On the Go
At Hiller Aviation Museum, Kids Find Ways to Soar
When a plane flies within earshot, most kids find it pretty exciting, but imagine how excited they would be if they could stand right next to the runway when the plane was taking off. As they look up, they are probably imagining what it would be like to climb into the cockpit and press every button they see. If only they could make the plane go as high as they want and feel what it’s like to bring it in for a landing. Well, after enviously watching all those planes go by from 30,000 feet below, they can experience the thrills of flight at the Hiller Aviation Museum.
The Hiller Aviation Institute and Museum was founded by helicopter pioneer Stanley Hiller Jr. The facility holds one of the largest collections of pre-WWI aircraft in the world, chronicling the first 100 years of aviation. The Main Gallery displays the evolution of flight with both originals and replicas of early aircraft, beginning with the Avitor Hermes Jr. The Avitor (a variant spelling of aviator) was the first heavier-than-air aircraft to employ a three-axis control system, flying near the present-day San Francisco Airport in 1869. The three-axis control system involved three components: forward elevator for “pitch” (up and down), rear rudder for “yaw” (side to side) and wing-warping for “roll” (lateral motion). It is the prototype upon which all aircraft design depends. “We’re not just a bunch of WWII jets,” says Willie Turner, VP of operations, who has been with the Hiller Museum even before it opened its doors in 1998. “We look at the advances in technology.”
History buffs are definitely not the only ones who will geek out at this place. Head out back and find the front end of an enormous Boeing 747 cockpit, which is wide open for kids to climb in and fly to wherever their imagination wants to go. “A lot of people think we’re crazy to leave it open, but we decided it was more important to get the feeling of it,” says Turner. As a parent, the gift of not having to utter any variation of “don’t touch that,” was just as thrilling for me as all of the buttons and levers were for my son. According to Turner, things do get broken, but they have a restoration team at the ready. “The kids are going to remember walking up the stairs and getting into the cockpit. So that’s our stance on keeping it open.”
If it’s not enough for your kid to play pretend in a 747, head over to the Flight Sim Zone. For an extra $3 for each 30-minute time slot, future pilots are at the helm of a virtual flight using state-of-the-art software, a display panel and flight controls. “This is not a video game,” says Turner, who claims that regulars to the museum enjoy putting in different jets and changing the destination with each visit, anywhere from SFO to Tokyo. “It involves a great deal of precision. You’re really flying an airplane.”
As cool as all of the exhibits are, one of the most enjoyable experiences was standing on the observation platform set up in the back of the museum. What’s so great about standing on a platform? For starters, it is situated along a runway, where private planes are constantly taking off and landing about 100 feet away. A pilot himself, Turner claims there is something relaxing about watching planes take off and land. But frankly, my son was going bonkers every time one passed.
Hiller is chock-full of events. Family days mark special programs, such as Star Lab, when Hiller bring in an inflatable planetarium, or The Perfect Paper Airplane Day, offering a demonstration with master paper airplane builder John Collins. Families with little ones will want to mark down holiday events, including Santa’s arrival by helicopter and a “Noon Year’s Eve” party, complete with a countdown to 12 noon, when Hiller drops balloons and celebrates until the wee hour of 3 p.m.
When visiting the museum, it might be wise to pack a lunch, as no food is sold on the premises. Picnic tables are set up both inside and outside of the museum, making it easy to take a break for a snack or a meal. If you do not bring lunch, Turner recommends the Sky Kitchen, a restaurant that overlooks planes taking off and landing. While most of the exhibits are inside, be sure to dress for some outside time because if your kid is anything like mine, you might find yourself on the observation platform for a chunk of your visit.
Last year, the museum hosted an awards ceremony in which a high school kid received a full scholarship to the U.S. Naval Academy. “He came up to me afterward and told me how much this place meant to him,” says Turner. “He’d been coming to the museum ever since he was 8 years-old.” After an impression like that, what else is there left to do but fly?
The Hiller Aviation Institute and Museum is open daily, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Admission ranges from free–$11. 601 Skyway Road, San Carlos, (650) 654-0200, www.hiller.org.