Why you should care
Because sometimes it’s OK to talk to strangers.
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
Hiller Aviation Museum
San Carlos, California
Today was pretty hectic. It’s a holiday week, and we had so many people. I greeted everyone and gave them an overview of the museum, walked them through the gallery of airplanes. We have something like 52 aircraft artifacts in the museum right now. Some of them go back to 1911 and have been restored. I get all types of people in here, from prekindergarten to senior citizens, so I have to tailor my content to the age group and what they’re looking for. With the kids, I have them sit on the carpet and I get down on the floor with my little airplane model and talk to them. You have to get down to the child-to-child level so they warm up to you. I always build up the excitement by asking, “You want to go see something really cool?” We want them to get the tactile experience and put their paws all over the airplane fuselage. There are different ways to get into a person’s mind — through their eyes, ears, fingers — and we try to get all of them in the experience so each kid will get something helpful to them to understand aviation.
I’ve had an interest in aviation since I was a kid. I retired in 2011 and came by [the museum] and decided to become a docent. Most of the gallery here relates to the San Francisco Bay Area and people learn things that they never knew took place before. I enjoy telling stories about the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss and other pioneers of aviation, like Lincoln Beachey, a great aviator who wowed crowds in San Francisco in the 1910s. In fact, when he passed away, the city had a Lincoln Beachey day. At the end of the day, people go away with a little bit more understanding of aviation and its history. That’s the beauty of it.
I got my degree in aerospace and mechanical engineering from the University of Notre Dame. Then I spent 13 years in the Air Force at Millstar, a military communications site in Los Angeles. After that, I decided to go into the civilian side and worked on the Air Force’s space programs. When I left the military, I came up here to work for Lockheed Martin, on defense space programs.
My very first flight was in 1968, when my uncle took me around to see colleges. He was an aerospace engineer and knew I wanted to go into that field too. So he took me on a Boeing 707 from New York to South Bend, Indiana, to visit Notre Dame. He wanted me to have confidence that I could go to college. My father was blue collar and didn’t go to college. I had to wear a tie and a nice white shirt for the flight. You used to have to dress up to go on an airplane. It was a social occasion to fly.
The golden days of aeronautical engineering were in the early 1950s, when they were building a lot of jet aircraft for the first time. One classic Lockheed designer named Kelly Johnson worked on 22 different aircraft during his career. Nowadays, a graduate may work on one or two planes during his entire career since they take so long to build. I’m retired, but my passion remains airplanes and space. I don’t fly like I used to; in the Air Force, I took 130 flights over four years. The plane was just like a big bus, but it was special every time.
We have a doctor who brings his son to the museum every Tuesday after school. The kid has got a collection of airplanes in his room. In the summertime, we have aviation camps for kids — 180 kids a week. You see their eyes light up. You hope that among one or two, we’ll get a scientist or engineer. If you plant this little seed in a child’s head, over the years it may grow into a profession. That’s what we hope.