Beautiful Belle…

Little-known and totally useless aviation factoid: I have a great liking for the old Douglas DC-3, the “Gooney Bird.” (I actually have a great liking for almost ANY old machine that just keeps going and going and going, year in and year out, far past any reasonable life expectancy. But even in that class, the old Douglas masterpieces stand out.) So when I read that the Bluebonnet Belle, a gorgeously restored and maintained 1944-vintage C-47 which belongs to the Highland Lakes Squadron of the CAF, was scheduled to make an appearance at the 1940 Air Terminal Museum down at Hobby Airport, I ditched my previous plan, “drink coffee and catch up on reading,” and headed down to see her. As with the majority of Gooneys, the Belle is designated “C-47″ because she was built for the military. The “DC-3″ (Douglas Commercial) is the civilian version (of which only a few were built before production was switched over to the war effort); it’s the same plane with a different badge.

Couple years ago the museum had offered a “quick hop in a C47″ (which was actually a C-49, a slightly later variant) as a promotional deal at one of their monthly Wings & Wheels events, and I went for that like a cat on a mouse. Sadly, when I got to the airport it turned out that the weather between D-FW, where the plane was based, and Houston, where the riders were, was bad (hail and funnel clouds) and they’d had to cancel – the turbulence was making the CREW queasy and hail and tornadoes aren’t really good for vintage aircraft. So I was hoping they’d offer a similar deal yesterday, which I could have (barely) afforded. But that plane wasn’t the Belle and yesterday wasn’t a promo deal – the price for rides was up where it needs to be, and my inner adult said “you don’t have it to spare today.” (Meanwhile, of course, the inner child was screaming, turning blue, and banging his head on the floor, but believe it or not he doesn’t always win.)

Understand, I have no problem with a $200 fee, any more than I do with the price of a Leica. I simply can’t spare the money. Old aircraft are terrifically expensive to fly and maintain, and the CAF folks are mostly “ordinary folks” with ordinary incomes, many of them retired and with virtually NO incomes. And officially, the Belle costs almost $600 an hour to fly, just in gas and oil. Tires, other consumables, maintenance, and all the thousands of other things are extra.

These old radials shove a lot of oil out the exhaust in a hurry when you start them up. (They also have “new engines someday” on the “gotta do” list – at 180 grand for the pair. Ouch.)

So I settled for the ground tour, courtesy of John Long, who knows his C47s AND the Belle.

The Belle, in her current role as an educator, is fitted out in a unique pattern to show four of the major roles filled by the C-47 during the war. There’s a cargo section (bare floor with lots of tiedown points), a passenger section (coach class or less), a patient transport section (stretchers hung on the walls), and a paratroop section (hard metal seats along the sides).

(Patient Transport Configuration)

The Gooney Bird was basically the Swiss Army Knife of aircraft – does anything, anywhere, anytime. There was even an early fork off the predecessor DC-2 design which became the B-18 “Bolo” medium bomber. Those were used primarily as trainers, though some were used for offshore patrol and one is credited with sinking a German U-boat in the Caribbean during the early days of the war. (The things I learn doing this…)

C-47s were also used heavily for towing gliders and ferrying troops and cargo (including jeeps and field artillery!). Over in the Pacific, they were the backbone of the India-China route, the fabled “Burma Hump,” where they kept the war effort in China alive, and paid for it as they and their crews died by the hundreds.

Aside from learning historical stuff, the best part of the tour was being able to climb (yeah, there’s quite a bit of slant to the floor when she’s on the ground – old taildraggers are like that…) right up to the cockpit. Not quite so complex as the Space Shuttle, no, but there’s a family resemblance.

As fascinating as the wartime history of the DC-3 is, for me it’s much simpler: This is what an airplane should look like.



Happy 70th, Beautiful Belle.

Esplanade Escapades (29.75741N, 95.34261W)

Last night was fairly quiet, even for Saturday night, and I just couldn’t find the lede for the next part of the NASA set (It’ll get there. It just wasn’t falling into place right then….) so I climbed into Andromeda (the Backroads Expeditionary Vehicle) and dropped by the East End Management District’s “Evening on the Esplanade.”

It was a quiet evening there, too.

But the management district has put a bit of time and money into turning part of the Navigation Boulevard Esplanade into a park of sorts, suitable for small events and very small street festivals.

The decoration theme appears to be “Papel Picado” done in steel.

It’s nicely executed though I could wish the street-level railing signs were done in something besides this ugly neutral grey-brown. I suspect there are city ordinances in play here, though.

The overhead “shade” pieces are colorful, though…

The “Evening on the Esplanade” is a new thing, just getting started, and it wasn’t particularly bustling… a couple of dozen people, maybe, three vendors and a food truck.

The budget rarely stretches to festival food, tonight being no exception, but the barbecue smelled wonderful and by report was excellent.

All in, it was a pleasant evening; a little warm, but cooling down nicely. I spent a bit of time talking with Adriane Wiltse, one of the artist/vendors. (I ducked out of the way when the cash customers showed up, not being inclined to wear jewelry myself…)

It’s nice work, gold fill and sterling with all sorts of semi-precious stones and vintage beads and knickknacks.

And apparently I wasn’t the only one who liked it…

A pleasant evening all around….

Getting There

From Downtown Houston, head east on Franklin under US59. The road curves left and dives into a tunnel under a railroad right-of-way. When you come out of the tunnel, you’ll actually be ON Navigation. To get to the esplanade, go straight through the first light, which is Canal St., and take a right at the second, which is the continuation of Navigation. The esplanade park is four or five blocks up, in the middle of the street. I usually find the phrase “you can’t miss it” to be very dangerous in driving directions, but here, well… you’ll have to work hard to miss it. When you get to the longhorn at Plaza Laurenzo, you’ve missed it. Good work.

Alternatively, you can catch Metro – the #48 line goes right by the Esplanade, in and out. I’ve been riding Metro semi-regularly for a couple of years and have found that they’re reasonably good about meeting schedules – but they are not designed for urban transport so much as they are for commuting, so many of their lines don’t run late hours. Check the schedule and allow a little extra for connections.

From anywhere else: Get to Downtown Houston, then follow the instructions above.

And I think it’s gonna be a long long time…

There’s a quote, variously attributed to John Glenn, or Alan Shepard, or possibly John Glenn QUOTING Alan Shepard, about waiting for liftoff in his Mercury capsule, “feeling as good as anyone could while sitting on top of a rocket built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”

I always heard it was Glenn, but I’ve been wrong about a bunch of other things, and The Internets don’t seem to know for sure exactly who said it, or exactly what the words were or in what order. It’s a great line, though, so I’m going to go with “attrib uncertain.”

In any case, when you’re standing in what amounts to NASA’s Museum of Space Exploration looking at Gordon Cooper’s “Faith 7″ Mercury capsule
the first thing that pops into your head is “Where did these guys keep the kind of balls it took to DO this?”

I’ve seen a couple of the other capsules and it always surprises me just how TINY they are. Officially a Mercury capsule is a little less than 7 feet long and a little over 6 feet across. Most of that was taken up with equipment and electronics, though. There’s barely enough room for the pilot, and stretching the legs just ISN’T in the program.

For perspective: imagine being strapped into a phone booth (or a coach class airline seat) for several hours, zooming around a hundred and twenty miles up at ungodly thousands of miles per hour… and being expected to do a full range of experiments and observations all the while. If the astronauts weren’t volunteers we’d call it torture. Rocket Science isn’t for wimps. (Just for perspective, “breathable air” stops at a bit less than five miles up, and if you blow a seal, there’s no way to hitchhike back down.)

The idea of slithering into that silver space suit and then climbing into that little tin can on top of one of these things to get blown 120 miles out into the middle of nowhere was appealing as hell to my 8-year-old geek self, but that was a while back. At this point, reality has led me to different dreams, and I think I’d have to pass. I’m not ten feet tall, bulletproof, and invincible any more. I look for different (not quite so adventurous) adventures now….

Still, at the time, this was THE cutting edge of science, literally the best anyone had, and the rickety old crate always looks ricketier in the mirror. But still, Rocket Man had big brass ones.

And it was a tight fit.


The thing hanging just to the right of the capsule in that top frame is a replica of Explorer 1, the US’s first orbital satellite, launched in early 1958. It was designed by a scientist, James Van Allen, to detect cosmic rays. It worked, which is why we now know about the Van Allen belts, magnetic fields that block some of the aforementioned cosmic rays from hitting the earth. (Educational content… Most of you probably learned something you’d forgotten you ever knew.)

Beside that, in its own panel, going even further back in time, is a replica of Robert Goddard’s first liquid-fueled rocket, an amazingly primitive thing made of insulated metal tubing and imagination. It used gasoline and liquid oxygen as propellant, and flew about 184 feet, peaking at about 41 feet altitude. This was 1926. Every space rocket the US has ever launched calls this one “grandpa.” (With a variable number of ‘greats,’ of course, but this truly WAS the Alpha point. It all starts here.)

I remember reading about this when I was very small… six or seven or so. I’d never been able to figure it out from the picture, but seeing it “live” I realize that the reason I’ve never been able to figure out how it worked is that the information I had was wrong. The propulsion unit is at the top; the bottom is simply fuel tanks. Now it makes more sense. And it’s still seven kinds of awe-inspiring.
Dreams DO count.

There… and back.

A good museum never stops. There’s something else around every corner, behind every door. When you crawl out of one exhibit there’s another one right there waiting for you. You find yourself opening everything, peeking into every corner, reading every word to see what’s new and what’s next. Eventually, when they turn off the lights and push you out the front door, you’re not halfway to your transport before you’re fishing out a notebook and a pen, making a list of all the things you want to make sure not to miss on your next trip.

Space Center Houston is a good museum. I’ve just spent a couple of hours crawling up, down, over, under, and around their “Facing Mars” exhibit, taking pictures (not enough) and making notes (never enough…), and dealing in a very limited way with some of the questions involved in “should we go to Mars?” (I’ll get back to you on that one.)

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Mars… or bust.

The note on the negative sleeve says 1967. My sister, very stylish and pretty in a white summer dress, and I, defiantly anti-stylish in a blue shirt (buttoned all the way up, thank you.) and black slacks, stand in front of a tipped-over Mercury Redstone rocket and an oddly shaped unmarked white cone with a shape that would later become very familiar – an early model of the Apollo capsule. I was six or seven years old – I still had hair. Mom or Grandpa would have made the picture. Probably Mom.

It’s been a while since I went to NASA.

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“Fly Day”

A few weeks ago, the Commemorative Air Force and the Texas Flying Legends Museum parked a few of their airplanes on a quiet part of the apron at Ellington Field so curious folk could wander around, tour the airplanes, maybe buy a ride. I’m not nearly well-heeled enough to buy a ride, but I was curious.

(There’s a gallery behind Texas Raiders and the Beast. Enjoy.)

Truck Stop

So I mentioned the car show in the last episode, and in the process of processing the pictures I decided I liked a few more and wanted to share them, and since I shot them for the fun of it on nobody’s dime but my own, I get to do that…


we’ve done this before, you know the drill.

Clik the pik.

Me, I think it was worth stopping for.

How To Stop a Truck.

If you want to really get my attention while I’m driving down the road on a pretty Saturday there are two good ways that don’t involve flashing lights.

First, park something like this on the side of the road:

This is Harry Zachau’s Studebaker President 8 Sport Roadster, and a truly beautiful example of the species. It was hanging out with a bunch of other pretty iron at the Cedar Creek Bar and Grill up in the Heights, part of the Houston Skyline Rotary Club’s “Rotary Rally.” There were a bunch of nicely done Chevies and “Cobras” (pretty sure they were all continuation models; the originals cost way too much to bring out for a lowkey event), a nice rodded-out `32 Deuce Coupe, a bit of this and a few of that… Good turnout and good selection for a new event.

The OTHER way to do it is a LOT cheaper.

Post one of these.

I’ll stop for a Studebaker. I’ll make a U-turn for a book sale.

Across Traffic. (There wasn’t any, so it was okay.)

And yes, there were books.

Books. Several followed me home, and I’m gonna keep them.

29.41734 N; 98.48265 W

Another weekend walkabout, this time at the Texas Folklife Festival.


I wasn’t really chasing stories this year, more looking for connections and information. That part went well; there will be stories coming out of this for a while.

Meantime, I’ve been reading a lot of Steve McCurry lately.






Mr. McCurry remains better than I am, certainly, but the gap isn’t as big as I thought.

And now for something completely the same. But different.

After I recovered from the morning muggery (took about three quarts of water and one of powerade plus a couple hours of sitting in front of a fan doing nothing) I went out to finish my morning stroll… and found… another flower.

It’s not quite as happy as the morning cannas but it’s pretty impressive all the same.

UPDATE 06/08/2014

Spent a little bit of Saturday wandering along the Paseo del Rio in San Antonio (thanks to the folks at Megabus I can afford the trip sometimes) and ran across the other side of the coin. Well, it’s only fair that if you post FlowerPorn for one side, you should likewise post FlowerPorn for the other. That one up there ^ is the male Sago. This is the female.