What do you do when you run out of room at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC? Just how do you tastefully display a retired Concorde jet that weighs a mere174, 750 pounds and is 202 feet long? You build a bigger and better museum. It was this idea that was responsible for the creation of the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, which opened its doors on Dec 15, 2003 (to coincide with the 100th anniversary of first flight of the Wright brothers Dec 17th, 1903).
Upon first sight of the museum one word comes to mind - “big” and that happens before you even enter the building. Once inside, you can’t help but marvel at the 10-story high Aviation Hanger that houses over 82 aircraft both suspended in the air and on the ground. You can only stare in amazement at what appears to be an air traffic controller’s nightmare of planes ranging from the largest commercial jet to the smallest ultra-light hanging from the ceiling and scattered along the ground floor. Visitors are welcome to meander along the numerous suspended walkways to catch glimpses of the exhibits from every possible angle.
Visitors have new entered a world where Jennys, Hellcats, Warhawks, Lightenings, Piper Cubs and Phantoms have a whole new meaning. The hangar is divided into themes such as business aviation, general aviation, commercial aviation, sport aviation, WWII aviation Korean conflict and Vietnam War Aircraft, Cold war aviation, modern military aviation and pre-1920 aviation.
The museum also offers more “real time” action where visitors can enter the 164 feet high Donald D. Engen Observation Tower. Here you can enjoy a bird’s-eye view of planes taking off and landing from Dulles International Airport in comfort and safety. On your way up, you may also want to visit the simulated air traffic control station. If you want to further enhance your experience, why not indulge your senses by “flying along” with a fighter pilot in an IMAX theater presentation or taking a ride in a flight simulator. Both are available for an additional fee.
Some of the museum’s “celebrity exhibits” include the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. Even if you weren’t aware of its payload, it only takes one look at this formidable flying giant and you know that it is not something you want coming toward you. Another famous exhibit is the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, which was built in the early 1960’s but until very recently was the fastest aircraft ever built flying at more than 2200 mph.
Lesser known, yet at least as interesting exhibits include an unsuccessful pre-1903 airplane made of little more than boards, canvas, wires and a lot of glue resembling more of an overgrown balsa wood model than a viable aircraft (which it turned out not to be). It is enough to make model builders drool and pilots shake in terror. Then there is the delicately painted, innocent looking tiny Ohka (Japanese for Cherry Blossom), which despite its demure size packed quite a lethal weapon. In fact, it was a lethal weapon. Its nose was a high-explosive warhead. Basically, it was a human-piloted missile. (The ultimate dead-end job). Finally, there is the school bus yellow flying wing. The name says it all but it has to be seen to be believed.
Once the sky has become the limit, you may wish to move up, up and away to the James S. McDonnel Space Hangar. The centerpiece of this portion of the museum is the Space Shuttle Enterprise, which was used for landing tests in the 1970’s. In addition you can get an up close and personal look at a space lab, and reminisce as you pass by the Apollo exhibits and the floating decontamination chambers where astronauts once hung-out after their moon mission until the world was deemed safe from any impending moon cooties.
Just as man continues to grow as he explores limitless outer space, this is only the beginning for the Air and Space Museum. With more than 80 aircraft and 60 space artifacts the museum is only about 60% complete. The next phase will include many more aircraft and exhibits, as well as a restoration hangar and archive facilities. Who knows what the future will hold? For now, the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center offers visitors a chance to learn about the history and development of one of man’s greatest achievements – flight.
Directions: located near Dulles Airport, just north of the intersection of Routes 28 and 50 in Chantilly, VA
Hours: 10:00AM – 5:30 PM daily
For more information visit: http://www.nasm.si.edu/
No Admission Fee