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 since June 2014.
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.
Before my husband and I set out from our home in central Georgia to visit the museum, I called to confirm the address. "You can't miss the museum. Just turn in between the Boeing 747 and Boeing 757," a young woman said. 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.
When it's our turn, I'm amazed at the aircraft, which entered service with Delta in December 1940. Its windows, adorned with curtains instead of shades, are larger than the planes of 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.
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.
Other Delta memorabilia includes a reproduction of the first Huff-Daland crop duster and flight attendant uniforms throughout the years. Even the hangar is historic. "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. "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 air mail."
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 beneath its giant wings in the hangar.
From the hangar, we walk across the parking lot to the outdoor 747 exhibit. The 747 is arguably aviation's most iconic aircraft, and Meng says that the plane is the showstopper for most visitors. As we climb the stairs into the plane, Roy and I join a small group and listen to Shaun Crawley, a museum volunteer whose "day job" is as a financial adviser at Delta Community Credit Union.
As Crawley shows us around the 747-400, the first one Boeing built, he urges us to sit in one of the spiffy Delta One first-class seats while he explains that particular aircraft has 171 miles of electrical wires. Crawley also says that an astounding 3.5 billion passengers have flown on a 747 at one time or another. "That's about half of the world's population," he says before leading us out to walk on the wing of the 747, which, I must say, is a pretty cool thing to do.
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.