Friday, December 25, 2009

Article as it appears in the December 24th The Columbian newspaper.

Any aviation enthusiast would be delighted to find this model of an F-16 fighter under the Christmas tree. But there wouldn’t be room for much of anything else.

It’s 8 feet long, and that’s just part of the exhibit; the display also has a hands-on component. A person can sit in a full-size replica of the pilot’s seat and use cockpit controls to move the plane around on its display base.

The “pilot” can hit the afterburner switch to trigger a ring of glowing LEDs.

The F-16 also has working landing gear, complete with shock absorbers, even though the wheels will never hit the runway.

The F-16 is headed for the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science & Technology, in Syracuse, N.Y.

Taking shape nearby is a replica of an Atlas rocket, but you can cross that one off your shopping list, too. At 36 feet long and 5 feet in diameter, you couldn’t afford the gift wrap.

The replica of the NASA launch vehicle is the biggest project ever undertaken at Masterpiece Models, owner John Geigle said.

The Atlas rocket also is headed for the museum in New York.

The Vancouver fabrication shop has been turning out museum-quality replicas for displays and exhibits for several years. The products keep getting more sophisticated, as illustrated by the second-generation replicas of a pair of Mars rovers.

After building Mars rovers about three years ago, Geigle’s craftsmen are putting the finishing touches on a new-and-improved version of the Red Planet explorers.

“We have a lot more information now,” said Geigle.

Three years ago, resources for his design team were pretty much limited to photos on the NASA Web site. Now the model shop has a relationship with the California Institute of Technology, home of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In addition to thousands of additional images, “We got one blueprint, for a rover arm,” Geigle said.

“JPL sent up a representative and he asked if he needed a clean-room suit. He said it looked that real,” Geigle said. “We laughed.”

One of the new Mars rovers will spend a few months at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland before heading for its permanent home at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Ore.

Geigle said he will keep the other rover as part of his own space-inspired exhibit. “We’re trying to break into the traveling exhibit field,” he said.

Some of Masterpiece Models’ museum replicas are for sale to the public, by the way. The shop has created a 1/12th-scale model of the “Little Boy” atomic bomb for the gift shop of the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in New Mexico.