Walking through the tall glass doors into the National Air and Space Museum for the first day of my internship wasn’t quite what I expected. I had always pictured a noisy museum bustling with tourists and crowds, but what I encountered was just the opposite. In the morning before people arrive, the museum is a quiet and awe-inspiring place. Historic planes and spacecraft hang from the high ceilings, and rockets stand on the floor, so tall they seem to barely fit. The Apollo 11 module, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Bell X-1, and other impressive historical milestones greeted me the day I arrived.
But what truly captivated me this summer was feeling a personal connection to the history of aviation. I’ve always been interested in the topic, largely because my dad was a Marine Corps fighter pilot. Until this summer I hadn’t had a chance to truly dive into the subject, and finally learning about what my dad did as a pilot has given me a new perspective on his career.
He flew F -18s for most of his pilot days, but he also flew F-4 Phantoms, the same plane used for simulator rides here at the museum. I’m sure piloting the simulator isn’t nearly as thrilling (or difficult) as flying a real fighter jet, but it gave me a small taste of my dad’s everyday job. Just like in a real jet, for safety, I had to strap into the shoulder and lap belt harness. When the simulator started, I could perform many of the same maneuvers as a real airplane – even full barrel rolls. After taking off from an aircraft carrier, I used the control stick to chase the targets on the simulator screen, rolling side-to-side and flipping upside down. By the end of the ride, my heart was pounding. It’s hard to imagine the pressure of flying that way in real life – at least inside the simulator death isn’t a real fear. As soon as I hopped out of the ride, I emailed my dad to tell him how exciting my three minutes of pretend-jet-flying had been. He responded by telling me, not for the first time in my life, that he had the “best job in the world.” I never understood the excitement he felt until now.
A few weeks later I had another memorable experience with an F-4 Phantom II, this time with the actual plane my dad had flown. His squadron painted it the same way it had been when they were deployed in Da Nang, Vietnam, and now the plane is housed at the Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. I felt incredibly proud of my dad and this country when I stood next to his plane. The skill it takes to fly such a complicated piece of technology is astounding, and seeing the real aircraft and knowing the person who flew it make the task even more remarkable. Taking off and landing such a huge machine at high speeds with extreme precision requires a special kind of focus and dedication. I’m amazed at the abilities of the people in the U.S. military, and this museum reminds me everyday of what they have accomplished.
My dad retired from 29 years in the Marine Corps a few years ago and has been working at a U.S. Embassy in Africa for the State Department. Last weekend he returned from his two year assignment in Sudan, and I was finally able to show him in person all the artifacts I learned about and projects I worked on this summer. Communication was difficult while he was away, and we usually only spoke through email. Sometimes it would be weeks between conversations, but this internship has given me plenty to tell him. After riding the flight simulators and seeing his F-4 Phantom II, I met the four-star Marine General who directs the Museum (his dad has an airplane at the Museum too), and talked to a Top Gun instructor who taught while my dad was there. It’s moments like these, when I feel a deep connection between myself and the Museum, that I’ve enjoyed the most in these past few months.
This summer experience has been much more than a simple internship. I came to D.C. expecting to learn workplace skills, but I’ve gained something better: a new appreciation for my father and aviation.