DVD Review: America's Hangar (2008)

The Smithsonian Networks'
Takes Flight on 3/17/09

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In the latest DVD offering from Smithsonian Networks and Infinity Entertainment Group, viewers are given unprecedented access to Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum which has “amassed one hundred years” of aviation history.

The collection-- which began humbly in 1882 with only a few Chinese kites to its name-- has since become one of the most visited museums in the world since the new and improved version officially opened its doors on America's 200th birthday in 1976.

The roughly hour long disc chronicles the ongoing battle to “leave the ground and stay there” in terms of historical milestones including such groundbreaking and well documented successes from individuals like the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Chuck Yeager up through the era of the space race that answered President John F. Kennedy's challenge to land a man on the moon and return them safely to Earth before the decade of the 1960s was over.

Since these feats have been extremely well-documented in much more in depth historical miniseries, documentaries, and movies, the crew working on America’s Hangar jump around in time and place the overall emphasis on the incredible museum which throughout its existence has “preserved and displays many of the world's most renowned historic aircraft.”

Although the museum established in 1946, by the time the ‘70s rolled around, the museum which kept growing in size and eventually running out of room suffered from lack of space and heartbreaking deterioration of some of our most famous aircraft. When Senator Goldwater called it a disgrace, NASA astronaut Michael Collins became the museum director and helped shape it to the success it has become, now housing more than 300,000 feet of aircraft.

Dividing up the collection into several galleries from each individual war all the way up through our Air Transportation Gallery-- one of the most fascinating aspects of the museum is the fact that alongside the most famous American planes and space craft, we also house those from other countries that were involved in conflicts in which we thought such as the World War II gallery that also contains Japanese, German, Italian, and British planes.

And although they could not fit of B-17 into the museum, a beautiful mural was drawn in the memory of an ill-fated mission and as the documentary continues, we learn that several years later a widow came with her son and recognized that the eyes of the copilot in the painting resembled those of her late husband. Upon closer inspection at the comparison photo nearby, she realized that incredibly it was her husband being immortalized on the wall of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Having never been given closure or fully told what had happened in the war to her husband, she informed the staff that it was the first day she knew peace since she finally had discovered what had occurred during that mission.

It's the anecdotes like these that make you realize just how vital such a museum is as it is a piece of everyone's history and throughout the DVD, it's hard not to be moved by the inspiring craftsmanship, richness of history, incredible design, and limitless creativity and intellect that made everything we can see there possible.

Painstakingly and admirably-- the museum has prided themselves on not trying “to rewrite or change history but preserve it” by making the decision to restore the oldest aircraft with the same dedication and skill set required by those who specialize in restoring paintings from the Renaissance.

And even when working on something as emotionally harrowing as the B-29 Enola Gay which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima-- requiring 300,000 staff hours to complete in the museum’s “largest such project”-- we marvel at the technicians’ decision to honor those who came before them by a using the exact same techniques that would have produced the plane all those years ago.

With a stunning precision in their craft and attention to the minutest of details, great care is taken to determine exactly what color would have been applied, as well as making the decision to re-glue items instead of just replacing them with something shiny and modern.

While some attendees have complained that they aren't allowed into the cockpit, misunderstanding that it's a historical site and not an amusement park as one of the interviewed individuals stated--the museum has answered that complaint by showing what the inside of any given piece of aircraft would look like from the inside with interactive computer kiosks, therefore giving the visitors the chance to see the world from the eye of the pilot or astronaut.

More of an exceptional “travelogue” style documentary that lets you journey to the museum from your living room rather than a straightforward historical documentary and on the first century of flight-- while you may feel slightly short changed that some of the historic events have been glossed over a bit too casually-- it's still another highlight from the Smithsonian Channel DVD Collection and one that fulfills the museum’s mission to “commemorate, inspire, and educate.” Of particular interest to history fans and school libraries, America’s Hangar, (which is also closed-captioned for the hearing impaired) is suitable viewing for the entire family.