade of the priceless historical aircraft than anything else.

Julian in the shadow of a Martin 404 Skyliner
Julian in the shadow of a Martin 404 Skyliner

Then, on the far side of the far hangar, was the plane I came to Tucson to see: the first Boeing 777.

Cathay Pacific 777 B-HNL
Cathay Pacific 777 B-HNL

In the aughts I watched the 1990s public television documentary on the design and production of the 777. In the documentary I watched the first 777 roll out of Boeing's factory in Everett, named "Working Together", and the first flight of that plane, followed by the flight tests to put the plane through its paces (and generate the mountain of paperwork necessary to certify the aircraft type); and after the flight tests completed, "Working Together" went on to serve as a passenger aircraft with Cathay Pacific until it was retired in 2018 to the museum.

Jaeger with
Jaeger with "Working Together"

I was thrilled to see this historic aircraft, live and in person.

Cathay Pacific 777-200 B-HNL
Cathay Pacific 777-200 B-HNL

I first flew on a 777 in the summer of 1997, two years after the type entered into service, on my first international plane trip. (Among other things, I remember watching the movie Volcano on the seat-back in-flight entertainment system.)

Rolls-Royce Trent 884B-17 engine
Rolls-Royce Trent 884B-17 engine

(The public television documentary also included one of the scariest things I've ever seen on video: the 777 static wing test, which I hope is the only time I ever see an airplane wing shatter.)

Next to the 777 was a 747 used by GE as a flying testbed for its jet engines; though all of the engines on the aircraft as parked appeared to be the stock 747 engines.

747 GE Propulsion Test Platform
747 GE Propulsion Test Platform

Having seen the plane that I came to Tucson to see, there were still plenty of planes to see, including several that had been used as large-scale art canvases.

"Time Flies By" oil and acrylic on Douglas C-117

We meandered back towards the rest of the museum, stopping in the hangars where restored aircraft of various vintages were displayed. (The museum's obvious focus was on World War II and Cold War aircraft; they seemed to have approximately one of everything.) Hangar 5 included a B-25 and a PBY Catalina, plus the fuselage of one plane tucked in a corner that was actually set up for us to walk into the plane from the back. This was Julian's favorite plane, because he actually got to walk inside.)

Calvin looks up in hangar 5
Calvin looks up in hangar 5

Hangar 4 featured a B-29 set up so I could look up dramatically into the bomb bay.

B-29 bomb bay
B-29 bomb bay

From hangar 4 we looked at a DC-10 set up as a flying eye hospital, then wandered around to the helicopters.

Calvin with a Sikorsky MH-53M
Calvin with a Sikorsky MH-53M

There were so many helicopters lined up in a row, along the road in front of the museum. The large normally-transparent canopies of the helicopters looked especially funny covered in preservation paint to try to keep the harsh desert sun from the the interior of the aircraft.

Calvin and Julian with a UH-1 Huey
Calvin and Julian with a UH-1 Huey

Calvin's mask and goggles seemed like an appropriate aesthetic for the slightly-surreal experience of walking through a desert aircraft graveyard.

Calvin and Julian headed inside to look at the A-10 again and I took a detour to check out the 787 prototype, painted in launch customer ANA's colors even though this aircraft only flew for the flight test program before being retired to the museum.

N787EX 787 Dreamliner prototype in ANA colors
N787EX 787 Dreamliner prototype in ANA colors

I found Calvin looking at the close-air-support A-10 in hangar 1.

Calvin with an A-10A Warthog
Calvin with an A-10A Warthog

By this point we'd hit our quota of planes, so we headed back to the cafe for a snack before exiting through the gift shop. Calvin and I both decided that we needed a deck of airplane spotter cards on our way out.

We had seen our fill of planes for the day, but airplanes were not quite done with us. We left the museum and drove to the airport to head back home. The only exciting part was when the TSA agent checking IDs apparently mistook Calvin for an adult and expected to see his id and was somewhat confused when I only handed him one id. (Calvin is now 5'2", so he's as tall as some adults.) The agent asked Calvin how old he was and then accepted Calvin's boarding pass without an id. (Calvin does actually have two forms of government-issued photo id (a passport that expires in a couple of weeks, and a NEXUS card), but I didn't bother to bring them because he doesn't really need them to travel domestically.)

We ate an early supper at the airport, then boarded our CRJ-200 for the flight back to San Francisco. On our descent into SFO we entered the southern approach that flies over Monterey Bay and right over Santa Cruz. I can see the line of planes flying over my house from the ground, and I looked down at the right moment to point out Santa Cruz and where our house was supposed to be. I think I saw a big L-shaped patch of light that might have been our neighbor's patio, in approximately the right place on the hills above Santa Cruz.

Julian looks down at Santa Cruz from an airplane
Julian looks down at Santa Cruz from an airplane

We landed at SFO without further incident and drove home, after a quick trip to see aerospace history in Tucson.

I took so many pictures of planes I couldn't fit them all above. The rest of them are here: Photos on 2022-04-09.

When aiming for the lowest common denominator,
be prepared for the occasional division by
zero.