Our trip to Seattle meant I could seriously commit to a project I’d been considering for a while – to visit each British Airways Concorde. Whilst most of them can be found in museums in the UK, a few are located internationally. I’d already visited G-BOAD in New York last year, and I suspect this project will culminate with G-BOAE in Barbados!
However, today I was in search of G-BOAG. She now resides at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, in the south of the city at Boeing field and relatively accessible by bus from downtown. Obviously this doesn’t just house Concorde, with dozens of notable aircraft to be found in its halls and the enormous aviation pavilion. Between the sheer scale of this space, and close links to Boeing, the museum is able to offer some exhibits that few others could, including both types of aircraft I’d be using for this trip, the 747 and 787. In fact, their 747, City of Everett, was the prototype for this world-changing aircraft. Their 737 is also a prototype – for NASA – whilst the VC-137B in the collection once played the role of Air Force One (and retains the interior used for transporting the president and his staff).
In addition to their usual exhibits, the museum was holding a series of events under the ‘Jet Blast Bash’ title as part of Seafair weekend, the annual air show which by happy accident overlapped with our second stay in Seattle. Boeing Field would be pressed into service for take-offs by performers, and thus a visit would allow for some prime plane spotting for those so inclined. However, I’m not especially interested in military aircraft – with one notable exception. Whilst Concorde was the fastest passenger plane ever, the Blackbird was simply the fastest ever. Long since retired from the skies, the highlight for me would therefore be found inside rather than pressed against the runway fence: a talk by ‘sled driver’ Brian Shul on his experience with the SR-71.
His account of the fastest ground speed check is a tale of crew bonding that has passed into legend. It was first told at this same venue, in response to a question from a child on whether flying this impossible aircraft was ever fun. It is, I suspect, almost a contractual obligation to re-tell it each year; I suspect the tale gets taller with every telling, for the punchline in the version we heard was a hundred knots faster the one I linked above.
No matter; I suspect all in the room were familiar with the broad shape of the anecdote. What I didn’t know was anything about Shul’s life before the SR-71, and thus how improbable it was that he ever had the chance to pilot it. Nor did I appreciate that many of the iconic images of the Blackbird are thanks to him: a then-amateur photographer who managed to charm his way into being able to get shots of this top secret machine during its working life. (Shul has continued with photography since, although now his subjects are actual birds.) Admittedly, the talk did sometimes stray into motivational speaker territory, and at other times took a rather jingoistic line; but on the whole it was fascinating. Even with the offer of both a discount and a signature, though, I couldn’t quite justify several hundred dollars for a copy of his book!
As part of the festivities, the Blue Angels display team roared across downtown Seattle every afternoon for a few days. Somehow I was outside for each fly by yet never had appropriate camera gear to hand, until the final day (of both the air show and our trip). On that occasion we were out at Gasworks park, where to my delight their antics brought them directly overhead – with just enough warning for me to swap to a suitable lens before they reached us. You can find the resulting shots – along with a few of the museum highlights – in the gallery below.