Spy plane disassembly begins at Virginia Aviation Museum ahead of move to Science Museum
By JOHN RAMSEY Richmond Times-Dispatch January 12, 2016
Photo by Bob Brown
As the wing of the old spy plane slipped away from the body, Marty Batura couldn’t resist running his fingers along the internal parts that gave this bird its tremendous power.
Batura is leading a four-man crew charged with taking apart the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane that has sat for the past 15 years on the front lawn of the Virginia Aviation Museum and reassembling it inside the Science Museum of Virginia.
He has pulled apart or put together this kind of plane 14 times before, but something about the world’s fastest and highest-flying airplane still captivates him.
“You touch it and realize that traveled faster than a .30-06 bullet,” said Batura, owner of the Nebraska-based Worldwide Aircraft Recovery. “This is one of my favorite aircraft because of the history involved.”
The SR-71 was an early stealth plane used for spy missions in the 1960s. With a top speed of 2,193 mph — or more than 3,200 feet per second — it could simply outrun any missile aimed in its direction. Flying at altitudes of more than 85,000 feet, pilots could sometimes see the curve of the Earth from the cockpit. Of the 32 Blackbirds ever built, a dozen were lost in accidents.
The one outside the Aviation Museum, brought here from California in 1999 by Batura’s company, set an endurance record for the longest flight ever by traveling 15,000 miles in 10½ hours.
Leaders at the Aviation Museum haven’t decided which, if any, of their 34 planes they’ll put on display out front in the spot the Blackbird is vacating. But they’re glad to see it moving indoors, away from the weather and bird droppings that it has endured the past 15 years.
“I’m so happy it’s going to be under cover and visible to so many more people,” said Aviation Museum operations coordinator Edward Andrews, whose 15,000 annual visitors are dwarfed by the 300,000 who visit the Science Museum each year.
The Science Museum oversees operation of the Aviation Museum, which is at Richmond International Airport in eastern Henrico County.
After the plane is broken down into seven main pieces over the next few weeks and trucked to the Science Museum, the tricky part begins.
The plane, with its 55-foot wingspan, will be suspended in air near the rear of the museum’s rotunda, past the giant pendulum that hangs from the ceiling. But the walls inside the museum are only 49 feet wide, meaning the plane will have to hang at an angle.
So the parts will be pulled in through a hole cut into the museum’s back wall, then carefully put back together in a process something like building a ship in a bottle or moving a sofa into a new apartment.
Steel beams have been lowered through the Science Museum roof and bolted to the ground to hold up the Blackbird’s 43,000-pound frame.
The work will be performed behind a temporary wall outfitted with windows on all three floors so visitors can watch as the titanium pieces become a plane again.
Once it’s in place, the Blackbird will be the centerpiece of a new exhibit called “Speed.” In addition to the Blackbird, the exhibit set to open this spring will house a hurricane simulator, along with a slew of other interactive features. One will pit visitors against a telegraph operator: Who can text faster?
Dual rails of LEDs on the ceiling will allow for simulated races. Want to see how Usain Bolt would compare with Secretariat? Or how the Blackbird would compare with an F-16? Set them into the system and look up.
“The SR-71 is so fast, if you blink you would miss it,” said Chrissy Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Science Museum. “I think a lot of people are going to have their mind blown when they come in.”
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