Smithsonian's new museum gives famed aircraft some room to soar
It’s an immense celebration of technology.
The first supersonic airliner. The fastest jet. The first atomic bomber.
Other famous aircraft surround these giants, parked on the hangar’s floor or suspended from its arching 100-foot ceiling. Some gleam despite the dim light. Others are shrouded in protective cocoons, waiting for the right day.
The right day will be Dec. 15, when the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center opens at Washington Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia.
Many people are familiar with the Smithsonian’s aircraft museum on the mall in Washington, D.C. It’s the most-visited museum in the world, with 10.8 million visitors a year — compared to 7 million at Paris’ Louvre, Smithsonian spokesman Frank McNally said.
That museum is packed with the aircraft and spacecraft that represent the milestones of flight. However, it holds only 10 percent of the Smithsonian’s collection, McNally said.
The new facility eventually will contain more than 200 aircraft and 135 spacecraft.
The center is named for a principal benefactor, Steven Udvar-Hazy, who is chief executive officer of International Lease Finance Corp., which leases aircraft worldwide. It will cost $311 million to complete, with virtually all of it coming from private and corporate donations, McNally said. About $217 million has been raised so far.
The building resembles a gigantic Quonset hut with a control tower and several other buildings attached. The arching main hangar rises 103 feet from the ground and is 980 feet long and 248 feet wide. McNally compares its size to that of an aircraft carrier.
In addition to aircraft and other aviation artifacts, the building will offer an IMAX theater, restaurant and — of course — a gift shop.
Many of the aircraft will be suspended from the ceiling in flight-like positions. But visitors will still get close-up views thanks to a network of elevated walkways.
When the center opens in December, about 80 aircraft and 65 spacecraft will be on display, McNally said. Others will be moved in over time.
Perhaps the crown jewels of this collection are the historic, but large, aircraft that could never fit into the downtown facility. These include:
¶ The space shuttle Enterprise, which was an early test version that never flew into space.
¶ The Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.
¶ An SR-71 Blackbird, a sleek black beauty designed to fly fast and high to gather intelligence over the former Soviet Union.
¶ An Air France Concorde, the airliner that whisked the rich and famous across the Atlantic at supersonic speeds until being decommissioned earlier this year.
Of these, the Enola Gay is likely to receive the most interest. Many hail it as the aircraft that helped bring a swift end to World War II in the Pacific. Others see it as an infamous weapon of mass destruction. Such divergent opinions prompted a tremendous amount of controversy in 1995, the last time parts of the aircraft were displayed by the Smithsonian.
Interpreting the historical context of the events leading up to and surrounding the bombing brought a lot of headaches. Perhaps that’s why the displays at the Udvar-Hazy Center will focus on the aircraft themselves rather than the history.
“Our philosophy is to present the technology for future generations of scientists,” McNally said.
The Enola Gay is also an example of the effort that has been put into maintaining the artifacts. About 300,000 man-hours have gone into restoring the bomber that was a technological wonder of its day, McNally said. It also took 12 trips by tractor-trailers to move the entire bomber from its previous home — the Smithsonian’s facility in Suitland, Md.
While the Enola Gay sparkles, the nearby P-38 fighter looks a little grungy. However, even grunge reveals an exacting attention to detail. When restoration crews consulted those familiar with the plane’s service, McNally said they were told not to repaint it because that’s how it looked during World War II.
However, there is at least one “inauthentic” touch to one of the aircraft. The F4U-1D Corsair hanging from the ceiling has a wheel well autographed by Marine Corps ace Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, who flew a similar fighter in World War II.
While aviation buffs will have plenty to take in at the new museum, Dulles is about 25 miles from the facility in Washington.
To bring visitors to the new site, the Smithsonian has arranged a shuttle-bus link to the museum from the mall. It also has 2,000 parking spaces outside the front door. Prices for parking and the shuttle have not been determined.
Despite the distance, museum officials expect to receive more than 3 million visitors a year. That will bring the National Air and Space Museum’s annual total to almost twice that of the Louvre.
And increasing access to the museum’s collections is what the Dulles expansion is all about.
“Our philosophy is one museum, two sites,” McNally said.