“Ah, I’m sorry, you’re gonna have to get out of the car,” the Delta Air Lines security guard said as he peered farther into the window of the Uber I had taken to the northern edge of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Distracted, as I had been staring at a 757–200 beautifully adorned in Delta’s classic widget livery until about five seconds prior, I could only muster a perplexed, “uh, okay.” There really was no sense in arguing with the guy. I acquiesced, slightly annoyed, thanked my driver, and hopped out of the car.
I stayed mad for, oh, five seconds at the most. You see, at the Delta Flight Museum, the exhibits begin in the parking lot, a stone’s throw from both arrivals on the northern runway 8L/26R into Delta’s biggest fortress hub and Delta’s brick castle of a headquarters down the street. Due to the preservation efforts of Delta’s 80,000-strong workforce, the museum’s outdoor exhibit highlights a trio of classic airliners; the 757, a Douglas DC-9, the short-haul workhorse for the better part of four decades, and the first Boeing 747–400 built, with a display plaza being pieced together around the Queen of the Skies.
A note on the plaza: I ended up taking my tour before it opened at the end of March. It’ll definitely be worth a visit by any Atlantians or folks with long layovers. The 747 and the plaza taking shape around it were primarily funded by Delta employees. This is a recurring theme of the Delta Flight Museum. The inside of the 747 is an extension of the two hangars full of Delta relics across the parking lot. This writer certainly intends to check out the finished project when he gets the opportunity.
A cloudy, chilly day, not ideal for planespotting among the sea of cars crowding the antiques, I soon made my way inside the museum. Though not a subtle structure, with the large, white hangars proudly emblazoned with “Delta Air Lines” in retro font, the entry hall is entirely unassuming, a small, simple corridor (painted, save for the shiny engine sticking out of the wall) and a security outpost leading to an information desk made of a well-polished T-tail. They say planes fly off to the desert to be turned into aluminum cans, but I guess the really lucky ones get turned into neat furniture.
DELTA AND THE PROPELLER AGE
Delta, ever the innovator, was actually the world’s first aerial crop dusting service. Huff Daland Dusters, of Macon, Georgia, is the company the modern Delta Air Lines traces its roots to. Only after being granted airmail rights in the 1930s did Delta break into passenger transportation. The second largest airline in the world got its start by barnstorming rural central Georgia. To round out their eclectic collection of propeller planes, the museum was able to reconstruct a 1920s-era Huff Daland Duster from their original crop dusting operation using blueprints and some Delta Tech Ops ingenuity.
Also included in the museum’s collection is a beautiful, shiny DC-3. I was told on my tour that Delta’s is “noticeably shinier” than American Airlines’ similar model. Typical rivals. That said, I’ve seen American’s doing flyovers of North Avenue Beach in the Chicago Air and Water Show and sit through thunderstorms at O’Hare. I haven’t seen Delta’s leave the hangar lately. That counts for something. Just sayin’.
Anyways, the DC-3 and the crop duster are kept company by a trio of other propeller jets from the 1930s and 40s that the museum has preserved. As an AvGeek who is not a particular fan of the prevailing Euro-white trend, I wouldn’t be too shaken up if Delta turns back the clock and takes some inspiration from the great paintjob the Travel Air 6B Sedan sported.
However, the most surprising part of the entire tour was the collection of brochures, trinkets, and equipment lining the walls, save for the scale model replica of the original headquarters. On their own, it wouldn’t be that surprising. However, not only does Delta have an extensive array of their own history from that time period, but a lot of the airlines they merged with as well, particularly Northwest. Delta even saved space for Pan Am, and, no matter how you slice Delta and Pan Am’s agreement circa 1990, it was certainly not a merger, so it’s interesting to see mementos of Pan Am’s history still are around the museum.
FLY DELTA JETS: THE JET AGE
I’ll admit, as a native Chicagoan, I didn’t get the gravity of “Fly Delta Jets.” I was confused when I first visited Hartsfield-Jackson; there are big neon signs with the slogan everywhere. Unsurprisingly, as the entrance to the second hangar also belied, Delta loves their jets. Like much of Delta’s history, it all started with a competition with Eastern Airlines. When their arch-rival decided to wait for an engine upgrade on the DC-8, Delta scooped up the delivery slots, becoming the launch customer for Douglas’ first jet. Though Delta hasn’t always been atop the industry in network breadth or prestige, it certainly has been an innovator, like this example of helping introduce modern jet aircraft, as noted throughout the museum.
From the cockpit of a Convair 880, an early jet both absurdly fast and gas-guzzling, to a conference room built into what used to be the cabin of a prototype Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, Delta has about as thorough of a collection of early jet age fleet staples as you’ll find in one place. Though the Boeing 737-200 may uniquely be the only publicly-available 737 simulator (sadly not included in tours), the pride and joy of Delta Flight is obvious from any angle: the 767-200 parked in the center of the room. The majestic bird, also decked out in her original “Classic Widget” livery, had a remarkable story even before she retired to the museum.
As a sign of employee commitment to Delta, they essentially covered the cost of a new 767-200. Now retired, the Spirit of Delta proudly serves as the world’s most expensive display case. The exposed cockpit, small seating area, and vintage uniforms, scale models, and promotional literature lining the back half of the cabin showcase the airline and its employees throughout the aircraft’s service time.
Of course, after a slow meander through yet more display cases full of other nifty innovations, crew uniforms, and die cast scale models, no visit would be complete without a trip to the well-stocked gift museum. Along with Boeing’s company store, this is a great stop for any aviation buff with some cash burning a hole in their pocket. As far as museum gift shops go, it was very good.
The whole museum, full of classic American planes, artifacts, and innovations, is ironically sponsored by Airbus. Though the spotlight shone brightest on Boeing and Douglas, it’s reasonable to expect that an Airbus will eventually join the museum, if the continued additions of the DC-9 and 747 are any indication. It is a testament to the tenacity of Delta frontline workers – the pilots, flight crew, and ground staff – that the Delta Flight Museum got off the ground. Today it is an impressive display of the very best of Delta’s long, storied history.
That said, Delta’s security certainly doesn’t make it easy to get on or off the property. Yet again, I was faced with having to trek across the corporate campus to get out. Annoying? Yes. Necessary? I don’t know. The extremely hospitable museum was surrounded by a front line frustratingly hard to cross.
The pride of the employees that helped put this impressive display together reflects well on Delta’s culture. Experiencing the museum certainly made me eager to Fly Delta Jets.
Though Delta provided access to the museum, all thoughts and opinions are my own.
As I’ve learned in my time in the south, “You don’t know where you go when you die, but no matter what, you’ll connect in Atlanta”
This story was written by Jake Grant for AirlineReporter. Jake is a “ramblin’, gamblin’, helluva engineer” from the Georgia Institute of Technology, originally from Chicago (and really annoying about it). He is studying mechanical engineering and aspires to work in aviation after college.