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Part 2

Sonic Boon

The Blackbird will be a signal to the public that the Virginia Aviation Museum is changing," Witschey says. "I view this as the visible embodiment of the transformation the museum is about to go through."

Witschey and the Virginia Aviation Museum's executive director, Mike Boehme, have an ambitious plan to build the aviation museum into a major tourist draw by 2003, the centennial of the Wright brothers' first powered flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C.

They believe the Blackbird will bring new visitors and add new fund-raising credibility to the Virginia Aviation Museum, a hidden treasure to say the least. "This will serve as the centerpiece of our entire collection," Boehme says. "This shows that we have the right stuff to get the job done."

Located on the outskirts of Richmond International Airport, the Virginia Aviation Museum was founded in 1990 to hold a collection of aircraft donated by the family of Sidney Shannon, an aviator from Fredericksburg.

Photo by Chad Hunt"If you look at all the aircraft that are built since World War II, it is the most technologically significant aircraft built since that period," says Mike Boehme, director of the Virginia Aviation Museum. "This aircraft literally puts [the museum] up there with the big boys, to be blunt. This is a big deal."The collection is one of the world's finest examples of airplanes between World War I and World War II. But that's also part of the problem, Witschey says. Right now, though the Virginia Aviation Museum does a good job of making it interesting, the planes are like butterflies in glass. They were collected without the intention of telling a story or educating the public about specific concepts.

On any given day, the aviation museum can be a pretty lonely place with only a few senior citizens visiting. In a year, Boehme estimates, the museum probably gets about 20,000 visitors or so, but he envisions a time in the next few years when the number may grow to 200,000 or more.

Though he's hesitant to reveal much, Boehme says there is a proposal to build a new 196,000-square-foot facility - nearly eight times larger than the museum now - that would hopefully be open by 2003. The Blackbird could possibly be housed inside as the central exhibit.

In 2003, there will probably be a lot of tourist traffic at Kitty Hawk and the new National Air & Space Museum annex in Dulles, and Witschey wants the Virginia Aviation Museum - and Richmond - to be a key stop in between.

A bigger museum and a Blackbird alone won't do it, Witschey knows. His plans, he says, include rotating exhibits of aircraft from other collections, a new one each month. The museum also will be enlarged to tell the entire history of flight and especially Virginia's own rich history of flight. The state was the headquarters of the agency that became NASA, and also witnessed the first launch of an aircraft from a carrier.

The Blackbird, and the full-scale replica Wright gliders currently on display in the museum are part of that. Future exhibits may include Civil War ballooning and fighter jets like the F-15 and F-16.

But a big part of the transformation will be a hands-on approach to aviation concepts such as aerodynamics and navigating in tricky weather. A computerized jet fighter simulator is in the works, and so is a multimedia exhibit to complement the Blackbird.

Witschey also hopes to develop more synergy between the museums as the Science Museum of Virginia undergoes its own facelift. Fifty percent of the 160,000 square-foot former train station on West Broad Street is being renovated. A new life sciences exhibit to open in 2000 will include a five-story-tall strand of DNA, a huge model human cell and an interactive "body scanner."

In front of the Science Museum, Witschey plans a scale, 26-ton polished granite globe of the Earth. It will be suspended in a 1-millimeter base of water, which will provide a constant flow sufficient to support the globe and allow a small child to rotate it. At a scale distance away will be a similar model of the moon.

The Science Museum also plans a 15-acre outdoor "Discovery Park" which will adjoin the new Children's Museum of Richmond, which is currently under construction next to the Science Museum and will open in spring 2000. Not owned by the Science Museum, the new 42,000-square-foot Children's Museum will create a museum campus complex that should attract locals as well as tourists, Witschey says.

Photo by Chad Hunt"One of the interesting things about this airplane is I don't think we'll get the log. We are not apt to get details of what these planes did," says Science Museum of Virginia Director Walter Witschey. "We are still dealing with a piece of technology sufficiently advanced that what it does and where it does it don't get discussed widely."The story of how the Virginia Aviation Museum bagged its SR-71 Blackbird is almost as shadowy as the origins of the aircraft itself.

Witschey calls it an eight-year dream, dating back to when he first joined the Science Museum. It's something that remained a dream, he says, until Mike Boehme became the aviation museum's executive director last year.

Boehme, a Vietnam veteran and Air Force pilot who flew everything from rescue helicopters to fighter jets over his 20-year career, has a friend in the CIA who mentioned to him years ago that some SR-71s were going to be available for museums.

Boehme will only say that he "knew the right people" and after a few months of e-mailing Air Force officials, it's nearly here.

While he was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, a Blackbird base, in the mid-'70s, Boehme had the chance to see them operating up close. It ignited a love for the aircraft that hasn't cooled, he says.

"I remember seeing those aircraft ... just rocket out. I mean it was awesome!" he recalls. "Watching them take off and land, it was an extremely impressive aircraft to watch. You just stopped talking, your jaw drops down to your knee and you just look. It was amazing!"

The Blackbirds were built by Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works division, the infamous black projects laboratory headed by the legendary Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, the man responsible for the U-2 spy plane, the SR-71 and the F-117 Stealth Fighter. Amazingly, the Blackbird was designed with slide rules, not computers. It was flight tested at Area 51, the storied base at Groom Lake, Nev.

Built as a direct result of the Russians shooting down U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, the SR-71s were at first a CIA program and later transferred to the Air Force. The plane's primary goal was to provide reconnaissance of enemy targets after a nuclear confrontation. Many have crashed for various reasons, but none was ever shot down, though more than 1,000 enemy missiles have been fired at Blackbirds.

The Air Force retired the Blackbirds in 1990 without a replacement, though there have been many rumors in the press of a secret aircraft code-named Aurora that reportedly can fly at Mach 6, almost twice as fast as the Blackbird. Many of the Blackbirds went to museums and Congress reinstated two to active flight in 1995, but President Clinton later cut the budget to operate the planes, which cost a minimum of $36,000 just to fuel up for takeoff.

NASA now has a fleet of four Blackbirds, which it uses for scientific studies of everything from sonic booms to testing engines for a new reusable launch spaceship.

The Virginia Aviation Museum's SR-71 is one of the Air Force's last two Blackbirds; the other is going to the Southern Museum of Flight in Alabama. It's the end of an era for what many aviation buffs believe is the finest aircraft that ever flew.

"Not only was it record-breaking when it was built, it's record-holding still. In 30 years of aviation advances, this is still ostensibly the most advanced aircraft technology in its class on the planet," Witschey says.

"This is a piece of history here and a piece of very significant aviation history of the U.S.," says Alison with the National Air and Space Museum. "We're talking about a small number, a handful of aircraft that were the highest and fastest in the history of the world and they were American-made technology that were never duplicated anywhere else and there were a lot of efforts to duplicate it. The fact that we have two of them in Virginia is pretty neat, I think."

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