Thursday, August 7, 2003

Stratoliner arrives at its final destination — the Smithsonian

By Charles Pope
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Washington Correspondent

HERNDON, Va. — Making the most of a triumphant final flight, the Boeing 307 Stratoliner floated softly to earth at Dulles International Airport yesterday like a piece of silver confetti to take its place in the Smithsonian Institution as one of the world’s pioneering aircraft.

The Stratoliner’s flight to the acclaimed Air and Space Museum was the climax of a painstaking and occasionally bumpy ride for the carefully restored 1940s-era plane, which secured its place in history by becoming the first pressurized commercial aircraft. In between, it endured a time in an Arizona boneyard, a difficult restoration and, in June 2002, an embarrassing dip into Elliott Bay. And fittingly, its arrival at the Smithsonian was delayed a day because of bad weather.

All the hardship was forgotten yesterday as the plane taxied to a stop and was greeted with applause and broad smiles.

“It’s a fantastic, beautiful airplane. It led the way for what we take for granted now,” said senior pilot Buzz Nelson, who flew the plane on its final leg from Pittsburgh, skimming the runway at 400 feet on a final flyover before bringing the glistening silver plane to rest.
“We had to preserve this airplane,” said Smithsonian aviation curator Robert van der Linden. “It’s the only one of its kind left. Every airliner you’ve been on owes its existence to this airplane. It’s an artifact.”

The Smithsonian took ownership of the plane in 1972, but museum officials credited The Boeing Co. with restoring the plane, stepping in just in time to keep it from becoming a fire bomber or crop duster.

It took nine years to finish but the plane now appears the same “as it looked the day it rolled off the assembly line more than 60 years ago,” the Smithsonian said.

“It looked like a haunted house. Fabric was torn. Tubing was everywhere. I looked at it and said, ’Do we really want to fly this?’ ” Pat DeRoberts of Olympia, one of three pilots certified to fly the plane, said, looking back to 1994, when Boeing volunteers went to Arizona to bring the plane back to Seattle. If not for Boeing, van der Linden said, it would have been “decades” before the Smithsonian could have finished the restoration.

Smithsonian officials were thrilled with the arrival and promptly parked the stubby four-engine plane nose-to-tail behind an Air France Concorde. Both planes are destined to be featured attractions at the museum’s new Steven F. Udvar–Hazy Center, which will open in December. The two planes virtually encompass the history of commercial air travel.

Eventually, the sprawling new facility adjacent to Dulles will house 200 airplanes that provide a sweep of aviation history. Museum officials say more than 3 million people will visit the facility each year.

The Stratoliner, dubbed the Clipper Flying Cloud and carrying the insignia of Pan Am, will be displayed at ground level along with such notable aircraft as a space shuttle and the SR-71 spy plane.

By those standards, the Stratoliner might seem out of place. But curators and aviation buffs said the plane deserves recognition.

The plane delivered yesterday entered service in 1940 for Pan Am, serving the Caribbean. It carried 33 passengers and a crew of five in a level of luxury that is long past. It includes wide seats that can be converted into beds as well as wood paneling and a vanity. Such amenities were necessary for its passengers, who were among the nation’s richest and most elite. A ticket from Miami to South America cost $12,000 in today’s dollars.

Because it was pressurized, it could cruise at 25,000 feet, avoiding the heavy weather that prompted airsickness and the public’s hesitation about flying. It also allowed the plane to fly faster and on a more predictable schedule.

During World War II, it flew to South America under the direction of the U.S. Army Air Force. After the war, it passed through the hands of several owners, and once served as a presidential plane for Haitian dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier.

“There is an incredible amount of nostalgia,” Nelson said of the flight, which began in Seattle on July 27 and included stops in Oshkosh, Wis., and Pittsburgh.
“It’s like a time machine.”

P-I Washington correspondent Charles Pope can be reached at 202-263-6461 or

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