By Christopher A. Sawyer
All Photos: ©The Virtual Driver/Chris Sawyer
I will admit to never having been to the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) on the Mall in Washington D.C. A huge building — three city blocks long — it opened its doors in July 1976, 30 years after Congress authorized its establishment. Yet from that day, it has been too small to house the Smithsonian’s entire collection of air and space artifacts. Its youngest aircraft at opening was a Douglas DC3 that started flying in 1936. Room needed to be found of the next generation of aircraft, and to tell the story of spaceflight. Space that could accommodate flying machines that would have a tough time making the trek through downtown Washington.
The folks at the NASM, building on suggestions dating back to the 1960s, made the case that a second facility, built at or near an active airfield, was necessary. Without it, the collection had a limited future at best. Washington’s Dulles International Airport was a natural, having opened in the 1960s. (You can see it in its pristine, pre-TSA state in the 1964 John Frankenheimer movie Seven Days in May. Look for the scene where Col. William “Mutt” Henderson (Andrew Duggan) drops Sen. Raymond Clark (Edmond O’Brien) at his gate.) However, though the NASM lobbied throughout the 1980s for the second site, and submitted its first Congressional request for authorization in 1984, it took almost 10 years for the pols to pass the necessary legislation and provide funding.
By the time Congress approved design funds (it insisted no federal money be used for construction), a 176.5-acre tract in the southeast corner of Dulles was identified. Close to major highways, less than a mile from a major runway, and with room for expansion, the tract proved ideal. On it was built a facility that — due to its size — resembles a dirigible hangar, and leaves plenty of space for mammoth vehicles like the space shuttle. Named for its biggest benefactor ($65 million), Steven F. Udvar-Hazy, the 760,000-ft2 facility opened in December 2003, the 100th anniversary of flight.
Made up of the main hangar and an east wing that houses the IMAX theater, classrooms and food court, the $126 million facility also includes a space hangar directly across from the main entrance. Jutting into the sky is a 164-ft observation tower named after Vice Admiral Don Engen, USN (Ret.), who set aside the land at Dulles when he headed the Federal Aviation Administration. In the coming months, a new restoration facility will open onsite, and allow museum visitors to watch as aircraft from the NASM’s crowded Paul E. Garber Preservation, Reservation and Storage Facility are refurbished. It is my personal hope that one day soon we will see the museum’s jet-powered Horten Ho9 German flying wing fully restored and sitting alongside the piston-powered Northrop N-1M Flying Wing. What a sight that would be. (The Udvar-Hazy Center does have a Horten glider suspended above the area containing the first operational jet bomber, the Arado Ar 234 B Blitz.)
Free docent-led tours take place at 10:30 am and 1:00 pm, though more tours are added on busy days. Groups of 20 or more can schedule a tour in advance. During my visit the day after Thanksgiving, multiple tours were underway. Our guide, Robert Grant, provided a witty and fact-filled exploration of the Udvar-Hazy Center. Beginning at the SR-71 Blackbird parked in the center of the main floor, the tour moved forward toward the Vought F4U-1D Corsair hanging above, and off to the shuttle Enterprise behind. Once in the space hangar, it was a fascinating exposition of the manned spacecraft, satellites, rockets, missiles (including a V1-copy JB-2 “Loon” missile built by Ford in the late 1940s), space suits and other items that make up this part of the collection. Mr. Grant took great care to mention that the Enterprise, which never flew in space, will be replaced by the Discovery this April. Anyone lucky enough to be at the center that day (the exact date has yet to be announced) will see the Discovery fly in on the back of a special 747, and the Enterprise leave on that plane the same day. If you can be there, do it. You won’t regret having made the trip.
Those at the center on August 6th will witness the annual visit of a group that prays before the Enola Gay, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. This “prayer group” is no longer allowed to visit the site unchaperoned as it is responsible for throwing a bottle of red paint at the aircraft on its first visit. Fortunately, the projectile didn’t shatter when it hit the plane, though it put a dent on the craft’s left side, but it did force museum officials to erect a Plexiglas screen on the walkway in front of it to prevent a recurrence.
I could go on, but this collection is best seen, not read about. From ballooning to early flight to aerobatic airplanes to World War I and II aircraft, the Concorde and the prototype for the Boeing 707, the Udvar-Hazy Center has a varied and fascinating collection. However, be forewarned: wear comfortable shoes and plan on staying most of the day.
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
14390 Air & Space Museum Parkway
Chantilly, VA 20151 USA
Parking: $15 (free after 4 pm)