In the Museum: Model Employee

In the Museum: Model Employee

When Dave Gianakos isn’t flying long-haul flights to Asia as captain of a Northwest Airlines Boeing 747-400, he’s training pilots to do the same thing. In the little spare time he has left, he pursues his passion for building meticulous models of space- and aircraft, missiles, and rockets.

In 1992, Gianakos began a two-year project to build a Saturn V model to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was a sophisticated replica of the guided three-stage rocket, right down to a working escape tower equipped with gimballed motors and gyroscopes. Only the lack of working motors for the first stage prevented the mini-Saturn V from being launchable.

A year later, Gianakos generously donated his model to the National Air and Space Museum, where it resides in the Apollo to the Moon gallery. Not long after, the Museum commissioned Gianakos to build two additional display models: a 1/48th-scale model of the 1960s Soviet N1 moon rocket, built for the Space Race exhibit hall in 1996; and a 1/24th-scale Navaho missile, which has been on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia since its 2003 opening.

Gianakos started building models when he was a child to honor his father, a U.S. Air Force pilot who was killed in a B-47 crash when Gianakos was only 18 months old. His stepfather served as a U.S. Navy pilot in the Pacific during World War II. “I started reading [aviation magazines] at 10 or 11,” says Gianakos, adding that when children are “fired up” by a topic, “their passion and interest can take them anywhere they want.” In this case, Gianakos’ enthusiasm for flying has taken him around the world with Northwest Airlines—and provided him a degree of aviation immortality.

“It’s obvious that he’s a superb model maker,” says Roger Launius, former chair of the Museum’s division of space history. “Because of the size of the real objects, it’s impossible to display them at the Museum [on the Mall]. These smaller-scale renderings enable us to enjoy them in three dimensions.”

Gianakos built other spacecraft and rocket models when he was in high school. Using a combination of NASA blueprints and his own ingenuity, he has built replicas of the Apollo 15 mothership, lunar module, and rover (all now exhibited at the San Diego Air and Space Museum); a 1/6th-scale lunar module, at the Seattle Museum of Flight; and a model of Alan Shepard’s Freedom Seven Mercury Redstone rocket, at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson.

“For the Saturn V model’s Launch Umbilical Tower, I was able to procure actual welding drawings from NASA,” says Gianakos. “Without those, I couldn’t have built the tower to the same level of detail.”

The three Gianakos models on display at the National Air and Space Museum represent achievements in the arms and space races between cold war superpowers. “Growing up in those times was awe-inspiring...for young people like me,” says Gianakos, who was only six years old when Shepard made his historic flight. “We witnessed the space race unfold.”

The Soviet N1 heavy rocket booster was supposed to be the means by which the Soviets were going to put a man on the moon. It was an enormous rocket, according to Gianakos, “every bit the equal of the Saturn V and even more powerful.” Between 1969 and 1972, the Soviets attempted four launches of the N1, each of which failed, and they cancelled the program in 1974.

The Navaho was a U.S. Air Force intercontinental surface-to-surface missile designed to carry a nuclear warhead. Although the Navaho flew nine flight tests between 1956 and 1958, the project was cancelled due to cost overruns. “[The Navaho] was very important in the advancement of space technology and long-range navigation,” says Gianakos.

Aside from the models, Gianakos’ presence is felt in other, unexpected ways in the Museum. A new exhibit in the Air Transport Gallery will feature the nose section of a Boeing 747—the very one that Gianakos has flown a number of times in his career (see “Nose Job,” below). It will be the first full-scale “model” of his in the Museum.


Nose Job

A 747 NOSE SECTION IS THE LATEST addition to an exhibit called America by Air, scheduled to open in 2008 in the Museum’s Air Transport gallery. Model maker Dave Gianakos flew the aircraft that donated its nose; the last time he piloted the 747, he flew 450 troops from Alexandria, Louisiana, to Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, just a few months prior to the 747’s retirement from Northwest Airlines service. For more information on the jet’s big move, visit

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