Spacecrafts and fighter jets have fascinated enthusiasts for decades. For all such devotees of air and space travel, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum is the one, the epicentre to discover and see all the history behind human conflict. A large facility of the museum known as the Steven F Udvar Hazy Center is located just beside the busy Dulles airport in northern Virginia.
The Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center was opened in December 2003 and comprises various fascinating aircraft including the space shuttle Discovery, the Enola Gay B-29 Bomber and the iconic SR-71 Blackbird. The museum started its journey just two days before the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' historic flight. The centre is specifically designed and climate controlled for the artifacts while also allowing for great viewing.
The museum consists of about 150 aircraft and as many such space artifacts, along with thousands of small objects. Artifacts are grouped together in thematic areas, each anchored by an exhibit station that marks an historic context. The larger section of the museum is known as the Boeing aviation Hangar about the size of three football fields.
This hangar features pre-1920 aviation, military aviation from 1920s to the modern era, vertical flight, commercial aviation, business aviation, aerobatic flight, sport aviation and ultra light aircraft. The numerous aircraft displayed in contrast of bright colours creating a vivid environment.
The centerpiece of the Boeing Hangar is the Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird. No reconnaissance aircraft in history has operated globally in more hostile airspace than SR-71, the world's fastest jet-propelled aircraft. The Blackbird's performance and operational achievements placed it at the pinnacle of aviation technology developments during the Cold War.
On its last flight the Blackbird set a speed record by flying from Los Angles to Washington DC in just 1 hour, 4 minutes, 20 seconds averaging 3,418 kilometres per hour. Another mentionable Lockheed Martin aircraft in the Boeing Hangar is the X-35B joint strike fighter. This uniquely designed fighter jet was the first aircraft in history to achieve vertical landings and very short runway takeoffs using the shaft-driven, lift-fan propulsion systems.
Since the early 20th Century Boeing Inc. made civil and military aircraft that was ground-breaking at the particular times of introduction. The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was the most sophisticated propeller-driven bomber of World War II, and the first bomber to house its crew in pressurised compartments.
A particular B-29 Boeing known as the “Enola Gay” is exhibited in the museum.
Enola Gay is historically famous for being used to drop the first nuclear bomb in Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. The Boeing Hangar also consists of Boeing 707 airliner that pioneered towards pressurised commercial airliners of today. An Air France Concorde is present at the Boeing Hanger. The Concorde was the first supersonic airliner and is regarded one of the stunning technological achievements.
The other section of the museum is the James S McDonnel Space Hangar. The hangar is designed around the space shuttle Discovery at its centre and other artifacts related to human spaceflight, satellites and space clustered all around the shuttle.
Space shuttle Discovery has performed both research and International Space Station (ISS) assembly missions along with flying the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. The shuttles served remarkably for a long time and spent a total of about a year in space. The shuttle was retired and restored at the museum on March 2011.
The James S McDonnel Hangar also consists of other spacecraft such as the Gemini capsules used in the early days of space exploration to send humans into space. There are also a large number of satellites and Apollo crew vehicles displayed in the exhibit stations.
The museum also consists of the Donald D Engen observation tower. D Engen was a tireless advocate for pioneering the Udvar-Hazy Center. In 1984, he was instrumental in setting aside the land at Dulles Airport for the centre and later he travelled across USA meeting aviation enthusiasts, telling them about the need for such a facility and solicited their support.
The tower named after D Engen is a great viewpoint for air traffic landing at and taking off from the nearby Dulles International Airport. The tower has live radio feedback from the airport's control towers and is a great vantage point for photographers. The centre also has a large museum shop similar to other Smithsonian museum's. The museum shop is a good place to find books, souvenirs and various interesting collectibles.
Visiting the Air and Space Museum is a breathtaking experience for people of all ages. For anyone travelling to Virginia or Washington D.C. a stopover to this state of the art facility is highly recommended.
Photo: Tamim Sujat