Fairfax, VA - 11.16.05:
A Photo Shoot I Shall Never Forget

5:00 PM

There are some days in this life that we simply will never forget.

November 16, 2005 was one of those days for me as I spent several hours at the Smithsonian's Steven Udvar-Hazy Center crawling around every square inch of FAA N1538C, snapping endless digital images of the Spirit of Columbus for use later by the movie producers who buy the Three-Eight Charlie screenplay project.

To the untrained eye, “Charlie” looks much like my Skyhawk, your Skylane, or any number of plain Jane Skywagons. The only exterior clues to this plane’s rich heritage are a few colorful sponsor decals on the fuselage, and large white script lettering on the cowling. But when I opened the door, the two huge aluminum gas tanks crammed inside where the seats used to be were visible, and a truly amazing thing happened.
With NASM Curator of General Aviation Dorothy Cochran (and several Security Guards) keeping VERY close eye on me, I was able to poke my head and my camera inside the most famous Cessna on the planet. What I found transported me back in time to April 17, 1964 at Port Columbus Airport at the precise moment when Jerrie Mock yanked out the mixture, shut down her trusty Continental and crawled out of Charlie…for the last time.
Through the years that Charlie was on display at Cessna’s Wichita factory, the NASM National Mall Museum, and the 21+ years in storage at the Garber Restoration Facility, nothing was touched in Charlie’s cabin. Jerrie left notes [shown below] taped to the tanks with some very, very complex instructions on how to transfer gas between the two interior ferry tanks and the two wing tanks. There is even a yellowed note wedged into a space on the panel showing the 10 must important frequencies she would use.
Everything remains perfectly intact. The wear marks on the left door panel, the cracks in the original 1953 factory plastic, everything. I almost expected to see the remains of a Ham sandwich or an old ink pen on the floor, if not for the fact that I know Jerrie kept perfect house in Charlie during her flight. While the Smithsonian has kept Charlie in great condition, like many of it’s artifacts, they have chosen to preserve history by leaving the original plane alone rather than complete a full restoration. Because of this, I was able to get an unprecedented look at this historic flying machine before the NASM suspended Charlie from the ceiling of the Hazy Center.
This meeting with Charlie was a chance to learn even more about the mechanical operation of the aircraft. By reviewing notes Jerrie has taped all over – along with the photos I have taken – we can now get a realistic glimpse into what it must have been like for a young mother of three to fly across the Atlantic on a dark and stormy night, trying to keep the right amount of gasoline flowing from one tank to the next, to the next, to the next, and eventually to the engine.

Aside from the Smithsonian’s own photographers, this trip to the Hazy produced a very valuable set of archival research images. Not valuable in a fiscal sense, but in a cinematic one. When a Prop department begins re-creating “Charlie” for filming, it will all be there. Every nut, bolt, radio, gauge, switch, fuse, hose, pump, valve, wire, crack and blemish has now been recorded. This is so very important because this is the first time the story is being told on film, so it has to be historically accurate.

The interior of Charlie is functional, nothing more. Even one tiny chrome part would look ridiculously out of place. The simulated leather on the original seafoam green pilot’s seat is quite worn, and there are gaps around some of the radios that would make a Garmin engineer queasy. Everything in 1538C is there for a reason, that being to get Jerrie Mock safely around the world.

And while the Spirit of Columbus may never have won “Best of Show” at Oshkosh, there is no question that this bird has some SERIOUS legs. And when your wings are icing up on a cold, windy night and the nearest airport is across 1,500 miles of snarling, Cessna-eating waves, it doesn’t matter if your plane may not win beauty contests. All that matters is whether that round metal thingy out front continues to go round and round.

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