Not all museums have art

Generations of American tourist set off on their grand tour of Europe in Paris, heading to the Louvre for their cultue fix only to find the place is closed on Tuesday.

Last Tuesday, Gail and I, along with Jan and Keith Gunn, found out that the Cantor museum  on the Stanford Campus follows classical French tradition.  So there we were, in Palo Alto, all dressed up with no place to go.

Being creative, we began with an overpriced lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel.  The place was full of techy hipsters earnestly pitching ideas to junior VC’s, both hoping to be the next billionaire in town. It wasn’t really the right place for us.

Our fall back plan became the Hiller Aviation Museum, at the San Carlos Airport.  I’ve seen it from the freeway, and it’s the perfect place to take an engineer like Keith.

Stanley Hiller invented the co-rotor helicopter (two rotors running in opposite directions on one shaft) when he was 15.  He got the Defense Department to fund him to devolop a model for the Army when he was 17.  (This was during WWII)  At 18 he tested the prototype at Memorial Stadium at UC Berkeley (where he had been admitted at 15, but he dropped out after 6 months  to invent)  He founded a company, then partnered with Henry Kaiser, then 20 years later sold out to Fairchild.  The remainder of his career Hiller worked as a turnaround specialist, making failing companies profitable.

The museum is a large building just full of aircraft, from the oldest Wright flyer to a mock up of the Virgin spacecraft that will take passengers to space.  There are plenty of Hiller Helicopters, natch, but this place is much more than a shrine to its founder.


Greeted at the entrance by a 1903 Wright Flyer


Hiller had hopes that this would be the commuter vehicle of the future.


A small trainer copter

The museum has mostly aircraft, but there is one automobile, a 1958 Messerschmitt Kabinenroller, a Cabin Scooter.  It has one cylinder, 10 horsepower, and you make it go in reverse by starting the engine backwards.  Keith says he saw them on the street in Boston when he was in college.



If the word “Albatross” makes you think of Monty Python, you’ve got my kind of humor.  If it makes you think of a large amphibious airplane, you belong at this musuem.


All the displays you see are school science projects.  Many of them went right over my head–these kids have educated parents and get into some pretty advanced science.  I liked the one where a fifth grader tested whether penne or fettucini cooked faster–her hypothesis was that the fettucini would.  Finally, some science I can appreciate.

There was a flight simulator set up so yu could fly a Wright biplane, with only two large controls, up/down and left/right.  Gail gave it a try:


In the rear of the building, the museum has obtained the entire front section of a 747=100, retired after millions of miles of flight.


Entering through the rear, you can climb the tiny, steep circular staircase to the upper level where first class sat, and then enter the cramped cokpit, with seats for 3 crew and 2 observers wedged in among the hundreds of dials, fuses and switches.

Attached to the museum is a repair/restoration shop where som serious craftsmen are preparing new machines for display.You can watch them throud large windows, and I thought we might lose Keith forever-the workshop is an engineer’s paradise.

The museum is easy to get to, friendly tovisit, full of fascinating exhibits and open on Tuesday.  That make it even better than the Louvre.



2 thoughts on “Not all museums have art

  1. Chris, I read your post, and it made me wonder if Hiller Highlands was named after Stanley Hiller. I looked that up and apparently Hiller Highlands is named after his father!

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