Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Maverick, Without the Goose

How was your Cup Day?
We started it thinking we should escape Melbourne to Geelong’s Ford Museum, a place our mechanically oriented boy seemed to like last year. Alas, upon checking their website to make sure they’re open we hit upon the news the museum was closed during July. As far as I am concerned, this has been the worst manifestation of local car industry woes thus far (not that I am trying to detract in any way from the pain of those whose jobs are on the line).
Still facing the same direction, we decided to give another museum in the same direction a try: the RAAF Museum at Point Cook. The main trick to this museum is that it’s free. Hard to believe nowadays, I know, but I can assure you we did not pay any entry fees.
Entry is actually funny: the museum resides inside a military base, but the base’s gateway was guarded by a single unarmed guy from a private security company. How shall I put it? The experience was somewhat different to what I remember from my days with the Israeli army. Indeed, as I noted before, in Israel you are welcomed into shopping malls by gangs of guards armed with automatic pistols and submachine guns.
Once the guard took down my driver’s license details and gave me the spill about not taking photos of the base (other than the museum itself), we made our way to the museum’s parking lot. I have to say that other than the matter of gate security, army bases do have a universal look: that look of functionality over anything else, with little regard paid to aesthetics. Our leaders fail to realize a healthy person requires those; then again, since when did they want healthy minded people in the military?
The museum itself is quite good. Not the finest display of aircraft and militarism I have ever seen – nothing to rival the F-16 squadron visits I have had as a child – but given the nature of this open to the public operation, including foreigners, there can be no complaints. Exhibits include some history as well as the real deal, in the shape of an F-111 and a multitude of other planes serving the Australian air force. Notable in its exclusion is the F-18, probably because it’s still in active duty and probably because the Australian air force only has a fraction of the number of aircrafts you would expect it to have given Australia’s size (and if you ask me, that number is almost certainly too high as it is).
The highlight of our visit took place at 13:00, when we were called to a live demonstration outside. Two guys, one of them an experience air force (and now Jetstar) pilot, told us about the mechanics of flying and the history of the place. Apparently, Point Cook’s is the oldest continuously running airport in the world, having been in operation since 1914. The theoretical explanations were excellent, too, managing to convey the physics of flight in a manner that all the high school crap I had to read never did. There is a lot to be said in favor of Australia’s down to earth nature, and who am I to argue if these benefits manifest themselves with explanations of popular mechanics?
Then came the main event. After telling us how things work, the pilot jumped into the cockpit of a previously prepared training aircraft, took off, and gave us a demo of everything he told us about before – including loop the loops, aileron rolls, barrel rolls and stalling. He managed to talk to us over the PA during all those stunts, which shows something about his skill levels; then he landed and finished things off by answering questions from the crowd. All hundred or so of us!
No, the demo wasn’t as exciting as the F-16 bombing run I had the privilege of watching as a boy. That visceral feeling of total body disintegration caused by an F-16 flying some ten meters above my head with its afterburner engaged was absent, too. However, instead of an exciting display of military might I was witness to a fun and very educational display of wonder. In my book, the latter is much nicer and much more child and family friendly.
Which brings me to say that the RAAF Museum in Point Cook is a hidden gem of a museum. I know the military has its own agendas with museums such as this, but this does not mean we cannot enjoy and celebrate one of humanity’s greatest ever achievements – flying. This is exactly what the museum achieves, and for that I highly recommend it!

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