Paul Allen’s WWII Planes Show How Innovation Can Soar Ahead

Leave it to Paul Allen to create a museum that flies. Literally. This Saturday afternoon in the skies above Everett, WA.

Okay, the museum doesn’t really fly, it’s an aircraft hangar that remains on terra firma. The part that flies is most everything inside the museum, which the billionaire with omnivorous interests calls his Flying Heritage Collection. It’s composed of 15 World War II-era fighter planes that Allen has assembled from around the world over the past decade, polished up, and restored to FAA-certified flying condition.

079biplaneAviation fans can marvel at the roaring engine of the P51D Mustang, or imagine the danger pilots of other planes faced when performing night bombing raids over Berlin or London. But the larger question Allen is raising with his collection is an even more fascinating one, for me, anyway: What ingredients are necessary to make big leaps ahead in innovation? After all, this short historical period from 1935-1945 saw planes go from propeller-driven to the era of jet engines. Speeds went from 60 mph to 600 mph. Wood and fabric were replaced by all-metal body frames. Radar went from concept to mainstream. How did those stars align so quickly?

I drove up to Paine Field on a rainy Wednesday afternoon to see for myself and meet Adrian Hunt, the executive director of the Flying Heritage Collection. Since it opened in June, the flying museum has apparently been something of an instant hit. More than 11,000 people have already visited, the type of attendance figure that organizers thought it would take six months to eclipse, Hunt says.

083visitorsApparently, people are drawn to the living, breathing aspect of the place, where the artifacts don’t sit around collecting dust. Hunt pointed to an eye-washing station on the wall next to an exhibit, and a fire hose. They aren’t props—this is an active aircraft hangar. “That’s not the sort of thing you see at the Seattle Art Museum,” Hunt says. He adds, “It’s important that these are restored to flying condition, so people can experience the power, the engines, and the noise.” (The public can’t hop on board, the planes are flown strictly by professionals.)

By taking a close look at each plane, you can see the step-by-step advances aviation made in those formative years. Allen’s exhibits credit the leaps in innovation to six main themes, which you can see etched on the wall before you enter the hangar. The first is political will, defined by government leadership and public support, which the museum says was “driven by ambition or the need to survive.” (I’ll go on a limb and say that’s a more powerful motivator than stock options).

084germanBut political will alone wasn’t enough. For one, the means and manufacturing capacity from capital and labor had to be in place. For another, the support technology like weather instruments needed to mature. More precise weaponry had to be developed. Of course, engines had to evolve with greater horsepower to fly longer, higher, and faster. Then fuselage and wing materials needed to get stronger and lighter in order to make planes safer and more nimble.

Even though I’m the biotech guy at Xconomy, it made me think there’s got to be some lesson here for my corner of the world. Maybe it’s the next flu pandemic that mobilizes political leadership and public support around vaccine research, which could be the catalyst to propel us to a new era of disease prevention after decades of immunology research. Then again, if we aren’t already laying the right foundations in research, maybe we won’t be equipped to make such rapid leaps in a time of crisis. That’s something to think about when the 70-year-old planes rumble in the skies over our modern high-tech mecca this Saturday afternoon.

Trending on Xconomy