High Desert Hangar Stories: The N-9MB — Not an eagle in a cage

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Courtesy photograph

On April 22, we suffered a tremendous loss when Planes of Fame pilot David Vopat and the historic Northrop N-9MB were both lost in an accident that has rocked the aviation world.

Much has been written and said addressing the history and memories of so many about the legacy of the blue and yellow wing that touched the heart and soul, not only of historians, but of the blue-collar aviation fan who saw it perform at countless airshows all over the Southland.

Early on as the news started to develop after the accident, we started to hear the opinions of those who felt that these historic aircraft have no business being airborne. It’s a common feeling, shared by those who have a different view of history and how it’s presented.

To museum curators, a placement of a prized aircraft in a collection can be looked at in different ways. To understand better, we need to look no further than the fictional Indiana Jones trilogy as an example. We have those who feel that prized artifacts should be safely locked away from public view for history’s sake, accessible only by historical and research professionals. Then we have those who feel that history belongs to all people and should be shared in a setting where it can be viewed in an environment that is accessible but safe. Then we have those who feel the very best way to present aviation history is to display it as it was intended to be viewed — “in the air.”

Flying historic aircraft is nothing new in the aviation world. As with all aircraft, there will always be the possibility of a mishap that can bring an end to a historic journey — but we must remember that even a new airframe under development faces those first flights that can bring an end to what many would consider a priceless aircraft.

Not hard for many of us who grew up in the shadow of the XB-70 to understand, recalling the loss of one of only two airframes that were beloved by so many of us. I’m sure as painful as that event was, none of us would have wanted to see that program not fulfill its potential, had the remaining ship been grounded.

Static museums have their place in the world, but with the current push toward teaching technology and history in the form of hands-on STEM programs, we understand that seeing and understanding a technology or history in its natural and intended environment is what will engage the minds of future generations, who demand more than what a static display can deliver. The flying wing N-9MB was just such an aircraft. It looked pretty cool sitting on the ground, but to see it in flight — now that was a real lesson in cutting edge design and how a technology was used to advance aircraft design in a different era.

This subject also affects the Warbird community, as many feel that the weapons of war have no business making the air show circuits and should be locked away to preserve their story. In reality, that is the best way to make sure those stories are lost, as generations lose interest in subject matter they have no personal attachment too.

Courtesy photograph

The Planes of Fame Air Museum, as with many other flying museums, understands the importance of presenting their inventory in a safe and responsible manner. The flying airframes of today are not only rare and irreplaceable, they are also very expensive. They demand not only the very best of those that maintain them, but also the love and respect of those pilots who are entrusted with sharing the aircraft with the viewing public. The days of the hot-rod pilots who flew the ‘hot’ airplanes of past generations have nowadays been replaced by the most educated and professional pilots that our society can produce. When entrusted with the responsibility of sharing aviation history, they do not take that responsibility lightly. Many times I can remember when a first flight or historical reenactment, accompanied by pressure from the press and the community to perform, was put on hold as the restoration workers or performer pilot did not feel that the aircraft was airworthy. My pilot friends at Planes of Fame have an incredible record of safety and airmanship when it comes taking those airframes into the skies for all of us to enjoy.

The N-9MB was a bird that was built to soar with the eagles and for many years it did just that. Since its restoration in the 1990s we have proof, with video, pictures and personal memories that will keep that history alive for generations to come. Would we really have preferred to see the Flying Wing with its wings clipped, regulated to a life that would be akin to keeping a Bald Eagle in a cage? I don’t think so but many will probably still take a hard line, dig in their heels and still question the advisability of flying rare and historic aircraft.

We must press on and follow our hearts when it comes to such a heated topic — but let’s not forget that a fire in Michigan took out many historic aircraft in a hanger, and a hurricane in Florida did the same, as did a fire some years back at a Hemet, Calif., hanger. The difference between those tragic events and the loss of the N-9MB was the loss of a good man, who took off on that day with full intentions of returning from another flight in an aircraft he knew so well. Sadly, we find that those gremlins and mechanical mysteries in the aviation world can make their presence known at the very worst of times.

Our prayers go out to the pilot and his family, as well as all those of the Planes of Fame family who will have a hard time trying to fill the void not only their hearts, but in the museum’s inventory. The late Ed Maloney was the man who started the Planes of Fame journey of a museum that would fly the aircraft for all to enjoy and learn from. If he were here today, I’m pretty sure my good friend of many years would not hesitate to look to the sky and utter those words he repeated many times over his life: “Keep ’em flyin’!”

Until next time, Bob out …