Planes, Planes, Planes, and Some Space Ships

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Friday afternoon I visited the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum at Dulles Airport, officially known as National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.  It has been on my list of places to visit for a long time.  If you haven’t been, I heartily recommend it.

As with anything the Smithsonian does, the number of objects on display is astounding. There are cavernous halls with planes and other aviation-related displays laid out all over the place—big planes, little planes, planes from the early 1900’s, modern planes, Nazi war planes, a Soviet MIG, satellites, a space shuttle.  In addition, there are almost as many planes suspended from the very high ceiling.  All of this can be viewed from three levels.

For someone who is not an aviation aficionado, all these items tend to blend together fairly quickly.  It is almost impossible to take it all in in one day.  It is best to take small bites, which is what I plan to do.  I come to Northern Virginia frequently to visit my daughter and her family, so I can do that.  (Admission is free, but there is a $15 parking fee.)  If one can’t go back easily, but can devote most of one day to the facility, I recommend choosing a sunny day and take some lunch.  After spending a couple of hours or so in the facility, go outside, eat your lunch, and then go back in, with your mind somewhat rested from all the stimulation.

For me the highlight was the Discovery space shuttle.  Most of the exhibits are planes that have been restored.  The Discovery is an exception.  According to the Smithsonian, to the extent possible, this is the vehicle as it landed after its last mission.  One can see the scorch marks on its fuselage and see replacement heat tiles mixed in with the original heat tiles.  The Discovery flew more missions than any other space shuttle, undertaking every type of mission that the space shuttles performed.  After the shuttle itself, a highlight of the exhibit was the use of a Smithsonian volunteer taking questions via video from anyone standing around who wanted to ask one.  The man was obviously excited about the shuttle and his knowledge was impressive.  This feature added a lot to the exhibit.  Some pictures are below (the people standing around provide some perspective of the size of the thing):

Some other highlights:

The Enola Gay

Anyone who has seen the movie The Right Stuff will recognize Glamorous Glennis, the Bell X-1 that Chuck Yeager used to break the sound barrier for the first time:

The old and the new: