The Maestro

A legendary test pilot celebrates his 95th birthday - and reminds us why we restore and preserve historic aircraft

For surviving the very high death rate among test pilots, John Myers thanks good fortune. On the other hand, it was his extraordinary flying skills that led to his nickname, “Maestro.” He graduated from Stanford University with a political science major in 1933 and from Harvard Law in 1936. But his passion was for airplanes. At Stanford, he taught himself how to fly. He learned so well that he became Northrop’s chief test pilot in World War II, a job that took him to the South Pacific in 1944.

The U.S. Army Air Forces were in desperate need of a night fighter in both Europe and the Pacific. A brand-new aircraft called the P-61 Black Widow, the first American aircraft designed to destroy other planes at night and in bad weather, seemed right for the job. But after flying it, many pilots were apprehensive. The Black Widow was unlike anything they had ever flown. It was the size of a medium bomber. Could it really perform like a fighter? The answer was yes, and John Myers traveled to the South Pacific to prove it. And to demonstrate to pilots how to fly the Black Widow. It was there that his skills earned him the Maestro moniker.

Next month, he will celebrate his 95th birthday with friends and colleagues at the Udvar-Hazy Center, the Virginia-based companion facility to the National Air and Space Museum (NASM). Since opening next to Dulles airport in December 2003, the center has attracted more than three million visitors. A newly preserved P-61 Black Widow will also be part of the festivities.

Getting the P-61 to the party has been a major endeavor. When the war ended, the Army Air Forces canceled further production of the plane. (But John Myers loved it so much he later bought one for himself.) Like so many of the aircraft in the NASM collections, the Smithsonian’s P-61 is one of only a very few in existence. In fact, this one never saw combat. It was used to fly into and measure turbulent thunderstorms. That was, however, over 50 years ago. The plane sat in storage at a Smithsonian facility until this year, when it was painstakingly made suitable for public display pending a complete restoration.

Once returned to glory, of course we needed a place to showcase the Black Widow. The Udvar-Hazy Center’s ten-story-high, 986-foot-long aviation hangar was made to order. The P-61 will join the more than 120 historic aircraft already on display there both on the ground and hanging from the hangar’s arched trusses. The center also exhibits spacecraft, including the Space Shuttle Enterprise, in the adjacent McDonnell Space Hangar. Another 100 or more aircraft are still on their way. Advances in aviation and aerospace are some of our nation’s proudest achievements, and there is no better way to tell that story than displaying these aircraft and spacecraft.

The Smithsonian is now preparing for what we call Phase Two—a new wing at Udvar-Hazy that will increase the size of the center to approximately 760,000 square feet and provide space for three major additions. There will be a collections storage facility, as well as an archives and collections processing facility where we can take better care of, and make more accessible, one of the world’s most important aviation and aerospace collections. And finally, there will also be a restoration hangar big enough to allow simultaneous work on as many as four large aircraft. Perhaps the best part of the restoration hangar is that visitors can be educated and inspired by observing—from raised walkways—the technicians and specialists as they bring these important aircraft back to tiptop condition. We are well on our way to raising the funds needed for Phase Two, but construction cannot begin until the project is fully funded. (For information on contributing, visit Meanwhile, Maestro Myers, we salute you.

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