OAKLAND, Calif. » Remember the scene near the beginning of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" when Indiana Jones boards a plane on the way to Nepal, circles a tight staircase to the upper cabin, then settles into a cushy seat, tugging his trademark fedora over his eyes for a nap — all while evil, bespectacled Gestapo agent Arnold Toht eyes him from a couple of seats behind?
Well, you might not recall the scene in such detail, as it’s only 45 seconds long. But you can relive it in that very seat aboard that very plane — the big, tubby-bellied prop-job City of Cardiff, a Short Solent Mark III flying boat that now rests outside the hangar of the Oakland Aviation Museum like a beached white whale.
Museum folks keep a fedora on that legendary seat, and they let people sit there and take pictures.
"It’s not quite the original seat now," docent Bill Lippincott told me on a recent visit. "So many people have taken pictures there over the years, the seat got worn out and we had to redo it."
Alas, any Harrison Ford cooties are long gone. But it’s still pretty darned cool.
The Solent may be the big draw for movie fans and general passers-by — you can’t miss it, if you stray anywhere near the Old North Field at Oakland International Airport, out among the streets with such names as Earhart, Wright and Langley. But aviation buffs know there’s much more to this under-the-radar museum. It’s a treasure trove for anyone taken with the notion of flight. It’s filled with old aircraft and memorabilia: Each plane, helicopter, old engine part, uniform, faded photo or World War II logbook tells its own tale in the history of aviation.
Be advised, the nonprofit museum — here for the past 25 years — is what you’d call no-frills. It smells of oil and old rubber, and it demands meandering and a bit of patience to read about various inventions and engine specifications. Several flight historians have likened the place — in a good way — to going into somebody’s garage and rummaging around all their stuff.
At the same time, this isn’t some fly-by-night operation.
"People don’t seem to know we’re here, but when they do find us, they’re amazed," Lippincott says.
Even the hangar itself is historic. The corrugated steel shell was built in 1939 by the Boeing School of Aeronautics and used to train aircraft mechanics for the Army Air Corps and Navy during World War II. It now houses several vintage planes — one a full-size replica of the Vin Fiz, an early Wright Brothers’ Model EX biplane. Wooden propellers hang here and there, including a pair from the Army Corps’ Bird of Paradise that completed the first nonstop flight from the West Coast to Hawaii in 1927, piloted by Albert Hegenberger and Lester Maitland.
Around the building’s rim are exhibit rooms. One is dedicated to Alameda, Calif.-born Gen. James Doolittle, and another to the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military pilots of World War II. Still another highlights women in aviation, including Amelia Earhart, who flew out of Oakland and into an enigma in 1937 on her famous, ill-fated around-the-world attempt.
Outside are interactive exhibits of the old-fashioned kind, where you can climb inside the cockpit of an A-3 Skywarrior, the Navy’s first strategic all-jet nuclear bomber, and, if you’re lucky, hear some tales from docent John Horton, who flew that very plane. (Be sure to ask him about the bright orange tape on a small piece of machinery inside the bomb bay. It’s a story of life and death.)
|IF YOU GO …
OAKLAND AVIATION MUSEUM
» Where: 8252 Earhart Road, off Doolittle Drive on the Old North Field at Oakland International Airport
Crew chief Greg Ely often is out in the yard, tinkering on one engine or another. "Other air museums, you’ll see beautifully restored planes, which I love. But here, these old girls, this is what the planes really look like, with all their wear and tear," he says. "We’re the caretakers of history."
He took me up inside the nose section of a DC-6, a predecessor to today’s jet passenger planes, he says. This one, built in 1958, has lived a lot of lives with various airline companies, flying the polar route, serving as a U.N. rescue plane and then later converted to a firefighting tanker.
And, of course, there’s the Solent Mark III. It’s an extra $5 to climb aboard for a docent tour, but it’s totally worth it.
The aircraft, once owned by Howard Hughes, is the only one of its kind left in the world, Lippincott says.
It was originally built in England as a military submarine chaser during World War II, then was reconfigured as a luxury plane to hold 34 passengers in the 1940s, flying wealthy travelers to exotic ports in the South Pacific.
Its walls have faded paintings of palm trees and beach huts. A fringe-trimmed bar can be found on the main deck, and the ladies’ powder room is done up in pink with curvaceous countertops on the vanity. The only thing out of place is a flat-screen TV, but it’s there with a purpose: to run the 45-second Indiana Jones scene in a continuous loop.
Indeed, take the curved staircase to the upper deck — the same steps Indy climbed — and there’s the infamous seat, saved with a brown fedora. Sit there. Take a photo. Tug the hat down over your eyes and dream of adventure.
By Angela Hill, Oakland Tribune