Two summers ago – I sat on the kerb of a heavily populated street along Washington Mall devouring the famous Philly steak sandwich I’d just bought from one of the many food trucks that parked on the side of the road. When I was in university it had once been a dream to introduce a food truck to the streets of Nairobi. We had just strolled by the reflection pool and my cousin was pointing out to me the different Smithsonian museums. Back then I was a little ignorant so it’s not surprising that I was completely satisfied with viewing the Smithsonians from an outside viewpoint – not allowing my mind to wander through the relics of history.
Fast forward to the summer of 2018 – Ken had somehow managed to convince me to re-visit DC and explore the National Mall in more detail, particularly, the Air and Space museum. Okay okay! If I’m being totally honest I really had no interest in going back to the US capital. Ken was only going to agree to get into a plane, fly halfway across the world to see me, if I promised that we would spend some time either at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida or at the Air and Space museums in the District of Columbia. Not only was I going to experience the birth of flight with him – I was going to put a smile on my face and enjoy every single moment there. This was all part of the deal and if I was unhappy “You can write to Cosmopolitan!” he joked. So, I began to prepare myself psychologically to persevere through an entire day of admiring planes without a single complaint. I even swore to do some research prior to our visit.
We hopped on to the yellow line from the Georgia Ave-Petworth station, switched to the silver line at L’enfant Plaza and less than forty minutes later stepped out at the Smithsonian station. On the long escalator ride that connects the outside world to the underground tunnel, I looked up the AMTRAK contact details to inquire about a refund since the trains into Virginia had been cancelled in the wake of the looming Hurricane Florence. My long-time buddy, Doug, had given me the perfect “surprise” idea to explore Colonial Williamsburg with Ken and I’d even thrown in a bonus vineyard tour in there. It’s a pity it never saw the light of day.
Walking through the doors at 600 Independence Ave; watching the facial expression on Ken’s face was like watching that of a child finally getting to meet his favourite superhero. It’s that type of excitement that rubs off on you even if an airplane museum was never on your bucket list.
Our first stop? IMAX theatre box office to buy tickets to the revolutionary film A Journey Through Space. With slightly over 30 minutes to spare before the film began, we walked over to the information desk to find out how the museum was organised in order to make the best use of our time. We found out about the free 90-minute-highlights daily, guided tours and planned our day with that as the focal point.
I used to dream of being an astronaut when I was younger (I wanted to be a lot of things when I was younger) but as I grew older the thought of venturing into space became of little concern. Despite my fading interest in man’s obsession with colonising Mars, I must admit that experiencing the journey through space in 3D was EXTREMELY fascinating and exhilarating.
Twenty-five minutes later we were back on Earth and off to our next adventure – a flight simulator ride!!! Now this was more of a Ken thing, as you might have correctly guessed, and he insisted that I be the pilot in command while he took on the responsibility of being gunner. We paid $10 each, got a 30-second training on how to use the joystick from the lady with the colourful hair and that was it. Now, that really underprepared me for what I was about to experience. Go time. The rainbow-hair lady made sure we were strapped securely into our seats then repeated, “Remember to keep your target in focus. Good luck!” Let me tell you something! I had chosen the wrong day to flaunt my summer dress. The more I tried to keep the gun targeted on the enemy aircraft, the more upside-down turns the simulator did. As a matter of fact, I think we spent more time in an inverted position than we did upright (thankfully we hadn’t had our lunch yet). Ken kept shouting “Left…no, right! Right! Now left!” It was all in vain because our mission ended without us taking down a single enemy plane. Needless to say, we had a blast amidst all the shouting, screaming and laughter. All I can say for myself – AT LEAST I didn’t crash the plane.
Our guide, Bill, a retired US Air Force pilot, gave us an extremely detailed and very informative tour of various galleries in the museum. At each stop he effortlessly narrated the stories behind specific aircraft and the pilots that flew them. I was immediately drawn into the world of aviation. How could I have possibly thought that spending an entire day with planes would have bored me to death? Suddenly, I could relate to Ken’s passion. As I listened to Bill, my mind travelled back in time to December 17, 1903. I watched, in my mind’s eye, totally awed, as Orville lifted off from North Carolina’s Kitty Hawk and logged THE first record flight that lasted no more than 12 seconds, totalling a distance of 120 feet. One and a quarter centuries later, it’s still a story like no other that promises to captivate one’s imagination.
Besides the Wrights’ remarkable story, I also really enjoyed listening to the challenges and victories of Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis, Bessie Coleman – the first, female, African-American pilot – and, of course, the most famous female pilot of all times – Amelia Earhart. Bill is a really talented story teller and I can only imagine how much fun his grandchildren must have when they gather around him to listen to his tales.
By the end of the day, Ken was the one hurrying me through the galleries to get to the museum store before they shut down and kicked us out. It was a day well spent with my best friend. I can proudly say that I’ve been bitten by the aviation bug.