Travel

United States: Rare air

YOU'RE a German soldier on the Eastern Front in 1942.

You've been fighting the Russians all day, you're hunkered down trying to get comfortable enough for some desperately needed sleep, you're drifting off ... and then there's a whistling sound getting louder, a black shape passes overhead and suddenly the night lights up orange, an explosion batters your ears, and your heart is going like the clappers.

You've just had a visit from die Nachthexen - Night Witches - and you've learned they never come just once.

That's your night's rest done for, and your morale.

The young women of 588th Night Bomber Regiment were one of Stalin's secret weapons, piloting wood-and-canvas biplanes, invisible to radar, to sneak up on the German lines, then cutting their engines to glide overhead while the woman in the back of the open fuselage heaved out the bomb she'd been nursing on her lap.

It was primitive, but effective - just like the Polikarpov U-2s they were flying, one of which we're looking at as Roger tells us their terrific story.

Small and sturdy, it's dwarfed by some of its neighbours at the Flying Heritage Collection near Everett, north of Seattle, but it's earned its place in this hangar full of combat aircraft.

A surprising number have come here via New Zealand: bought for this collection from Sir Tim Wallis' Wanaka museum by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and not short of a bob or two.

Under the high roof are 16 fighters from the air forces of Britain, US, Germany, Russia and Japan, all of them not only meticulously restored to authentically airworthy condition, but also regularly flown from the aerodrome outside.

This is some achievement: our elderly and enthusiastic guide, Roger, points out a cheerful yellow biplane with a wooden propeller and bungy cord shock absorbers. "That one was built in 1918 - it's the only one here older than me."

Each of the aircraft has a cracking story: the sinister grey Messerschmitt Bf 109 with the swastika on its tail crash-landed on a beach in northern France, disappearing into the sand until a wingtip was noticed poking out again in 1988.

Painted with a toothy snarl, the P-40 Tomahawk was shot down over the Russian tundra where it lay for the next 40 years.

The Spitfire, instantly recognisable, gave support to the D-Day landings, was badly damaged but limped back to England, leading its squadron to safety.

Perhaps most moving of all, a video next to the Mustang with its garish yellow and black chequerboard-patterned nose shows the reunion in 2002 with its original pilot, Bud Tordoff, who hadn't seen it since the ceasefire.

He lays his hand on its wing: "She always brought me home."

We could happily spend ages here nosing around, listening to Roger's stories, but we have an appointment with the opposite face of aviation: peacetime, mass transit, super-sized, high-tech.

At nearby Paine Airfield is Boeing's assembly plant and Future of Flight centre where, in an impressive building, the first thing we see is a banner celebrating Air New Zealand's order for its first Dreamliner.

Although a series of production delays have been followed by operational problems that have made headlines recently, the airline is still excited about receiving the first of its 10 787s mid next year.

The exhibition hall explains why: entering new territory in both design and engineering, the Dreamliner is a plastic plane.

That's not how they describe it, of course.

"Composite" is the more reassuring-sounding term for the construction material, stronger than steel, lighter than aluminium, saving 20 per cent in fuel while carrying 50 per cent more cargo.

Inside, lower cabin pressure, higher humidity and body-clock-friendly lighting make passengers more comfortable.

We look, touch and computer-design our own plane, and learn that William Boeing's first two planes were sold to New Zealand (and may still be hidden in a tunnel under North Head).

The real buzz of a Boeing tour, however, is in the assembly hall, the world's biggest building by volume. At 13,385,378 sq m, it's "big enough to fit the whole of Disneyland!" boasts Paul, our guide.

It has its own climate, with rainclouds forming under the roof before ventilation fans were fitted.

He divests us of cameras, phones and anything else we may drop over the balcony on to the workers or, worse, the planes four storeys below: "If you break, you buy."

At a tidy $170 million for a Dreamliner, we co-operate fully.

Eight planes are lined up in various stages of assembly, a clean, automated, orderly process.

It's very different from how the Polikarpovs and Mustangs were thrown together during the war, but the aim is the same: bring the people home.

Topics:  planes, travel, united states, world war i


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