It?s Not About the Plane

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"Everything we do here has to meet five criteria," Kermit says as he whisks me through a full-scale set of a B-17 bomber awaiting a pre-dawn departure for a raid over Germany. I step past a snowbank outside the wooden briefing shack, shivering in the dark and robustly air-conditioned display area as I strain to hear Kermit over the discomfiting sound effects of a World War II British airfield on alert against a night attack. "It has to be thought-provoking, emotionally engaging, bump you 'off-center,' light a spark within you, and do all that in a way that everyone can relate to."

Well, let's see. So far, I've been in Kermit's Fantasy of Flight museum in Polk City, Florida, about 15 minutes. And in that time, I have experienced the following sights and sensations:

I was first led along the interior of a drafty, noisy jump plane fuselage while being told I was going to have to jump into the black void of a night sky to enter the rest of the museum. (Turns out that, for the moment, no actual jumping is involved, although Kermit says plans are in the works to incorporate a jump line and blind descent on a harness. But the power of suggestion was effective, nonetheless.)

After that bracing intro, I got a reprieve in an ethereal chamber of bottomless sky, where a dream-filled wind caressed my face as I leaned out over a railing into a moving landscape of clouds. Straight from there, I was plunged into a realistic re-creation of the horrors of World War I trench warfare, with Sopwith Camels engaged in dogfights over my head while artillery boomed, explosions lit the smoke-filled night sky around me, and a German soldier, deep in a reinforced trench redoubt, pled via radio-in authentic WWI German slang-for an unlikely rescue.

Escaping the trenches, I found myself immersed in the chilly winter of England, preparing for a hazardous bombing mission. After a sobering briefing, I climbed into an authentically restored B-17, where I was instantly surrounded by a startling loud barrage of machine-gun fire from enemy fighters. Explosions from flak burst into my eardrums as I made my way past the waist gunner stations to the bomb bay, where a video of the doors opening and the German industrial landscape appearing far beneath me coincided with the jarring release sounds of our eight 500-pound bombs dropping toward their target.

Emerging from the uncomfortable racket of a battle-field bomber into the chill night of a lonely English airfield, where a mechanic is working to repair the fire and flak damage from our flight, I have at least a taste of how the infantry felt in the hell of the Western Front, and how the B-17 pilots and crews felt on their bombing missions. Or, by contrast, what might seem possible in a world of clouds, with the wind in your hair. And I haven't even reached the main display hangar yet. Which I suppose means that Kermit Weeks, the resident wizard at the Fantasy of Flight, isn't doing too badly when it comes to those criteria of his. Even though he emphasizes that everything I'm seeing is just a baby taste of his true vision, or what he hopes to offer in the future.

Strangely enough, this is my first visit to Kermit's museum, even though I've been to Sun 'n Fun at nearby Lakeland several times since the Fantasy of Flight museum opened in 1995. I suppose I thought I'd already been to my share of museums, seen my share of B-17s, and didn't really need to see any more, even if people DID say Kermit's place was "different."

What those people didn't tell me, though ... and what might have motivated me to visit earlier ... was what, exactly, was different about this particular air museum. Because, incongruously enough, what sets Kermit Weeks' air museum apart from every other one I've ever visited, from the Smithsonian's in Washington, D.C., to the Air Force's in Dayton, Ohio, is this somewhat radical notion: The Fantasy of Flight air museum is not actually about airplanes.

"I have no interest in teaching or preserving history," Kermit tells me as we're heading into the immersion experiences that greet every visitor to the museum. "I don't care where the story comes from as long as it relates to and teaches the human experience."

Not that there aren't airplanes galore to see at the museum. Kermit Weeks owns the largest private collection of historical aircraft on the planet (140)-a luxury afforded by the fortuitous discovery of oil off the coast of Australia by his geologist grandfather when Kermit was starting college. And not that Kermit himself doesn't possess some serious aviation talent or credentials-two years of aeronautical engineering at Purdue University, two national aerobatic championship titles in a plane he built himself, and the distinction of being rated among the top three aerobatic pilots in the world five separate times.

But in my experience, I have found two distinct types of pilots in the world. There are those for whom flying and airplanes are an end in and of themselves. It's enough to feel the physical and mental challenge and exhilaration of flight and control; to understand the mechanics of the planes as fascinating and compelling mysteries of design; to know the freedom of the sky.

The second group of pilots are those for whom flying and airplanes are more of a means to an end; a way of exploring and learning about themselves, the world, and life in an emotional and visceral way. It's where airplanes take these pilots, literally and figuratively, and the vast array of possibilities and wonders they bring to mind, that makes the whole enterprise worthwhile.

• Kermit Weeks I'm not sure which camp Kermit belonged to when he first learned to fly, but he is now most assuredly a member of the "means to an end" crowd. In fact, I think he might even be credited with developing that concept to a new level of art form. But what, exactly, is that end he aspires to? Ah. Well, to understand that takes spending some time with the wizard himself-not to mention a large mental capacity for processing esoteric philosophies and ideas.

"Flight is a metaphor that reaches to the core of what and who we are," Kermit tells me over coffee, before we even enter the museum. "It's about pushing our boundaries, reaching beyond ourselves and, in the end, freedom. Not everyone can relate to airplanes. But everyone shares a fascination for flight. Because flight is the most profound metaphor there is for what goes on inside of us. We soar in our imaginations and fly in our dreams. But I think what we're really reaching for, in all of that, is ourselves. My goal is to create opportunities to light a spark to encourage people to continue on that journey-from who they may think they are to who they truly are."

And how, exactly, does he intend to accomplish this lofty goal? A smile comes across Kermit's face. "Through the most profound method available," he says. "Entertainment."

Kermit's goals weren't always so ambitious. Twenty years ago, when he first bought the property in Polk City, Florida, partway between Orlando and Tampa, his goal was simply to have more control over his museum operations. For years, he'd operated the Weeks Air Museum at the Tamiami Airport in Miami, but he didn't own the property and flight operations were controlled by the county. Polk City offered a location close enough to some major tourist attractions to draw visitors, but far enough away to allow him to build his own runways and have more control over what went on there.

Plans for the new museum accelerated after Hurricane Andrew swept through the Miami area in 1992, completely wiping out the Weeks Air Museum hangar. Many of the aircraft were destroyed, and many others were damaged and scattered, including two of Weeks' WWII bombers, which were finally found on the edge of some woods more than a mile away.

Faced with the need-and opportunity-to start over from scratch, Kermit took a hard look at his business and what he really wanted to accomplish with it. "My initial dream was just a bigger version of the Weeks Air Museum, with lots of airplanes and hangars," he says. "But then I came up here and saw there was a higher standard for tourist attractions here. So I decided to display my airplanes in period hangars. And then I began to incorporate the idea of immersion experiences."

The concept has been evolving ever since. At the moment, the facilities and offerings are still modest-at least in comparison to what Kermit envisions for the future. For eventually, he plans to develop a layout similar to that of his Mouseketeer neighbor up the street, but with different eras of flight and historical time instead of Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. If his plans come to fruition, there will be a half-scale replica of the Grand Palais Exhibition Hall in Paris, complete with floating dirigibles, to house rides and thought-provoking experiences related to the early years of flight. There will be a first flight airfield, complete with a ride attraction that allows visitors to experience for themselves the undulating trajectory of the Wright Brothers' wobbly and brief first flight.

There will be a World War I airfield with opposing sides recreating battles of the air and ground. Two areas dedicated to rides and experiences related to the Golden Era of flight, and another two focused on World War II. Not the planes or the history per se, you understand, but on offering thought-providing rides and immersion experiences that use the drama of World War II and flight to teach, convey or connect visitors with some unifying and universal aspect of the human experience. And to make them think about reaching beyond themselves and whatever limits they believe constrain their dreams or their lives. Regardless of whether they have any inherent interest in airplanes.

Even now, with just the original complement of buildings, a few immersion experiences and no bona fide "rides" incorporated into the mix yet, the restoration shop tour guides don't just talk about how airplanes are restored. They talk about Rosie the Riveter and the unlimited potential of women, emphasizing the point by pulling a couple of women out of the audience and teaching them on the spot how to buck rivets. The museum's newly added audio tour offers not facts about each subject airplane, but a radio-esque dramatic reenactment of an experience its pilot might have known, while posing questions to the listener about how that experience might relate to his or her life experience and encouraging them to think about ways those insights might help them expand their horizons or live closer to their dreams.

The goals are ambitious enough to sound crazy. But as I consider that option, I remember that this is also a guy who took second place at the world aerobatic championship at the age of 24, in a plane he designed and built himself-with only two years of training as an aeronautical engineer.

I listen, in the afternoon, as Kermit talks to an assembled crowd about the T-6 that he's about to fly and about the universal fascination with flight. "In the external world," he recites as if retelling the sacred story of the eight nights of Hanukkah, "we talk about reaching for the skies, or the stars. And in our internal journeys, we soar in our imaginations, and fly in our dreams." He's probably given the speech a thousand times, exhorting his listeners to believe that they already possess the tools they need to journey beyond whatever limitations they perceive. With or without an airplane. But no matter how many times he may have given the speech before, the passion behind it is still real. And so is its impact.

As I watch faces in the crowd listening intently and nodding in hopeful agreement, I try to place exactly who or what character Kermit reminds me of. The Pied Piper of Hamelin? No ... he led children astray. Walt Disney? No ... his magic was letting people escape from themselves, not encouraging them to engage themselves. In the end, it's Kermit himself who solves the mystery. On my way out, he points to a plaque outside his office that says, Toto, I think this man can help us.

"The Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite movies," he says. "And think about it. The wizard was just a guy bumbling through life with a fascination for flight. And all he was trying to do was help people realize their dreams and find their way home." His voice drops a few notes and his intensely focused eyes grow a little moist. "That's what I'm trying to do, too."

For more information on the Fantasy of Flight, visit fantasyofflight.com.