Oakland’s history in the air on display at aviation museum

The Short Solent Mark III flying boat was once owned by Howard Hughes. It appeared in the first Indiana Jones movie (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”). During its heyday, the late 1940s, the plane would fly passengers from Southampton, England, to Johannesburg, South Africa roundtrip for $1,400—the modern-day equivalent of $35,000.

There are three of these flying boats left in the world. One of them is right across the street from the Oakland Airport at the Oakland Aviation Museum. “And I bet this is the only one you’ll get a tour of,” said Scott Buckingham, the museum’s operations manager.

The flying boat is one of more than 20 aircraft on display at the museum, a collection that includes a replica of the first plane to cross the continent (Wright Brothers Model B), one of the most powerful military planes of all time (Grumman F-14a Tomcat), and a replica of the bomber flown by Tuskegee Airmen in World War II (P-51B Mustang).

The Oakland Aviation Museum has been open since 1981 and at its current location, on Amelia Earhart Drive, since 1989. In the past five years the museum has changed, Buckingham said, and narrowed its focus to Oakland’s rich aviation history. Buckingham calls Oakland “the Kitty Hawk of the West Coast” because, he said, “this is where it all started.”

The first “lighter than air” flight west of the Rockies launched from Oakland in 1853. The first controlled flight in the world—a glider where the pilot had control from the ground—took off from Oakland in 1883. The first powered dirigible (1904), the first powered flight from the West Coast (1909) and Amelia Earhart’s final flight (1937) all originated in Oakland. “A lot of people think she left from Miami, but Miami is just the point at which she left the continental United States,” Buckingham said. “She started from [the Oakland Airport’s] North field.”

Many famous names in aviation history also have an Oakland connection, including pioneers shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser and Allan Lockheed, founder of the aerospace company Lockheed Corporation. The first African-American female pilot, Bessie Coleman, flew out of Oakland in the 1920s. The Jacuzzi brothers used to make airplane propellers in Oakland before they started making hot tubs. “They took that same propeller,” Buckingham said, “and used it for water pumps.”

When the museum offers guided tours on the weekends, most people flock to the flying boat. The Indy connection is a strong draw, as a scene was filmed on the plane’s second deck. A copy of Life Magazine marks the seat where Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones character sat in the movie. Everything inside the plane all original, from the cushioned dark green seats that look like they were made from old tweed sport coats, to the blue armrests that have ashtrays, to the “ladies lounge,” an Art Deco styled restroom that has a pink counter, pink cushioned stools and sinks.

Later this summer, the museum will begin offering dinners aboard the flying boat, serving the original meal of chicken or fish that was offered on the 1949 flight from England to South Africa. They’ll also serve champagne and show an in-flight movie.

For more information on the Oakland Aviation Museum, including a list of special events, visit its website.

 

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