Coming Soon — A New Air and Space Museum: Birds In A Gilded Cage

On December 15, the Smithsonian will open its new Udvar-Hazy Center, an enormous annex to its flagship National Air & Space Museum. AVweb newswriter Mary Grady visited in October and provides this sneak preview.


From first glance, it’s abundantly clear that the Smithsonian’s brand-spanking-new Udvar-Hazy Center is a place that celebrates aviation. Looming over the main entrance is a 164-foot-tall observation tower, looking for all the world like a control tower. Behind that rests a huge semi-circular hangar, 10 stories tall and almost 1,000 feet long, gleaming white. Outside, a soaring winglike sculpture of polished steel, called “Ascent,” spirals 70 feet into the air. It’s all set under a wide blue sky at the end of a winding road on the south side of Dulles Airport, in Chantilly, Va., amid 176 rolling acres.

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Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center (click photos for larger versions)

Compared to the familiar National Air & Space Museum in downtown D.C. — a hulking, chockablock temple surrounded by the Mall’s weighty monuments — this place seems light and airy enough to float right off the ground. And from the Dulles traffic departing overhead, to the museum’s concrete ramps and overhead doors, it all radiates an aeronautical aura that tells pilots they will feel at home here.At the main entrance, visitors will find a round IMAX theater, gift shops and a food court. The observation tower will overlook all the action at Dulles and house exhibits about air traffic control. Beyond all that, visitors enter the wide-open space of the main hangar — it’s referred to as the Aviation Hangar, not an exhibit hall — at a walkway well above floor level. Here they are eye-to-eye with the dozens of aircraft hanging from the rafters, and looking down upon the long sleek backbone of the SR-71 Blackbird. In December, they will also see the nose of the Space Shuttle Orbiter Enterprise on the far side of the building, where the Space Hangar doors open onto the main floor.

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Corsair Under Wraps

Stairs lead down to the main floor, and looking up from there, the hangar feels ridiculously huge, less like a building than a bit of the sky caught under a shell. In mid-October, the space was slowly filling up. Airplanes still swaddled in plastic wrap dangled overhead, carefully mounted in appropriate attitudes meant to evoke their life in the open air. A Corsair dives with one wing down, as if circling in to final approach for a carrier landing. Leo Loudenslager’s Stephens Akro Laser 200 hangs on a permanent knife-edge, and a shrouded biplane nearby is caught upside down. Looking up at them, into the cavernous space arched 100 feet high filled with light and air, they seem to be frozen in a moment of flight.The museum is named after Steven F. Udvar-Hazy (OOD-var HAH-zee), the CEO of International Lease Finance Corp., which operates and leases more than 400 jet aircraft worldwide. Udvar-Hazy gave $65 million to the project, the largest donation ever received by the Smithsonian, and the museum showed its gratitude by naming the place in his honor. While a few grumbles have been heard about the “selling” of the name, there’s certainly nothing new about the practice: The Smithsonian Institution itself, after all, takes its name from James Smithson, an Englishman whose half-million-dollar bequest started the whole thing.

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Blackbird In Need of Dusting
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Joint Strike Fighter

The exhibits toward the center of the building are slowly taking shape, while at either end wide open spaces and unpacked crates wait their turn. The first aircraft to arrive was a Piper J-3 Cub, appropriately enough, given the Cub’s prominent place in aviators’ hearts and minds. An Air France Concorde that flew in last summer straddles a walkway on its gangly gear, and midway down the hangar, the Blackbird slowly gathers dust on its sleek black fuselage. On its final flight, this Blackbird set a transcontinental speed record, flying from the West Coast to the East Coast in 68 minutes and 17 seconds. The shell of Lockheed’s Joint Strike Force fighter jet prototype waits by the hangar door, freshly arrived, a huge gaping hole where the engine will later sit.

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Moon Visit Mobile Quarantine Facility

In between is the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, Wiley Post’s Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae that flew twice around the world, even Langley’s Aerodrome, the very one that famously crashed into the Potomac on takeoff early in the last century. They are each one complete, unadorned, and authentic. History clings to them like frost on a wing. In one dusty corner, a bright NASA insignia shines from an old Airstream trailer, half-wrapped in murky plastic. This was the Mobile Quarantine Facility where astronauts were isolated on their return from the Moon — our last line of defense against the virulent unknown bugs of space. It’s easy to imagine their fresh faces pressed against the window, looking out at the crowds of press, dignitaries, and wives who welcomed them back to Earth.The Enola Gay exhibit already is attracting protest. A coalition of peace activists complains that the display emphasizes the technical achievements of the aircraft over the historical significance of its role in World War II. The B-29 was the first bomber to house its crew in pressurized compartments, and it was equipped with very advanced armament, propulsion, and avionics systems. The museum’s exhibit text mentions these facts, and also that the plane dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The bomb bay doors now are closed forever, and the airplane itself, with its bright aluminum skin and its four big engines, is a handsome thing, despite the baggage it will always carry.

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Planes Caught Mid-Flight

The overall effect of the huge museum is as if you’ve wandered into an old hangar in a desolate corner of an airport and found it packed full of abandoned airplanes. Even once the dust and plastic and cranes and forklifts are gone, that feeling is likely to persist. The space is filled to overflowing with wings, tails, propellers and jets, cockpits and gear. Airplanes are stacked two, three and four deep in every direction, hanging from the walls and ceiling; wings of all shapes covered with cloth or aluminum or composites; and bright or white or gleaming pure metal. Elevated walkways circle the floor, bringing visitors nose-to-nose with the two tiers of suspended airplanes. All the distracting paraphernalia of museums — text and displays and such — is dwarfed by the sheer mass of machinery. The museum refers to this exhibit style as “enhanced open storage,” and it works well with this space. This is just a jumble of aircraft, each one unique and irreplaceable, and each one with a story to tell.

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Concorde and Falcon

In October, the place is cavernous and quiet; workers drive by on tricycles and on tugs, and tinker with airplanes and displays. A photographer works in the cockpit of a FedEx Falcon, flooding the interior with brilliant light. Close by is the gleaming Stratoliner, twice restored and finally resting here after its ditching and detour. Hanging not far away is Paul MacCready’s Gossamer Albatross, the one that flew across the English Channel on bicycle power. Tucked under the Concorde’s wing is a Learjet 23 — the first of the production models — built in 1964. All this is only the beginning. By December, about 70 aircraft will be on display, with still more to come.Over the next few years, the huge hangar doors will crank open often as the lofty space fills to its capacity of about 200 aircraft. Then they will close down and stay closed, and that’s the sad irony of this place. The airplanes that enter here, healthy and fit, will never fly again. Their wings will never feel the wind and the sun; their controls will never again be handled by pilots ready to ride them into the sky. Like tigers in a zoo, they take our breath away with their ferocious beauty while it breaks our hearts to see them caged. We can only take outside with us the spirit they embody, and let it loose into the world.

Travelers Info

The Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) will open to the public on December 15, and thereafter will be open every day except Christmas, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free, but there will be a parking fee, probably about $8 to $12. Tickets will be sold for theater presentations and other special attractions, such as simulator rides. The museum is allowed to host four fly-in events per year, but so far no plans have been set for those events. The Space Shuttle Enterprise will be on display in December, but the Space Hangar will not be quite ready; it will close down over the winter and re-open to the public next year. As of now, there is no direct access for pilots who fly into Dulles to reach the museum from the airport side.

Shuttles will run every day between Udvar-Hazy and the NASM on the Mall. Together, the two sites comprise the largest air and space museum complex in the world. The museum’s Web site provides loads of information, including a detailed listing of the artifacts on display, maps of the site, and Web cams showing new arrivals daily.