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Funding the past and future of flight

Alan Boyle /
Software billionaire Paul Allen takes journalists and VIPs on a

tour of the Flying Heritage Collection on Friday. The plane with

the painted teeth is a Curtiss P-40C ground attack fighter.

Software billionaire Paul Allen has unveiled a new museum that recognizes milestones in the history of flight - including an episode in which he himself played a role: the flights of the SpaceShipOne rocket plane.

Although Allen's Flying Heritage Collection focuses on the fliers of the past, the longtime airplane buff is still looking forward as well as backward. In an exclusive interview, he hinted that he's considering at least one more pioneering aerospace venture.

Allen holds the No. 11 spot on Forbes' list of the richest Americans by virtue of his role in starting up Microsoft (which, ahem, is a partner in the joint venture). But more recently the 55-year-old Seattle native has become as famous for how he's using his billions: as the owner of the Seattle Seahawks, Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle Sounders, for example ... as an investor in entertainment ventures such as Dreamworks and Vulcan Productions ... as the benefactor behind the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and myriad other civic projects.

But you can't help but get the impression that aerospace has a special place in Allen's psyche. His $25 million-plus investment made it possible for Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan to create SpaceShipOne - which led to winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize and gaining what could amount to a $25 million licensing deal with British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic tourist venture.

Through the years, Allen also has spent millions to acquire and refurbish vintage aircraft from the heyday of military aviation - including America's Curtiss Jenny, Britain's Spitfire, Japan's Zero and Germany's Messerschmitt Bf 109. Now Allen has a venue worthy of the collection.

After sitting for years in Arlington, Wash., the restored planes that make up the Flying Heritage Collection have been moved down to a refurbished 51,000-square-foot hangar at Everett's Paine Field - and on Friday, the facility finally opened its doors to the public. Spokesman Roger van Oosten said Allen spent $5.2 million to renovate the hangar, with $2.2 million of that cost reimbursed by Snohomish County. Allen is to pay the county $370,000 per year for 10 years for leasing the hangar, van Oosten said.

D-Day remembered

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Allen noted that the opening came on the 64th anniversary of D-Day. He recalled that his own father took part in the Normandy Invasion, protected in part by the innovations in aviation that gave the Allies air superiority on that day.

"When I look at the planes in this collection, I think of the people who worked under extreme pressure to find ways to advance the technologies of flight," Allen said. "I think of the nights they couldn't sleep, the problems they had to overcome, the failures they endured on the way to ultimate success. The Flying Heritage Collection is a tribute not just to pilots, but to all the technicialns and dreamers who said we can do better, and did."

During an impromptu tour, Allen said one of the most beautiful warplanes was a P-51D Mustang - which is painted as it was during World War II, right down to the nine swastikas that stood for the American pilot's "kills." The pilot behind those downings, retired Air Force Capt. Harrison "Bud" Tordoff, flew in from Minnesota for the opening.

"It's nice to see a piece of history that you were associated with preserved," said Tordoff, now 85.

The P-51D - and yet another World War II plane, the P-47 Thunderbolt - are both due to rise into the air once again on Saturday when the Flying Heritage Collection kicks off a series of every-other-week flyarounds for historic planes (weather permitting, of course).

That's one of the big attractions of the museum: The public will actually get to see some of the planes (though not all of them) in operation. "Our goal is to restore these planes, to preserve them in authentic flying condition and share them with the public for generations to come," Allen said.

Odd rockets

Among the oddest planes in the hangar are three Nazi aircraft that most surely will not be flown. One is a V-1 buzzbomb, the unmanned "cruise missile" that terrorized London in the latter days of the war. Another is a piloted version of the V-1, which was never flown in combat. Adrian Hunt, the collection's executive director, told me that putting a pilot in the V-1 turned out to be a terrible idea.

"The theory is that you open the cockpit and you jump out just when you're getting close to the target," he said. "There's a slight design fault there. Once you open the cockpit, that's the intake for the rocket - and it tends to suck in things, including people. That could be a problem."

Aaron Blank / Flying Heritage Collection
The Me-163 Komet rocket plane has been called the

"deadliest plane ever built," but it also served as an

antecedent to the SpaceShipOne rocket plane.

Then there's the Me-163 Komet rocket plane, a snub-nosed craft that was designed to fly for just eight minutes, shooting up and diving down to buzz Allied bombers. The plane entered action too late to have any impact on the war, and in retrospect it looks like another bad idea from the Luftwaffe. On the Defense Tech Web log, David Hambling calls it the "deadliest plane ever built" - for its pilots, that is, not for its foes.

Despite all that, the Komet left its mark on aviation technology: Allen called it "an antecedent to the SpaceShipOne project," along with the rocket planes of the 1950s and 1960s, of course. A video next to the Nazi rocket plane replays the SpaceShipOne flights, and Hunt said the collection may soon offer an even more substantial reminder of the Allen-financed team's achievements.

"The main focus of this exhibit is the technological change in the middle of the 20th century, but obviously it gave rise to things afterward," Hunt said as he stood by the trio of Nazi rocketships. "So we're probably going to have on display a replica of SpaceShipOne, because these things ultimately gave rise to SpaceShipOne."

The actual SpaceShipOne craft is hanging in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, but this replica - one of several created in the wake of the rocketplane's flights - is the next best thing. It's currently on display a few miles south on Interstate 5, at Seattle's Museum of Flight, but will take its place in the collection as early as this summer, Hunt said.

One-on-one with Paul Allen

The Komet and SpaceShipOne were much on my mind when I sat down for a couple of minutes one-on-one with Allen. He preferred to talk about the legacy of past flights, but couldn't resist slipping in a reference to a venture that is apparently not yet ready for prime time. Here's a transcript: 

Cosmic Log: I wanted to ask you about linking the SpaceShipOne experience with the Flying Heritage Collection. How tickled are you to have the Komet rocket plane here?

Allen: Extremely. It’s such a rare airplane, and the fact that we were able to pull off a trade with the museum in the U.K., to bring that here for the area people to see – that was just an amazing, fortuitous event.

I got to see pilots fly SpaceShipOne, and anytime you fly a rocket straight up, those pilots are incredibly brave. Of course, with the technology in World War II, when rocketry was in its infancy, the idea that you’d be able to create an actual functional fighter plane that would attack Allied bomber formations – that’s just amazing. It’s a small little airplane, if you go in and see it. It’s a tiny plane, but it had a couple of 30mm cannon, and there were no Allied planes that could catch it.

Q: Do you feel as if there are modern analogs to the people who had such a part in influencing aerospace in the mid-20th century? Who would we look toward for the next generation of flying heritage?

A: I think that’s a great point. The team that did SpaceShipOne at Scaled Composites, that Burt Rutan led, that was only roughly 25 people. So yes, there are people today who are innovating in every area of aerospace, whether they’re at Scaled Composites; or Elon Musk, somebody who’s doing a private rocket; or Richard Branson, who is working with Scaled Composites on SpaceShipTwo to have tickets for private spaceflights available. There’s a tremendous amount of innovation, and that’s just in private sector. Obviously NASA continues to do many great things as well.

Q: You had such a role in getting SpaceShipOne off the ground, are you looking at other ways to continue that moving to that goal, or are you taking a continuing role in what Burt and Sir Richard are doing?

A: No, they’ve licensed our technology, and they’re working on the SpaceShipTwo commercial, private, ticketed flight effort.

We’re looking at at least one other thing now, but there’s nothing to announce today.

Q: But the important thing is that you’re keeping your hand in.

A: Yeah, I think that we had such tremendous success with SpaceShipOne, and that was such an incredible experience. For a kid who grew up in north Seattle and used to build plastic rockets in the basement, paint them and everything, to be part of a private space effort that was the first to get a man up there twice in two weeks and win the X Prize - that was just really rewarding.

Update for 11:45 a.m. ET June 10: I originally mentioned that the V-1 terrorized London during the blitz, but a commenter points out that the period known as the Blitz lasted only until May 1941. London later suffered additional waves of aerial attacks - this Wikipedia article lists the "Baedeker Blitz," the "Baby Blitz" and finally the V-weapons offensive. I've amended this item to reflect the correction. Thanks for setting me straight, Jeremy!

Some commenters are saying that the plane pictured with Paul Allen at the top of this item is a Warhawk rather than a Tomahawk. All I can go with is the information I've been provided, as well as evidence that the P-40 line included Tomahawks as well as Warhawks (and Kittyhawks, by the way). But I know better than to argue with airplane buffs, so I've removed the Tomahawk reference in the caption - and I'll leave it to the commenters to thrash it out.

Update for 1 p.m. ET June 11: I rephrased the first paragraph of this item, as well as later references, to make absolutely clear that the collection will include a replica of SpaceShipOne, but not the real thing. I also fixed a typo that referred to the collection as the "Flight Heritage Collection."