I don’t usually have a lot of free time, but on those rare occasions when I do I like to build model airplanes. In paleontology I like prep work and I like tracking down and reading obscure references, and modeling involves many of the same skills (in fact, I originally learned the molding and casting techniques I talked about last month in order to make parts for models).
In spite of the similarities in techniques, my work and hobby don’t often overlap, and I don’t usually want them to. But VMNH has an exhibit up called “Eyes on Earth” about the use of satellites in studying the Earth. As it turned out, I had already built four models of aircraft involved in natural history research, and given the aviation theme of the exhibit, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to place these models in our lobby case.
The Antonov An-74 is used by Russia to support scientific missions in the Arctic and Antarctic. My model is in the marking of the prototype An-74, which still exists in Moscow in near-derelict condition.
The Space Shuttle Columbia was the first shuttle to fly in space. It flew 28 missions, which included launching the Chandra X-ray Observatory and servicing the Hubble Space Telescope. Columbia was destroyed during reentry to the atmosphere on February 1, 2003, with the loss of seven astronauts.
The Lockheed U-2C was developed as a spy aircraft for the CIA and USAF. NASA found its high-altitude capabilities useful for atmospheric sampling and photography, and used several U-2s since 1971. This U-2 was modified by the Air Force for operations from aircraft carriers in 1963 (YouTube video of the carrier trials), and then served with NASA’s Earth Survey program from 1971-1987. It has been on exhibit at the NASA Ames Research Center, but it’s not clear if the display is still open to the public.
The first modern coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) brought to the attention of scientists was caught off South Africa in 1938. Unfortunately the most knowledgeable fish expert in South Africa at the time, J. L. B. Smith, was on holiday and by the time he could be reached most of the internal anatomy of the specimen had been lost. In the hope of getting a second specimen, Smith offered a 100 British pound reward, but another coelacanth was not caught until 1952. Unfortunately for Smith, the second specimen was caught in the Cormoros Islands, over 1000 miles away. Smith was able to convince the South African Prime Minister of the importance of the discovery, and he sent a South African Air Force C-47 (the military version of the DC-3) to retrieve the coelacanth, earning the C-47 the nickname “Flying Fishcart”.
After the coelacanth flight (known as the “Fish Jacking” in SAAF lore) the DC-3 continued in service with the SAAF until 1991. It has since been restored to its 1952 markings and is on exhibit at the South African Air Force Museum. The 1952 coelacanth is on exhibit at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity. (Below, Latimeria chalumnae specimen exhibited at the California Academy of Science.)