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Layover in Atlanta? Try your hand at flying a plane

At Delta Flight Museum, airline seats and uniforms are displayed in repurposed baggage carts in Hangar 2, which houses Delta\u2019s first Boeing 767-200, known as The Spirit of Delta.\uFEFF
Published Sep. 20, 2018

By Mary Ann Anderson

The first time my husband landed a Boeing 737-200 at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, he crashed. On the next go-round, I held my breath as Roy glided the plane over the runway fairly easily, but put it down with such force that the entire cockpit shook as if it were at the epicenter of an earthquake. I thought I would tumble out of the co-pilot's seat.

Roy didn't really crash a plane, and he's not even a pilot, but I really did get jostled pretty badly. We were perched high off the ground in the Delta Flight Museum's very realistic flight simulator.

"It's the only full-motion flight simulator in the United States that's open to the public," says Mike Raftis, our extremely patient instructor.

The museum, along with the 737-200 simulator and a very cool collection of airplanes and Delta memorabilia, is minutes from the terminals at Hartsfield-Jackson. Although it's been around in some form since 1995, it has only been open to the public for a few years.

If you happen to find yourself in Atlanta, either by choice or on one of those long airport layovers because of one of the delayed or canceled flights for which Hartsfield-Jackson is infamous, the museum is worth a visit. It displays the gifts of aviation in a way that stirs nostalgia, awe and appreciation.

My husband and I set out to visit the museum. When I called to confirm the address, a young lady said, "You can't miss the museum. Just turn in between the Boeing 747 and Boeing 757." Soon enough, the behemoth planes were before us, standing sentry to more than 100 years of aviation history housed in two 1940s-era hangars.

We meet Tiffany Meng, director of operations, as she is showing tours around one of the hangars. The first thing we notice is a long line to see the interior of a meticulously restored Douglas DC-3, its silver coat polished to a dazzling shine that reflects every light in the building.

When it's our turn, I'm amazed at the aircraft, which entered into service with Delta in December 1940. Its windows, adorned with curtains instead of shades, are larger than in planes today; the interior exudes elegance and richness, the way air travel used to be. "It's a pretty impressive machine," says Robert "Chick" Smith, a retired Delta pilot who, like Raftis, is now a simulator instructor as well as a museum guide. He points out different features of the DC-3 to visitors before joking, "I retired from Delta in 2003. The FAA made us retire at a certain age, age 60 at that time. You're too old, too ugly, and too stupid to fly airplanes overnight."

When the crowds around the DC-3 subside, I ask Meng what had prompted Delta to open the museum to the public. "Up until a few years ago, the museum was more for employees than anything else," she said. "In celebration of Delta's 85th anniversary of service in 2014, the decision was made to update the museum and share the company's history to a wider audience." From 2012 to 2014, it underwent a renovation that cost more than $12 million before opening almost full time in June 2014.

As Meng, Roy and I walk through the expansive rows of artifacts, she tells us that the museum collection includes items from the history of 40 airlines — including Northwest, going back to when it was Northwest Orient, as well as China Southern and Pan Am. Here and there, she stops to show us her favorite objects, including a ticket from Aug. 14, 1929, for a flight from Monroe, La., where Delta was headquartered for a spell, to Jackson, the capital of Mississippi. The cost was $13.25.

She directs our attention to an employee identification badge. "Delta was named by Catherine FitzGerald, called Miss Fitz, and she was one of Delta's first employees," Meng says, referring to the longtime assistant to C.E. Woolman, Delta's first CEO. "She came up with the name of Delta from the Mississippi Delta region."

Other Delta memorabilia includes a reproduction of the first Huff-Daland crop duster, and flight attendant uniforms through the years, including the "groovy" designs from the 1960s. Even the hangar is historical. "The hangar is one of the oldest buildings on Atlanta airport property," Meng says as she sweeps her arm toward the crop duster suspended from the ceiling. (Two original Huff-Daland Dusters still exist. One is at the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Northern Virginia; the other at the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, Ala.) "As far as I know, we are the only airline that started from killing bugs, the boll weevil," Meng says. "Most airlines start out as a cargo carrier or from airmail."

In an adjacent hangar is a monstrous Boeing 767-200, and emblazoned on its side is The Spirit of Delta. Meng says that in 1982, when the economy was weak and Delta was posting its first net loss, Delta employees raised $30 million among themselves and others to purchase the plane, the first 767 that Delta owned. "It is the only one in the entire fleet named The Spirit of Delta," Meng says. Special events are often held underneath its giant wings in the hangar.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I didn't do so well in the flight simulator, either. I chose to take off and land from Honolulu's Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. I almost slammed into a mountain as I tried to watch the landscape and all those bright, shiny cockpit gizmos at the same time. And I landed in the grass, rather than the runway.

But at least I didn't crash.

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