50910E46-C2F8-410B-9E7B-09F651AD888A_1_201_aFirst order of business today: thaw a flank steak, because as everyone knows, Friday is a grilling day. Mister B looks forward to helping. You know I write a cooking blog, right? Here’s the plan for tonight.

Today marks the midpoint of two weeks’ house arrest following photodynamic therapy. My face no longer aches (it did, really!) and the redness is fading away. I’ve been taking the dog for short walks before the sun gets high, slathered in sunblock and wearing a big floppy sunhat; otherwise I’m on lockdown. But not for long!

We’re planning another Vegas trip. The original idea was to go next week for our son’s birthday, but his work schedule changed and we slipped to late March. Then his schedule changed again and we’re now going the third week of April. There’s a regional biker event that weekend, the Laughlin River Run. Trailer? Check. Motorcycle? Check. Knuckledraggers H3MC Baja Arizona will be represented! Not to worry, I’ll leave the pistol home, locked in its safe.

We all know about the Thunderbirds, but did you know the Air Force also appoints certain pilots to perform solo demonstrations of front-line fighter aircraft at airshows around the country and overseas? The Thunderbirds currently have a woman pilot, the team’s second I believe; this week the USAF named its first woman F-35 demo pilot. My friend Michelle, one of the first woman A-10 fighter pilots, sends this: “In 1999 I became the first ever female on a USAF fighter demonstration team. Many years later Nicole Malachowski became the first female Thunderbird pilot. Now, in 2020, we finally have our first female single ship fighter demo pilot.”

Michelle was the narrator who spoke to the crowd over the PA system while a male counterpart flew the actual demo. Michelle, of course, flew the same plane, the A-10 Warthog, performing all the same maneuvers in her day-to-day duties. If she was still in and flying the A-10 today, she’d be the one in the plane, because the USAF … 44 years after admitting the first women to pilot training, 27 years after first allowing women to fly fighters, 25 years after Eileen Collins, herself a former USAF aviator, first piloted a space shuttle on an orbital mission … is, with typical due military deliberation, catching up with the times.

I’ll just note here that the Civil Rights Act was signed two years after the Montgomery bus boycott.

What did I say here on the blog a few days ago? Oh, yeah: “Maybe one of the reasons I love science fiction as much as I do is the presentation of worlds, especially on the screen, where people of all ethnicities, races, and genders live and work together and no one gives it even the slightest thought. That’s always seemed like something to shoot for, at least to me.”

I’ve decided to share a bit more about why I decided to leave the air museum, where I worked as a volunteer docent for nine years. I held off addressing my reasons because to do so might come across as sour grapes or whining.

In 2011, when I started leading visitors on walking tours of the aircraft in Pima Air and Space Museum’s exhibit hangars, PASM had a fantastic volunteer program. It was run by the volunteers themselves, with minimal supervision. Many if not most docents had backgrounds in military, commercial, and general aviation; the older ones had flown combat in Vietnam, Korea, even WWII. Docents could tailor tours to match their own expertise (as a fighter pilot, I naturally highlighted military and combat aircraft), develop their own scripts, and share war stories.

A highlight of the volunteer program was education. We contributed articles to a quarterly newsletter, Contrails. Volunteers set up and maintained an excellent research library, with military and civil aircraft manuals, plus books and videos on every aircraft in the collection. We ran a monthly presentation program, open to the general public, museum staff, and fellow volunteers. Presentation dates were booked a year in advance (my own presentation on the F-15 Eagle was attended by almost 200 people). Smithsonian Institution staff would fly in from DC to tape our presentations and interview the speakers about their flying experience afterward … the Smithsonian actually has me on tape talking, among other things, about the dirty songs we sang in the squadron bar after a hard day of flying.

Volunteer docents work in teams. When I started, PASM had a team of greeters to welcome visitors at the museum entrance, point out any special events scheduled for the day, and give them maps to the museum hangars and grounds. My team led narrated walking tours. Other teams roamed the hangars, answering visitors’ questions. Another team, one I joined later, drove trams around the grounds, telling visitors about the outdoor displays; another manned the tour buses taking visitors to the Boneyard; another was on call to come in and guide school and other contracted group tours. Docents regularly met with aircraft restoration volunteers, who kept us up to date on which new acquisitions were being prepared and when the public would be able to see them. We were an important part of the museum’s mission. We were valued.

Starting two to three years ago, the attractions of being a volunteer docent … most importantly, the sense of being valued … began to disappear. The director dictated the closure of the volunteer library, eventually firing the docent who maintained it. The presentation program was terminated. The quarterly newsletter, with its volunteer articles, went away. Restoration was declared off-limits, its activities suddenly secret. Staff made it clear volunteers were no longer welcome in the administration building, and were only to communicate with management through a single staff representative. They eliminated the greeters. They shut down the walking tours and let those volunteers go. They fired the Boneyard docents and replaced them with a couple of paid guides who have to read from a script. They eliminated the school program … teachers still bring classes to the museum, but they no longer get a guide.

Docent teams had volunteer team leaders. They’re gone too. Today, paid museum staff with little to no aviation experience directly supervise the few remaining docent teams. The last good docent gig at PASM was being a tram tour guide, but that too is been degraded. Staff imposed a strict 45-minute time limit on tram tours, increased the number of daily tours and demanded individual docents drive and narrate as many as four a day (some, on short-manned days, do even more). Tram docents, like the Boneyard guides, now have to follow a script and can no longer tailor tours to visitors’ interests.

There have been persistent stories, passed from volunteer to volunteer, that this all flows downhill from the museum’s executive director, who does not like volunteers. I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that whenever I and other volunteers would encounter the director on the museum grounds, he would never say hi, never look at us, never acknowledge us in any way. Also true: increasingly frequent “be-no” messages from museum staff to volunteers telling us which areas of the museum are now off limits, which staff members we can talk to and which we can’t, threatening us with firing and revocation of museum membership if we violate new rules or complain about them. Even without rumors of the director’s hostility toward volunteers, the message was clear.

The final straw for me? A staff member telling me I couldn’t use a restroom during the five minutes I had between back-to-back tram tours a few Mondays back. That restroom, she told me, was now for staff only.

I’m a life member of the museum, a membership earned through volunteer work. I value the museum and my membership, and will continue to visit, primarily to photograph and research the aircraft I write about in Air-Minded blog posts. As for volunteering and interacting with museum visitors, I miss it but am not losing sleep over it. The frustrations and unpleasantness of working at PASM had come to outweigh the rewards, and I was past due to follow the many experienced colleagues who have peeled off over the last few years. I fully expect members of the tram team will soon be told to shut up and drive, restricted to steering the tram at a steady speed of 8 mph while a recorded narration plays over the speakers … and when that happens, I’ll have even more company in self-imposed exile.

Good to get all that off my chest, take it how you will.

© 2020, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.


One thought on “TGIF

  • It is truly bizarre to me how the museum had all these great, free resources available to the public and got rid of them because someone in management doesn’t like volunteers. I think you made a wise decision to quit. I don’t know if I would have lasted as long as you did.

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