Wright Brothers airplane Flyer, first recorded flight, Kitty Hawk in National Air and Space Museum in Washington
Wright Brothers airplane Flyer, first recorded flight, Kitty Hawk in National Air and Space Museum in Washington
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By Lee Foster

The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C., is already one of the most popular museums in the world (more than 9 million visitors per year), but it has only been displaying about 10 percent of its collection.

That unfortunate situation has now been corrected, with the opening of the spectacular new branch of Air and Space known as the Udvar-Hazy Center. The new branch is near Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia, west of the capital.

About 200 aircraft and 135 spacecraft from Air and Space’s treasured collection (about 80 percent of overall holdings) are allocated to the new display facility. One example of the special craft to be seen is the Blackbird, a spy plane that was the fastest and highest-flying jet aircraft ever built.

Air and Space’s problem on the Mall was obvious. There just wasn’t enough room to display properly the collection. The new facility consists of a handsome, large, hangar-type building with seven acres of floor space and a ceiling height of 103 feet, allowing for creative positioning of this vast flying collection.

The new center is named after a generous benefactor, a Hungarian immigrant named Steven Udvar-Hazy, who made a fortune in the aircraft leasing business and donated $65 million for the new facility.

AVIATION AND SPACE HISTORY

Telling the history of aviation and space flight is the mandate of the new facility. This visitor’s initial impression is that the center has both the artifacts and the state-of-the-art display technique to accomplish the mandate.

As mentioned, the Lockheed SR71 Blackbird is perhaps the most extraordinary artifact in the entire display. Built as a large, sleek, spy craft, the Blackbird eluded detection or capture with impunity over hostile Soviet territory by flying high, flying fast, and posing as a formidable and invisible black predator against the dark of the night sky. A special black paint on the craft, making it very difficult to detect with conventional radar, prompted the name Blackbird. Sophisticated cameras in the Blackbird could capture an image the size of a telephone booth from a high altitude.

The period 1974-1981 was part of the Cold War era when the Blackbird flourished, before satellites took over many of these information-gathering tasks. The Blackbird was designed to fly at 3.2x the speed of sound, over 2,000 miles an hour, at an altitude of 80,000 feet, restrained only by the 950 degree temperatures allowable on its titanium hull. This fastest “air breathing” jet engine craft ever built holds the transcontinental aviation speed record, just 64 minutes from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.

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Wright Brothers airplane Flyer, first recorded flight, Kitty Hawk in National Air and Space Museum in Washington
Wright Brothers airplane Flyer, first recorded flight, Kitty Hawk in National Air and Space Museum in Washington

Another famous or infamous airplane on display is the B29 Superfortress Enola Gay, the plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. Critics of the Smithsonian requested that the display focus more on the horrific effects of the bomb drop. However, the Smithsonian saw its role as interpreting the technological prowess of this propeller-driven bomber, including such innovations as a pressurized cabin for the crew and advanced radar capability.

Space exploration enjoys its own adjunct hangar at the new facility. The most prominent exhibit is the Space Shuttle Enterprise. Seeing the shuttle up close can’t help but remind a visitor of the other clone shuttles and their plight, including the Challenger and Columbia disasters, which lost both the crew and the craft. Enterprise was the first of the shuttles and saw service as a test vehicle, but never actually made it into space.

The historic time line of development in many aspects of aviation can be better understood as a visitor peruses the setting. The Dash 80 prototype that led to the workhorse Boeing 707 passenger plane is an example.

An ongoing American inventiveness in aircraft components is a constant theme. The lyrical side of aircraft development is also shown, such as a 640-pound aerobatic vehicle known as the Pitts Little Stinker. An Air Concorde plane testifies to the failed visions of some commercial aircraft ventures.

The oldest aircraft on display is Samuel Langley’s 1903 Aerodrome. The newest aircraft is the next-generation Lockheed-Martin 35B Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.

Different areas of the hangar have thematic clusters of craft, such as Business Aviation, or aircraft from various eras of military conflict, such as Korea and Vietnam. The Cold War section, for example, shows hardware associated with the Berlin Airlift and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The design of the cavernous facility is particularly pleasing. Airplanes and spacecraft are displayed on the floor and also staggered at two airborne levels, allowing a visitor to see them soaring or gliding in a realistic manner. A viewer can see them from ground level or from skywalks and ramps up to four stories high.

The opening of the new museum in December 2003 coincided with the centennial of the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk, emphasizing to visitors the speed with which airline and space technology developed. It took only 66 years from man’s first flight at Kitty Hawk to man’s first footstep on the moon.

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UDVAR-HAZY CENTER: IF YOU GO

The Udvar-Hazy Center is at 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway in Chantilly, Virginia, near the Washington Dulles International Airport. Admission is free. Website is www.nasm.si.edu/museum/udvarhazy.

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