Wow! Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center jam packed with air and space marvels

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Planes and jets are everywhere at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport in northern Virginia. There’s even an Air France Concorde SST.

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The Center is an outpost of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

How many times can you say WOW! in one afternoon? After a couple hours at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport in Chantilly, Va., I was sounding like a broken record. The cavernous museum houses some of the worlds best known flying machines.

Part of the Smithsonian Institution, it’s the home of one of the space shuttles, the Enola Gay, a supersonic jet, early planes that look like they’re made of chewing gum and baling wire—really! they do.

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Standing under the plane that delivered the atomic bomb to Hiroshima shut me up.

There are satellites and freeze dried space food, even a model of the extra-terrestrial’s ship from the movie Close Encounters of the First Kind (look for the model of R2-D2 on it). There are grim reminders that not everything in the air is friendly.

The Enola Gay, for instance. It’s an enormous silver airplane with its name jauntily painted on its nose. It dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. And there it is gleaming among all those other flying machines.

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The first thing you see at the museum is a Lockheed Blackbird and behind it the Space Shuttle Discovery and a flock of aircraft hanging from the rafters. Wow.

Among the space stuff are missiles reminding us of the Cold War and the fragility of peace. The historic planes recall wars throughout the 20th Century. There are even Nazi planes.

I took my Dad and Aunt to see the old planes and to find the name of their brother on the listing outside of World War II fliers. My Uncle Jack served during the war and only in the years before his death did he tell his brother about his service. We were proud to see his name.

The place is huge. Besides the planes, there are flight simulators, an IMAX theatre, a restoration hangar where you can see work on aircraft that will go on display in the future. I didn’t even mention the shop or the snack bars.

We ended our visit at the top: the Donald D. Engen Observation Tower where we watched airliners landing at nearby Dulles. What made it really cool was hearing the chatter from the air traffic controllers that plays over a loudspeaker.

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Here’s a fact I never considered. Women astronauts take a make-up bag into space. There’s a specially designed bag for that.

We missed the tours, darn it. There are two daily. Next time I’d make sure I was there on time. I overheard a couple of interesting facts about the aircraft above and beside us. It all sounded fascinating.

One word of caution. Stay late and avoid the massive traffic jams that plague this part of the world. Check on your GPS or map app for a restaurant and stop for dinner before heading out.

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There it is. My uncle’s name. 

We went on a weekday and I thought we would miss the bulk of rush hour if we left the museum at 3 p.m. No such luck. It took four hours to get home, instead of the two it took getting to the museum.

That was a bummer. But the museum is spectacular. I think time and again how lucky it is to live within driving distance of the wonderful Smithsonian Institution.

I’d go again. And plan to. Soon.

Ⓒ Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman

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