Although sunny the next day it continued to be cool and windy so we decided to go see the extension of the National Air and Space Museum at Dulles Airport. This is the Udvar-Hazy Center. While a hefty $15 parking fee is charged, the museum exhibits and tours are free. After having visited we felt the cost was well worth it. There is an additional charge to see the IMAX movie.
I’d lived in the Washington DC area from 1972-1992 and took advantage of the many offerings at the Smithsonian museums. It’s the thing I missed most when I moved away. I remember the opening of the original Air and Space Museum with the moon rock and the Wright flyer. I thought they’d never duplicate it. Duplicate? No. Expand to include numerous last existing models and planes too large to fit in the downtown museum, yes. The Udvar-Hazy Center opened in 2003. Eventually the Center will house 300 aircraft. With a donation from American Airbus an addition is being planned to house the Restoration Center now located in Maryland.
So who is Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy and why does the Center bear his name? He is a Hungarian immigrant who lived the American dream of becoming a billionaire by co-founding an aircraft leasing company called International Lease Finance Corporation. His company is one of the two largest aircraft leasing companies. ILFC began as the brainchild of three men in their 20s with the leasing of a single used DC-8 to Aeromexico in 1973. According to Forbes Magazine in 2011 he was the 409th richest man with a net worth of 3.2 billion. In 1999 he donated $65,000,000 to build this facility. His family fled Hungary in 1958 during the Soviet occupation.
All visitors must go through a Security Check. You must open all closed compartments in your bags/purses. I never realized how many pockets my purse had until I had to stand there and open each one! Next time I’ll just bring my wallet. We went to the Visitor Information Center to ask about an IMAX movie on the Hubble telescope. Then we saw that there would be a guided tour called the Highlights tour at 2pm and decided to take it. Good choice. It is a two hour tour given by very dedicated docents. These tours are done mostly on weekends as the museum concentrates on school and organization groups during the week. We highly recommend you take this tour but if two hours is too long they do have a one hour version called Highlights Light. The docents are mostly volunteers with a background in aviation, engineering or military service. They take a three month course in aviation history, aeronautical engineering and aircraft design. Then they must present material on all the planes included in the tour to a proctor before they are allowed to lead a Highlights tour. Our docent told us the group also holds a study group where individuals are asked to research a specific plane and present the material to the group. Other tours are available on specific aircraft. Our tour was very comprehensive. We probably only remember 5% of what we were told. I’d repeat this tour in a heartbeat! Our docent was Bill Hamilton and he was terrific.
The tour started with early aviation when they didn’t even call them airplanes just machines. There was a furious competition to be the first flying machine. The Aerodrome invented by Stephen P. Langley made several attempts to fly but never was successful. There was a feud between the Langley/Smithsonian group and the Wright family over the claim of first to fly. A brief video about Steven P. Langley and his Aerodrome has been embedded from You Tube:
The Fowler-Gage biplane was built in 1912 and used for exhibition and line check flights in California. It and designer/pilot Robert G. Fowler earned a place in history when in 1913 this plane flew 54 miles from the west coast to the east coast of Panama. The flight was done over dense jungle where there would was no safe place to land. The plane was retired in 1915.
Our docent went on to discuss a few of the larger than life “characters” who risked life and limb in the early days of aviation. One of the early daredevils was a dashing pilot from Corinth,MS named Roscoe Turner. The scarf you see displayed was not worn just for effect. In those early days of open cockpits they were needed to wipe the thin engine oil that was thrown backwards onto the pilot’s goggles. He was a barnstorming performer, air racer and flew wealthy passengers to Reno for Nevada Airlines. He set the transcontinental airspeed record in 1930 at 12 hours and 33 minutes. One of Turner’s sponsors, The Gilmore Oil Company (eventually Mobil), gave him a lion cub called Gilmore. The cub often flew with him and had its own parachute. You can see a picture of them at the rear of the display. If they only would stay small! It didn’t take too long for his pet to outgrow the cockpit. So Turner donated him to a zoo. However, he would still come to visit. He’d stand at the edge of the lion den. Then when unsuspecting visitors were watching, he’d jump into the pit and call his old friend. The now full grown Gilmore would come charging over, much to the horror of onlookers, only to jump up and lick his face! When Gilmore died he was stuffed and kept in the Turner home. He is now in possession of the Smithsonian. Roscoe Turner worked with Howard Hughes and he is a character in the 2004 movie about Hughes. I think we’ll watch that again.
Someone, maybe it was me, I don’t remember, asked Bill, our tour guide, about the insignia on the underside of the wings on various military aircraft, and he proceeded to give us a very interesting talk on the history of roundels. I’d never heard of the term, but apparently it goes way back, probably having its origins on a round insignia on the shield of a knight in medieval times. France was the first country to order the application of roundels in 1912, which consisted of a blue circle surrounded by a white circle surrounded by a red circle. The Brits originally used a depiction of their Union Jack, but quickly changed at the outbreak of World War I because someone decided it looked too similar to the German Iron Cross. They started using a red-rimmed white circle, but again quickly changed because that was very similar to neutral Denmark’s insignia. They settled on a reversed French roundel, a red circle surrounded by white surrounded by blue. I always got a chuckle from the fact that the English painted what looked like targets on their aircraft, but was chagrinned to find out that our early roundels were quite similar. Our first aircraft insignia, during the war with Pancho Villa prior to WWI was a red star, quite similar to that used by Russia. Naval aircraft used an anchor on the rudder of its seaplanes. When we got into the war in Europe, we mimicked the Brits and French with another “target” insignia, this one a white circle surrounded by red surrounded by blue. We soon had the good sense, however, to change to a red circle in the center of a white star, surrounded by a blue circle. This doesn’t look like a target at all! This lasted until the attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought us into World War II. Someone decided that the red circle inside the star too much looked like the Japanese meatball (rising sun), the red circle insignia on their aircraft. The red dot inside the star was removed. The similarities of various nations, at least in times of poor visibility, caused many instances of “friendly fire” events, and a study revealed that the colors were not as important as the shape. No one really saw that red dot inside our star anyway, but the round shape of the overall roundel could be confusing. In 1943, we added a bar, or what looks like wings extending past the blue circle around the white star. The entire symbol was outlined with a red line, which soon changed, I don’t know why, to a blue outline. In 1947, a red stripe was added in the center of the white “wings”, and in the 70s the blue outline was eliminated. It looks like these insignia will be forever evolving.
For a couple of interesting websites talking about this, visit the following links:
Well, we’d better pick up the pace here or this will turn out to be a thesis. Among the ten sections in the museum is one devoted to the aircraft of WWII. So many advances were made during this period. Many of them were break through technology by German scientists. For example the museum has the only existing Arado AR 234 B which is the first operational jet used in combat and outmaneuvered propeller planes easily. It was not as well known as another jet called the Messerschmidt 262 that appeared toward the closing days of WWII and briefly gave the Luftwaffe the air advantage it had known at the start of the war.
The one plane most everyone coming to the museum wants to see is the B-29 known as the Enola Gay. History has immortalized her pilot Paul Tibbits while the second plane and pilot that dropped the bomb over Nagasaki knows only anonymity. Bill, our guide, told us about a tour he’d had that included an elderly Japanese man. Bill said he was wondering what his reaction would be when they came to the Enola Gay. The man looked up and said “that plane saved my life.” Then he looked across at a Japanese bomber used for Kamikaze missions. He pointed to that plane and said “I was told to volunteer for a mission scheduled two weeks after the Enola Gay’s flight.”
One piece of trivia we learned was that the tip to tip wingspan of a B-29 was longer than the Wright Brothers first flight.
A brief video on the restoration of the Enola Gay has been embedded from You Tube:
Then on to more modern Air Force and Navy planes. Here the most popular plane is the SR 71 Blackbird. The plane really is midnight blue not black but as our guide said, calling this plane The Bluebird just didn’t have the same ring. This plane flew coast to coast in the US in one hour and eight minutes!
Oh, there’s a lot more to see here. The hanger style museum is eight stories high. Next on the tour were the commercial aircraft. Airliners from the first luxury airliners like the Pan Am Clipper to the iconic Concorde are here. The Concorde was an engineering marvel but an economic failure. It carried 100 passengers at a cost of $12,000 per ticket. Then there is Steve Fossett’s Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer. This is the plane he flew in 2005 to become the first person to solo around the world without refueling. Now think back to that first Langley plane and realize all of this occurred in 50 years. One of the most intriguing stories was about the Dash-80 precursor for the Boeing 707 doing an aerobatic barrel roll when it was first demonstrated to the public. If you are interested in hearing the story, please click on the You Tube video below.
Last but not least we enter a separate wing devoted to space exploration. In 2012 the space shuttle Discovery was delivered for permanent exhibition. Previously the trainer Enterprise had been on display. It has been moved to the Intrepid museum in new York City. Also on display are Mercury and Gemini capsules, the Airstream Quarantine RV for the astronauts and the Canadian Arm that allowed the space shuttle to do experiments and repairs in space. Did you ever want to be an astronaut? While we did not have time to try it, there is a space shuttle docking simulator you can operate. For those of us who remember Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight, the moon landing and now the space station, this is a fascinating exhibit. there is a tour devoted to space exploration. The next time we come (oh yes, there will be a next time) we’d like to take that tour.