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A Trip to the Udvar-Hazy Center

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  • Member since
    December 2002
  • From: Harrisburg, PA
A Trip to the Udvar-Hazy Center
Posted by Lufbery on Tuesday, December 30, 2003 9:47 AM
For a general overview, check out the official site:

This past Sunday (December 28, 2003), my family took me to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's newest facility near Dulles Airport. We got there around noon -- along with everyone else, it seemed. There was a fairly long line of cars leading up to the gates, but the line moved quickly and we were parked in about 20 minutes or so after getting in line. Parking is $12 per car, so pack your family and friends in pretty tightly. There were eight of us on this trip, in two cars. The parking lot was huge and pretty full, but we were able to quickly find two spots next to one another and within easy walking distance to the entrance.

The line into the building moved quickly and, while security was tight, it was not too intrusive. I noticed an odd thing, though. Lacking a proper camera bag, I had my SLR camera, lenses, and film in a backpack. The first security guy I saw sent people with camera bags through without a search, but directed me to a table where a second security guy searched my bag very thoroughly and opened all the lens bags. I should probably get a proper camera bag or photographer's vest to avoid this sort of thing in the future.

A note on cameras: I shouldn't have bothered to take three lenses as I ended up just using the wide-angle (28 mm) lens. With that lens and the excellent layout of the center, I was able to get most of the planes completely into the frame -- even the big planes like the SR-71, Boeing 707, and the Enterprise! One other caution, it's pretty dim in there, so use 400 speed film or better (I used 800 speed). The planes are pretty well lit, but there's not a lot of ambient light. The folks with digital cameras seemed to do okay, but I don't have one, so I can't offer any tips for their use.

The layout of the center is fantastic. It's a big half circle some 400 yards long. The planes are on display both on the floor and hung from the ceiling. There are catwalks accessible by both stairs and elevators that take visitors very close to the planes suspended from the ceiling. The view of planes on the floor is great from the catwalks as well. Despite the crowds, I was able to get several shots of planes with nary a person in the frame. It does, however, get a bit tight up on the catwalks in places.

The artifacts are grouped by subject area: Cold War aviation, World War II, World War I, civil aviation, and space artifacts. The center only opened two weeks ago, and it shows. The food court is not finished, there were a couple of empty display cases, and there's plenty of room for more planes. Last year at this time, my wife and I toured the Garber Restoration Facility and saw many artifacts that aren't yet on display at the U-H Center. My father talked to one of the staff and learned that there will be over 200 planes on display eventually. Right now, there's about 80. The space artifacts are off in a mostly empty corner away from the wing that houses the Enterprise. That whole area is still unfinished and we weren't able to walk around the shuttle.

Speaking of the Enterprise, it was missing sections from the leading edges of both wings. I remember reading a news article a few months ago explaining that they were used in the Columbia investigation. This article from November 24, 2003 states,

. . .And even though it's been in storage at Dulles Airport since 1986, Enterprise has been helping solve the problems of the shuttle program. Each wing was missing a section when the vehicle was towed into the hangar.

"Sections of the leading edge are missing, " Neal said, "because NASA borrowed them right after the Columbia accident to use use them in the accident investigation. Our leading edges were borrowed to refine the procedures for the foam impact test. They'll be returned to us in the coming year."

I could go on and on about the planes, but I'll just give a few highlights. I've already mentioned the Enterprise, which is a very impressive glider (and space ship). When you first walk into the main entrance, you're greeted by an F4U Corsair suspended from the ceiling with everything, flaps, gear, hook, hanging out. It really looks good. The entrance is on the middle catwalk level and as you approach the Corsair, you see the SR-71 on the floor pointing right at you -- quite an impressive site.

The Enola Gay looks fantastic! It is on the floor, but raised up on lifts so one can easily see under it. From the middle catwalk, it's possible to see right into the cockpit from just a few feet away. You can look right back through, past the engineer's station, to the radioman/navigator's station. The plane looks like it's ready for its first flight.

I was particularly intrigued by the Nieuport 28, which is also visible from the middle catwalk. It's a beautiful restoration that looks truly fantastic. The Spad XVI, and Caudron, twin-engined bomber round out the WWI planes on display. There's a neat display of pre-1920 aviation artifacts in a display case which includes the uniform and medals belonging to a man named Parsons (I believe) who flew with the Lafayette Escadrille. Eddie Rickenbacker's uniform is on display as well. There are several display cases scattered throughout the center that are full of models relating to particular sections. The craftsmanship of the models is fantastic.

There's a Concord, a Boeing 707, a beautiful Boeing 307, and a nice JU-52. The Cold War aviation section has a MiG-21C sitting right next to an F-4 Phantom, and a MiG-15 next to an F-86 Saber. What was especially neat was seeing the AIM-120, AIM-7 Sparrow, AIM 9 Sidewinder, and Soviet Atoll (copy of the Sidewinder) missiles. One of the niftiest things they have on display is one of the anti-satellite missiles designed to be launched from an F-15 fighter.

For a full list of what's on display see this page:

Visiting the Udvar-Hazy Center was a truly wonderful experience. It is an experience sort of halfway between going to the downtown Air and Space Museum and going to an air show. At the downtown museum, there exhibits have themes and a lot of information on the artifacts. At an airshow, one can walk right up to the planes and talk with the pilots. At the U-H Center, you can't get as close to the planes as at an airshow, and they are displayed in somewhat loose groups rather than by theme. Each plane has a small display plaque. The center offers guided tours, but my family decided to simply wander around and let me tell them about the planes. There's an IMAX theater, but we didn't catch a show.

In fact, there's more to see, and my family is planning to go there again very soon. I highly recommend a trip to the center.

Stay tuned. I'm going to post some photos in the coming weeks.



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