Volunteering at an aviation museum can be more rewarding than you ever thought.

Last year I backed into volunteering at the National Air and Space Museum’s new Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington-Dulles International Airport, only 20 minutes away from my home. I kept thinking about volunteering in some capacity—but a “medical” problem of sorts two years ago made it come about. While I was driving to North Carolina, my right foot contracted a form of lead poisoning that increased the weight of my foot on the accelerator, resulting in a discussion of its symptoms with a state trooper and a discussion about therapy with a judge. Part of my “cure” was 25 hours of community service. Just guess where I went to do that.

I finished my obligatory 25 hours at the Udvar-Hazy Center in less than two weeks and have been a regular volunteer there ever since. The supervisors are pleasant and appreciative. I get thanked frequently, there are some very nice perks for volunteers—and I get time to be immersed in an environment that I think of as paradise.

For example, I was on hand a few months ago when one of my favorite planes had just been brought in and was being prepped for display: the Lockheed T-33, affectionately dubbed the T-Bird, the trainer version of the F-80 Shooting Star, in which I flew during my U.S. Air Force jet transition back in the late 1950s. I wandered over to the plane and found museum specialist Scott Wood working on “my” airplane. It was absolutely the shiniest T-Bird I had ever seen. Wood invited me to come over and admire the aircraft close up. I asked, “May I touch?” and he said, “Sure—right there; it’s the next spot I will be polishing.” I couldn’t help but show Scott a couple of old photos a buddy of mine and I had taken of each other climbing into and sitting in the T-33 for “girlfriend pictures,” complete with helmet, oxygen mask, parachute and all.

A couple of hours later, Scott showed up where I was working, told me that another specialist was going to open the T-33’s canopy, and asked if I would like to climb a stepladder and look into the cockpit. Then he asked if I had a camera, so a current photo could be taken of me looking as if I were in the cockpit (standing on the step ladder, but taken from the other side; I would not be allowed to actually get in the cockpit—it is an artifact, you know).

Alas, I had no camera, but Scott said that “General Joe” did and why not borrow his. That would be former Marine general and Hawker Harrier jump jet pilot Joseph T. Anderson, who now heads the museum. Anderson was not only willing to loan me a camera, he met us at the plane and took the pictures himself—talk about great perks.

Volunteers at Udvar-Hazy serve as docents, visitor greeters, education specialists and elevator operators. If you can tell the difference between a screwdriver and a wrench, you may even be able to help out by handing tools to a technician in the restoration shop when that is completed.

It costs only your time to give volunteering a try. And you don’t need a speeding ticket to get in, either.


Originally published in the January 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.