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Of Hardware and History

The New England Air Museum’s B-29 display was opened to the public in June. Scott Ashton ’92 says he’s humbled by the opportunity to meet the engineers and aviators behind some of America’s greatest aircraft.

More than just a collection of old planes, the New England Air Museum offers a living link to the past.

By Joan Killough-Miller

Standing beneath the bomb bay of a restored B-29 Superfortress, Scott Ashton ’92 runs his hand over neat rows of gleaming rivets.

He speaks with reverence of the courageous pilots who trained to fly this new and unproven breed of aircraft. Behind him, in a vintage photograph, the airmen of the 58th Bombardment Wing are posed beside this very plane. Their young faces are lit with confidence, as they prepare to master the most sophisticated and expensive weapon of World War II.

Jack’s Hack, a Boeing TB-29A, is the latest addition to the New England Air Museum (NEAM) in Windsor Locks, Conn. Built in 1945, it was initially used for pilot training, then stationed in England in the 1950s as a Cold War deterrent. NEAM began rebuilding the plane back in the 1970s, but a 1979 tornado caused severe damage. With the help of donations, grants and more than 100 volunteers, Jack’s Hack was completely refurbished. It was opened for display on June 1, 2003.

Ashton, who serves on the museum’s board of directors, understands how privileged he was to witness the dedication of NEAM’s new B-29 Hangar and 58th Bombardment Wing Memorial. Guests of honor at the ceremony included surviving members of the 58th Bombardment Wing Association. The veterans inspected the plane from tip to tail, admiring the newly painted nose art and marveling over the details—right down to authentic 1936 ashtrays manufactured by Ford Motor Co. At the close of the evening, the pilots—now a half-century older—posed with their families in front of images of their youthful selves. “You could tell it was a very emotional event for them,” says Ashton.

It was an earlier restoration project—his major project at WPI in fact—that sparked Ashton’s interest in preserving the Wright brothers’ legacy. In his senior year, he performed an airflow analysis of a 1909 Blériot monoplane—the first plane to cross the English Channel—for the Collings Foundation in Stow, Mass. His WPI projects, all of which were flight-related, led to a career as manager of strategic marketing for GE’s Corporate Aircraft Group.

These days, Ashton volunteers his management skills to further NEAM’s educational mission. His favorite events are “Open Cockpit days” when children are welcome to climb inside the planes. “Their faces light up,” he says. “They start turning the wheel and making airplane noises. They flip the switches, pull on the throttle, and give a big thumbs-up.”

Ashton, who learned to fly as a teenager and is now a certified flight instructor, plans to pass that enthusiasm on to his own children and to help a new generation connect with the richness of the past. “We try to be more than just an airplane museum,” he says. “There’s so much more here than just the physical hardware: there are stories that relate back to the history of the nation and the birth of aviation, whether it’s an original Silas M. Brooks balloon basket from the 1800s or the contributions of Charlie Company’s helicopter command in Vietnam. It’s great to restore the planes back to their original condition, but it’s just as important, if not more important, to tell the stories of how the nation was defended, or how key scientific achievements came about.”

Ashton has had ample opportunities to experience living history. A highlight of his WPI days was meeting design pioneer Elbert “Burt” Rutan, a guest speaker at Parents Weekend. Last year, NEAM invited Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets (captain of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima) to speak about the “final mission.”

“To be able to sit in a room and hear those stories firsthand puts everything in context,” he says. “It’s humbling. It really is.”

NEAM welcomes volunteers with a variety of skills and interests. For information, visit www.neam.org or contact Ashton at scott.ashton@ge.com.

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Last modified: Sep 02, 2004, 10:26 EDT
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