Oakland Aviation Museum

By Michael Raffety 10-20-14

Recently I had occasion to visit the Oakland Aviation Museum, located at 8252 Earhart Road in Oakland.

It’s not on the level of March Air Force Base Museum in Riverside or the Pima Air and Space Museum in the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tuscon, Ariz. But it has one airplane none of the bigger airplane museums have. It has a large passenger seaplane.

The four-engine seaplane is called a Short Solent Mark III flying boat. It belonged to the British Overseas Airways Corp. Beyond that it was once owned by Howard Hughes and acted as the China Clipper in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.

“During its heyday, the late 1940s, the Solent III would fly passengers from Southampton, England, to Johannesburg, South Africa, roundtrip for $1,400 — the modern-day equivalent of $35,000. There are only two of these flying boats left in the world,” the museum’s label for the seaplane noted.

It was originally built during World War II for the Royal Air Force as a long-range reconnaissance aircraft in the Pacific. In 1947, the Short Brothers converted it to passenger service. It carried a crew of seven and 34 passengers.

An Australian company bought it in 1951. Then in 1953 it was purchased along with two other seaplanes for South Pacific Airlines, flying passengers between Honolulu, Hawaii and Tahiti.

It was flown to Oakland for refurbishment in 1955. In 1958, it went on a proving flight to Honolulu, Tahiti and Christmas Island. Once it returned to Oakland it never flew again. Christmas Island was taken over by the British government for atomic testing and the flying boat was eclipsed by the Boeing 707 passenger jet in 1958.

I flew on the 707 that first year of service when my Dad went back to Washington, D.C., area for Army officer advanced training. What a thrill being among the first to fly on a jet. I still have my gallery pass for the House of Representatives. My mom and I were moving on to the Senate Chambers when Vice President Richard Nixon came charging out of a room and knocked me over without apologizing. I never forgot that and never voted for him later for president. I’m probably the only person who voted for both George McGovern and Ronald Reagan.

Later in the Navy at Quonset Point, R.I., in the later 1960s, I was part of a squadron that flew C-130 Hercules turboprops and a C-121 Super Constellation (four piston-driven propellers and three tails) to Antarctica. In the summer back at Quonset Point, I was assigned to the base electronics shop to work on UHF radios and some HF radios, navigation equipment and radar. Quonset Point was originally a seaplane base, with ramps into the bay by all hangars. There actually were still a few PBY-type of twin-engine seaplanes left. One of them sent its radio into our shop for me to work on. It was all of 25 watts, not something one would really want to be out in the middle of the ocean with. Working on that old radio made me feel like an electronic archeologist.

Solent Mark III flying boat at the Oakland Aviation Museum was powered by four radial piston engines that put out 1,690 hp each. It is over 87 feet long with a wing span more than 112 feet. Its cruising speed was 244 mph (212 knots). Its service ceiling was 17,000 feet. By contrast a Douglas C-47 Skytrain, aka a Gooney Bird, has a service ceiling of 26,000 feet. I rode in the admiral’s C-47 in New Zealand from Christ Church to Wellington so he could play tennis with the ambassador. That was a plane designed so its wings flapped. At that altitude it made me a little green-faced. You can bet passengers on that low-flying seaplane being bounced around for 1,800 miles would be throwing up from time to time and would probably spend a lot of time in the cocktail lounge trying to anesthetize themselves.

The museum offers guided tours of the flying boat on the weekends.

The Oakland Aviation Museum was founded in 1981 and now occupies a hangar that was originally the Boeing School of Aeronautics. The hangar was built in 1939.

Outside are a few unique airplanes, the usual assortment of U.S. military jets and the standard Soviet MiG 15.

Oakland Airport was the leading airport in the Bay Area in the early part of the 20th century with a 7,000-foot runway. Charles Lindberg visited in 1927 in his Spirit of St. Louis and said, “You have here one of the finest airports I have ever seen. Oakland is setting an example to the cities of the country.”

Amelia Earhart flew her Lockheed Model 10 Electra out of Oakland Airport in 1937 on her round-the-world flight that eventually was lost somewhere in the South Pacific.

“It also was the West Coast terminus for United Airline’s newly introduced service to New York in 1937. The new DC-3s carried 14 passengers and made the trip in 15 hours and 20 minutes, with three stops,” according to its Website.

It built a terminal for the jet age in 1962 at a cost of $20 million. Now Fed Ex handles 1 billion pounds of freight annually at Oakland International Airport.

San Francisco Airport was much smaller, but it eventually eclipsed Oakland, becoming the second busiest airport in California after Los Angeles.

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