GUEST AUTHOR: Craig Mathias
Special to Road Unraveled
Air and space museums remain one of the most popular destinations for travelers of all types, and not just the nerds. Travel by air was truly novel (and quite expensive) when I was little; I remember, around age 5, a coast-to-coast trip on a propeller-driven plane taking essentially all day. But, then, stops for refueling, let alone to change planes, were all part of the fun. The upside? Well, this was indeed the beginning of travel as we know it today. And the legroom! Don’t get me started on that. But today’s cattle cars are clearly a lot faster, and, just as importantly, a lot more reliable. More on that below, but, for now, planes are essential to the global culture today, and enjoying them even on the ground is fascinating even to the non-nerds among us.I recently traveled to Indianapolis to see my old and dear friend Steve, who was my roommate in college and (being underpaid graduates – some things never change) for a couple of years after. As it turns out, Steve’s brother Phil is, like me, an engineer, but instead of computers, networks, and software, he spent the vast majority his career at Rolls-Royce designing and then managing the development of aircraft engines. Note here that this is the Rolls-Royce indeed based in England, but not the company that builds the automobiles of the same name. That business was spun off years ago. Anyway, when you fly, you may notice a Rolls-Royce badge on the engine of your aircraft, and that engine likely has a little bit of Phil in it. This guy knows his stuff.
Upon retirement, though, Phil didn’t immediately purchase airline tickets and hit the road as so many of us do. Instead, he’s now President of the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust Allison Branch, a must-see museum and educational resource for a large portion of what Rolls produced over the years. While Rolls has other Trust sites elsewhere in the world to preserve the past, the Allison Branch preserves primarily artifacts produced at Allison in Indianapolis, a company that can trace its roots to James Allison, who in 1909 helped found the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the legendary 500. Allison’s involvement in aircraft engines goes back to World War I, and among the many (many!) items on display are some of the most important engines ever developed, both military and commercial. Rolls-Royce, by the way, acquired Allison Engine (the Indianapolis-based transmission company remains separate to this day) in 1995.
Among the many exhibits at the Trust are engines from WWII fighter planes (like the legendary P-51 Mustang), the B-29, and many others of past decades. And there are numerous jet engines as well, some now one-of-a-kind and representing the beginnings of the complex and difficult path to today’s remarkably reliable and fuel-efficient models. Want to see an “Olympus” engine from the legendary (there’s that word again) Concorde, still the only supersonic passenger plane ever to fly? They’ve got one of the few still remaining. Helicopters? Vertical take-off? The exhibits here highlight the remarkable nature of powered flight itself, and the creativity and perseverance of the engineers that continue to innovate today.
And let’s not stop at aircraft. You’ll also be able to see some of the spacecraft components developed by Allison, including critical pieces that went to the moon on the Apollo missions. Strange and imaginative one-off experiments and prototypes? Yes, lots of those as well. Many of the exhibits feature moving parts that will give, again, even non-engineers a good idea of how everything works.
I noted above that the Trust is also an important education resource. Preserved here are thousands of books, photos, film, and other documents that, absent the work of Phil and his volunteers at the Trust, would likely have been lost to the sands of time. The Trust hosts STEM outreach events for local schools, and significant effort is devoted to acquiring new pieces for the collection. The work here often involves painstaking restoration, and you may see that in action during your visit. My hat is off, and not just as a nerd, to the staff here – preserving the past is always the first step to a more productive future. When you visit, don’t hesitate to ask questions. No matter how technical (or not), they’ve got the answers.
Visit the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust!
So, how can you see this remarkable collection? First, contact the Trust at HeritageIndy@rrhtab.org or 463-202-2602 – reservations are required and access on specific dates may depend upon the availability of docents. Membership and volunteer opportunities also exist. So – nerd or not – this one should absolutely be on your list for your next visit to the great city of Indianapolis.
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