National Air and Space Museum

On a three day trip to the Baltimore-Washington area this past week, I took the opportunity, upon our arrival at Washington-Dulles International Airport, to jump in the rental car, head back down to the approach end of runway 1R and visit the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

About the Museum

The Center is an extension of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum found in downtown Washington D.C. and is located, officially, in Chantilly, VA just south of Dulles airport. It is well sign-posted even though (at this writing) there is quite a bit of road construction in progress in the area. The Center itself is basically one huge hangar (the Boeing Aviation Hangar) and the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar – and when I say huge, I mean huge: 760,000 square feet in all with the main hangar space measuring approximately 900 feet long, 200 feet wide and 100 feet tall. There are over 120 aircraft, 140 large space artifacts and innumerable smaller exhibits. Aside from these normal museum offerings is the unusual Donald D. Engen Observation Tower, overlooking the airport to the north and affording great views of the A340’s, B747’s and the like on approach to 1R. You can also buy tickets for one of the IMAX format movies, including the one I checked out, Fighter Pilot, putting you in the seat of an F-15 Eagle at the Red Flag exercises that take place at Nellis AFB, NV.

The Exhibits

Visitors enter the Center on what turns out to be the second floor (that’s the first floor for all my Brits out there – or the floor above the ground floor!). To your right is the entrance to the observation tower and the IMAX theatre, to your left is the Museum Store and the only spot for a meal in the facility, the obligatory fast food “Mc-restaurant.” Here is where you are faced with your first decision of the visit – to hang a left and walk around the catwalk level (more of those in a second) or head straight ahead and make for the stairs or ramp that will take you onto the floor of the museum and in amongst the heavy iron.

There are a series of catwalks that overlook the exhibits from the 20 and 30 feet level that are great for coming eye-to-eye with the many aircraft that are hanging from the roof of this massive building, as well as fantastic platforms for taking photographs some of the larger aircraft on the main floor. I took advantage of this a couple of times to snap the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and a couple of the more unusual specimens found dangling from the roof like models in a little boy’s bedroom. Indeed, I remarked to Fred (my copilot on this trip) that some of the aircraft hanging there didn’t look real; the 20 series Lear, for one, looked particularly teeny hanging, as it does, over an Air France Concorde (“AF”) and the Boeing 707 forerunner, the 367-80 “Dash 80”.

Like almost every other major aviation museum, the exhibits are grouped within several categories and taking a clockwise stroll around the building from the main entrance you’ll find: Pre-1920 Aviation, Commercial Aviation, Business Aviation, Vertical Flight, Sport Aviation, General Aviation, World War II Aviation, Cold War Aviation, Korea and Vietnam, and Modern Military Aviation.

Along with the Air France Concorde, the Dash 80 and the SR-71 the main, larger aircraft on the floor include Pan Am’s Boeing 307 Stratoliner Clipper Flying Cloud and the Boeing B-29 Enola Gay. Behind the Blackbird is the Space Hangar, dominated by the Space Shuttle Enterprise. A couple of the more unusual exhibits I’ve every seen in an aerospace museum have to be the landing simulator for the space program’s capsules. Instead of the ocean landings we all know, the program toyed with the idea of having a capsule return to earth and land on a runway using a tricycle undercarriage and parasail wing. The other unusual exhibit is Anita the web-spinning spider from Skylab.

Future plans for the center include a restoration hangar where visitors will be able to watch the specialists working hard to preserve these invaluable pieces of history.

Obviously there’s a ton of exhibits at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, with many being added all the time. It would be impossible to list them all and impractical to list more than I have in this article, but the museum is full of one-of-a-kind aircraft that any aviation enthusiast would recognize and, in my opinion, is well worth a visit if you get the chance.

If You Go

Hours: 10am to 5:30pm; closed December 25

Admission: Free

Address: Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly, Virginia

Telephone: 202-633-1000 (voice/tape); 202-633-5285 (TTY)

Web: www.nasm.si.edu/museum/udvarhazy

Transportation: Parking is available at the Udvar-Hazy Center for $12 per day; free after 4pm. Shuttle services are also available.

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