Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

I visited the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport in Virginia.

The main Air and Space museum is on the Washington Mall. I have been there many times. But this was different, amazing, and the three hours I had available were nowhere near enough.

There are literally hundreds of aircraft there, and after being there, I understand why this had to be built at an airport. How else would you get an aircraft the size of a Concorde into a building? You obviously have to fly it there.

I am sure there is much that I missed, but here are the highlights I remember, in no particular order:

  • The Enola Gay is the very aircraft that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan in August 1945. It sits there, close enough that you can look into the cockpit and see the seats and the controls.
  • The space shuttle Enterprise was the initial flying prototype. It never flew in space, but rather it was built for flight tests in the atmosphere. As a result, it’s a full scale model of the shuttle, with the only difference being that the heat tiles and the main engines are simulated. I will never get close enough to a space shuttle to see its size and scale. Here I as able to stand under it and look up at its immensity. It is larger than I had envisioned.
  • The quarantine module that the Apollo 11 astronauts were in after their return from the moon. I have seen pictures and television clips of Nixon speaking to the astronauts through the front window. Today I stood where Nixon stood, looking into the window. I could picture Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins inside, some 40 years ago.
  • One of the Air France Concorde planes, after they retired the fleet, was given to the Smithsonian in 2003. The plane is there. You can stand directly under it. I was fascinated by the size of it. The engine intakes look surprisingly beat up and appear boxy and not aerodynamic.
  • During the last flight of the SR-71, the fastest airplane in the world, from Los Angeles to Dulles in 1990, the pilots set a speed record of 1 hour and 4 minutes. After landing at Dulles, they handed it over to the Smithsonian. This is also a surprisingly large aircraft when you get up close to it. It is rumored that when it travels at Mach 3 or so, its surface gets so hot, you can fry an egg on it. I have seen SR-71 planes at Balboa Park in San Diego as well as at the airport in Richmond, Virginia. There seem to be a lot of them parked around the country.
  • The Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer set a record of flying around the world.
  • The European Spacelab module that was brought back by the shuttle.
  • A replica of the Wright Brothers flyer.
  • A Japanese Kamikaze plane. Surprisingly small, with no wheels and little controls. The things look just like bombs with a cockpit, which is what they really are. There are no wheels, since they are not intended to land. Some 5,000 Japanese pilots climbed into those cockpits knowing that they would die. I am amazed that actually happened. What a waste of human life. What a waste war is.

And tons more, experimental planes, rotorcraft, German and Japanese war planes, flying wings, bombers, fighters, gliders, satellites, missiles, engines, hang gliders, kites and balloon gondolas.

I need to go back to see the IMAX films, ride in the flight simulators, and spend more time on the exhibits. I only scratched the surface.

The museum is free, but surprisingly, there is a $15 charge to park, even though there is a huge amount of parking available. That was the only drawback, however. And after being there is still didn’t know who Steven F. Udvar-Hazy is, and I know I won’t remember his name.  Looking him up, I found he owns more aircraft than anyone in the United States, and he is number 305 on the Forbes 400 list. He donated $65 million to the Smithsonian, hence the name.

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