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» Monday, November 22, 2004Taking Flight in Chantilly
Today's destination was our primary reason for making a stop here in DC: the new Smithsonian Air and Space building, the Udvar-Hazy Center, which was just about three miles down the road from our motel (the reason I chose this place beside the good reviews). It was a grey day, so we couldn't see much scenery later in the afternoon when we went up into the observation tower to watch the planes landing at Dulles. (Frankly, we almost get a better look at the planes from our parking space; the hotel is right under the Dulles landing pattern. The soundproofing, however, is such that we hardly hear the planes when they come over.)
This is a huge building built like an airplane hangar--which of course is what it holds. The "stars" of the gallery are "Enola Gay," the airplane which carried the atomic bomb to Hiroshima; the space shuttle "Enterprise," which never flew but which did get the space shuttle program "off the ground"; the very first Boeing 707; the Stratoliner (the very first pressurized commercial airliner); and a Concorde from Air France. Scattered about are other aircraft that were either formerly in the main Air and Space Building on the Mall or stored out in the facility at Silver Hill, including Wiley Post's "Winnie Mae" (too bad he wasn't flying her when he and Will Rogers took that flight together). There are commercial planes and military planes, helicopters, missiles, early aircraft, gliders, and aerobatic planes--including "Little Stinker," the second Pitts special ever made. The Pitts is one of the smallest aerobatic aircraft; I saw one at an airshow many years ago and exclaimed, "It's not much bigger than Shadow [my Dodge Omni]!"
In the back gallery (the James McDonnell Space Hangar) with "Enterprise," there are also space satellites, space suits, several Mercury capsules, including one flightworthy one that never made it to space, one of Robert Goddard's rockets, sounding rockets, the original model of the Mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and even an original Univac computer.
The display is interesting in that the planes are not all mounted on the floor of the building area, but are hung from the ceiling at different levels. There are walkways at the different levels so you can see most of the aircraft close up and get unique perspectives on the others below.
Smaller displays include a wonderful assortment of "space related" toys and products, including a wonderful saucer sled, Apollo and Mercury capsule cooke jars, Space Patrol pens; astronaut flight suits and space food; memorabilia like Jimmy Doolittle's uniform and Eddie Rickenbacker's jacket; and furniture and china with balloon motifs from the "balloonmania" that spread across France after the Montgolfier brothers' first successful balloon flight.
It would take me all night to list all the great things we saw, so I won't even try. Just surf here and investigate Udvar-Hazy for yourself.
We went up to the tower before we left; a level below the tower but not in the building proper was a display of how air traffic control works, including a radar screen showing planes landing in Newark, NJ, where you can listen to the voice of the air traffic controllers bringing in their charges.
It took us about five and a half hours to get around and see everything, with a pause for a Subway box lunch (the building is so new that the cafeteria isn't finished yet). We were quite footsore by the end and were content to stop for gas, cash, and cough drops for James' throat on the way back before returning to our room and two very excited animals.
This has been a nice two days, except for James' sore throat, but it's like having a couple of Ritz crackers with cheese at the big buffet table. We figure we need to come back for a week just to do most of the interesting museums: one day at Air and Space proper, one day at History, one day at Natural History, one day at the Postal Museum, etc...sigh...so many museums, so little time!