If you can’t save a piece of history in the real world, save it in the virtual world.
That’s what was done to the Boeing/United Airlines Hangar that for the past 77 years has graced Iowa City Municipal Airport (IOW) in Iowa.
The hangar is slated for demolition to make room for a runway safety area. But before the bulldozer arrives, the hangar was recreated for Microsoft Flight Simulator and installed in an aircraft-size simulator at the Alexis Park Inn & Suites, an aviation-themed hotel at the airport.
Jay and Mary Honeck own the inn. They started the business in 2002, buying what was basically a run-down hotel and turning it into an aviation-themed establishment. The suites are named after famous aviators such as the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart or after aircraft such as Corsair, Mustang and Constellation. The décor features aviation art and, in many cases, period correct furnishings.
The aircraft-size flight simulator game, which is in the conference room/theater, is a recent addition. Work began on it in October 2006. It was finished last month.
According to Jay Honeck, the simulator was created as a prototype and proof-of-concept model for an aviation exhibit at the Iowa Children’s Museum.
“The idea of the simulator was to show officials at the museum an interactive means of getting children interested in aviation. It had to be realistic,” said Honeck. “I knew that you can pretty much set up a simulator anywhere, but it is not real when you are flying a keyboard at a desk. You need full controls that aren’t C-clamped to a desk.”
Keith Roof, whom Honeck describes as an A&P mechanic with the skill of an old-world craftsman, designed and built the simulator’s fuselage frame from metal.
“Keith named it ‘The Kiwi,’ which, of course, is a flightless bird,” said Honeck.
The electrically adjustable seat came out of Honeck’s Mustang convertible. A well-placed bass speaker under the seat, a 104-inch projector screen and top-of-the-line rudder pedals and yoke — combined with a fast computer — do the rest.
“To have a good simulator you need a fast computer,” Honeck stressed. “A regional company called Neo Computers built one for us at cost. That really helped out a lot. I figure we got the whole thing done for under $3,000.”
Just like other flight simulator games, the “pilot” can fly pretty much anywhere.
“You can set it up into any airport, any airplane, any weather, any season,” he said. “You can do IFR approaches. There is one scenario where you fly an Extra over the Grand Canyon.”
One of the finishing touches was a realistic depiction of the old hangar. The hangar was built in the late 1920s by Boeing Air Transport, which later combined with National Air Transport, Pacific Air Transport and Varney Air Lines to create what we know today as United Airlines. Iowa City Airport was one of United’s first passenger hubs.
“Thousands of people probably started their journeys from here,” said Honeck, who is a member of Friends of Iowa Airport, an organization created to protect the airport. One of the group’s efforts was an attempt to relocate the hangar so that it could be restored, but they have not been able to make that happen.
“It is one of seven historic hangars of its type in the country, but our local historical society is more interested in saving Victorian homes than what it thinks is nothing more than a big warehouse,” said Honeck.
Honeck shared his frustration in chats on the Internet with Jim Bosworth, a computer programmer who, in turn, shared it with Al Heline, a retiree whose hobby includes creating background scenery for Microsoft Flight Simulator.
“They contacted me, out of the clear blue sky, and volunteered to make our Kiwi experience just that much better,” said Honeck. “They are just remarkably nice, giving folks, doing all this work for no reason except their personal enjoyment, and the enjoyment of their fellow aviators.”
“Jay and Jim got to talking and decided to do the simulation of Jay’s hotel on Flight Simulator,” Heline recalled. “Doing a depiction of the hangar was the next logical step.”
The scenery is created using photographs of the buildings, satellite photos and images available from Google Earth.
“In the case of the hangar I had a couple of recent photos that Jay had taken, and then Jay sent me some very old pictures of the hangar, so I could see what it looked like back when,” said Heline.
After the basic imagery is obtained the artist must electronically remove every day objects, such as automobiles, people and telephone poles that obscure the scenery.
“It is a painstaking process,” said Heline, “especially when you have an eye for detail.”
The easy thing to do would have been to create the old hangar as it looked when it was used by the fledgling airline, but that wouldn’t be accurate, he said.
“Jay made a comment about the detail of the rust on the doors and I realized that he feels the way I do about these things,” Heline recalled. “The building only looked pristine when it was new and now it has rust and dirt on it. The average person maybe wouldn’t pay attention to that level of detail, but I am a self-proclaimed perfectionist.”
The hangar depiction is “scary it is so realistic,” said Honeck. “It has the rust that has run down onto the front of the doors and chunks of the bottom of the door missing where the metal rusted through. Sitting in the simulator when you are in front of the hangar looks just like it does when I am sitting in front of it in my car.”
In a way, says Honeck, the virtual world has helped them preserve the hangar for future generations.
“It is an irreplaceable piece of aviation history. We will always be able to see it in the virtual world,” he said. “I am putting the files on our website for free downloads so it can be added to flight simulator.”
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