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August 1, 2009

"At the dragon zoo" By Luca Turin

"At the dragon zoo"

Airplanes are as large and loud as the dragons of yore. And, thanks to the imperfections of fuel distillation, they also smell highly evocative.

By Luca Turin

An airport is a zoo where fire-breathing dragons are fed and watered. When you come near, you can hear and smell the fearsome beasts long before you glimpse them, the warbling whistle of jet fans, the aromatic hot breath of jet fuel.

Piston engines burn all the fuel they’re fed and just smell of smoke. Jet engines are sloppy until warm and spit out a lot of unburned fuel at idle, hence the smell. If distillation of petroleum were perfect, kerosene would be made up only of heavy molecules, and would have almost no smell. But no one can afford perfumery-grade stills for mere fuel, so kerosene contains the petroleum equivalent of cognac, a mixture of indenes, tetralins and alkylbenzenes.

For those born just after the war, that smell recalls the epic time, roughly 1959, when dragons were finally domesticated and became beasts of burden: the effete Comet, the manly 707, the gorgeous Caravelle.

If you happen to be fond of dragon zoos, smaller is usually better: you can come closer to the animals, almost pet them through the fence. My favourite was the lovely and very decrepit museum of the Fuerza AĆ©rea Argentina. It lived at the south end of Jorge Newbery airport in Buenos Aires, in a little triangle of land stuck between a taxiway and the main coastal road north of the city.

Big jets taxiing for take-off swept past so close you could read the markings on the tires. Old aircraft were scattered among the bushes, with the battered look of old saucepans. A small, low building housed relics of the air force. One room was full of blue-white-blue Argentinian flags, each with a sun embroidered in heavy gold thread at the centre. Each sun had a face, and each face was different, mostly melancholy, occasionally angry, as if the country itself had moods.

A second room housed aircraft engines, some cut open to reveal their shiny, now immovable innards, with the cut metal painted red like living flesh.

A third room housed the centrepiece of the museum, a glass case shaped like a coffin with bevelled crystal windows on all faces, containing a mangled mass of wooden struts, brass piping and leather straps, with the accessible parts buffed up to a high sheen. Ribbons in the national colours connected various parts of this unrecognisable object to little plaques affixed inside the crystal panes. One said "carburettor", another said "altimeter".

This turned out to be all that was left of an aircraft that had attempted to pass the Andes at their lowest point in the early 1920s and found that the lowest point was higher than it could go. The passion, the tragedy and the loneliness of early flight gripped you by the throat.

Stepping out into the sun, I was nearly blown over by the fragrant blast of a Boeing 737 turning from the taxiway to line up for take-off. I have just checked on Google Earth. The museum is gone but you can still see the shadows of the aircraft in the grass, no doubt rippling docilely when dragons growl.

Luca Turin works at the MIT; he lives in Boston.