Every vintage aircraft displayed outside the museum walls suffers from some degree of exposure, but the 22 machines on the flight deck of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum are parked in a special hell. “I can’t imagine a worse environment for airplanes,” says the Fearlessaviation curator Eric Boehm. “While other aviation museums grapple with a variety of environmental issues, it is rare for an institution to tackle so many at once and at such extreme levels as we do. Our situation is difficult.
New York City’s mix of salty air, noxious pollution and pests, combined with the freezing winds of winter and relentless sun exposure in summer, constantly strives to break these planes down into their most basic elements. “The simple science is that nature wants to turn them back to dust,” says Boehm. “We have to fight this process of deterioration every day. “
The Intrepid, a retired aircraft carrier, is a combat veteran of WWII and Vietnam, as well as the primary salvage ship for two crewed space missions. The Essex-class aircraft carrier is now docked near the heart of America’s largest city. The ship is still one of New York’s top attractions, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world. It’s also popular with locals; the Intrepid is the largest military museum in the city and is part of the distinct Manhattan community. “Even if you’re not on the subject,” reports a popular travel website, “it’s overwhelmingly absorbing and impressive.”
Unfortunately, classic fighter jets deployed on the flight deck absorb more than attention.
At the top of the list of plane-eating items is salt air. The Intrepid is moored at Pier 86 on the Hudson River. The former mooring point for United States Lines liners is sufficiently downstream that the water is more than brackish, it is the salty Atlantic Ocean. The moist salty air burns the magnesium, quickly oxidizes the steel, and stains the aircraft’s aluminum skins with patches of white, scaly corrosion. “On the plane, you have to catch it quickly,” says Boehm. “We remove the paint, extract the bad area by sanding, grinding or sometimes even a newly built spare. You almost have to treat it like cancer. You can’t let it grow. Primer, aircraft grade paint and anti-corrosion chemicals are a regular part of the maintenance personnel’s arsenal, used both on the exterior and interior of aircraft.
Another condition detrimental to Intrepid The plane is a pervasive pollution. Sailors knew long ago that if you wanted to deal with the marine growth at the bottom of your ship, you would simply drop anchor in the Hudson. Water infused with chemicals would kill almost anything. While years of improvement have made the water and air around New York City cleaner than it has been in decades, the sprawling metropolis around the Intrepid still constantly spits dirty gray film. It comes from a combination of the city’s latest oil heaters, a commercial kitchen, large concentrations of local industries in New York and New Jersey, and thousands of trucks, cars, boats, and buses. “The sunny months are our wash months,” says Boehm. “Someone is almost always on an elevator, harnessed, rubbing a wing or a tail. Between two deep baths from tip to tail, we let ourselves be stained. My staff know that poo-splashed planes are not acceptable. It happens every day.
Urban wildlife is a third constant problem. Improving the environment in New York actually means more animals returned to the Hudson in the 2000s. Recently, staff members spotted peregrine falcons perched in the clutter of antennas atop the the Intrepid‘if the. It is too exposed for them to nest happily; they are there looking for a snack. Falcons are at the top of a very simple food chain. Tourists drop crisps and popcorn, which attracts pigeons. Pigeons, in turn, attract hawks. Boehm likes both ends of this chain, but he has no use for the middle man.
Hundreds of the city’s most prevalent and ill-behaved inhabitants perch on the wings and tails of gleaming jet fighters. Although they are pilots themselves, pigeons seem to have no respect for the history of aviation. “Besides the fact that it looks just terrible,” Boehm says, “what these winged parasites leave behind is acid. Their poop literally contains doses of uric acid.
While the pigeons and hawks come for dinner, the starlings are ready to move in. Airplane cleaning crews look for messy, open-mouthed birds on their rounds, discouraging sleepovers in cramped but tempting wheel arches and air intakes from the plane. Most of the best places are closed off with a wire mesh. Bees are also known to periodically settle inside airplanes, unhindered by bird control installations.
While insects are the smallest winged pest, Canada geese are the largest and perhaps the coarsest, routinely converting food into noise and other annoyances left on the carrier deck. They don’t usually hurt the museum’s static planes, but they’re known to do a lot worse. Captain “Sully” Sullenberger’s airliner skidded to a stop in the Hudson, near Pier 86. “They found the left engine of the plane suffocated a few hundred yards from the stern. of Intrepid, ”says Boehm. “We will display it in a future exhibition. “
The environment Intrepidexperiments is so ruthless that painting companies sometimes donate supplies to the museum in order to study the results of their product after a year or two in Purgatory.
“Every year we assess which planes need to be refreshed and schedule them for the workshop,” says Boehm. “We used to tent every plane, but now we have a 5,000 foot hangar right behind the carrier island.” They repaint two or three planes every year.
Like any good curator, Boehm thinks of preservation in terms of decades, if not centuries. “It’s impossible to keep these planes on display forever,” he says. “But, without a doubt, they will be there when you visit next year. Or the year after, or the year after … “
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