Volume 12, Issue 11 ~ March 11-17, 2004

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Museum Visitor

National Air & Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
by M.L. Faunce ~ photos courtesy of NASM, Smithsonian Institution

As a kid and even as an adult, I had flying dreams. My daring flights seemed so real because my body itself was the flying machine, propelled through the air with dizzying speed, soaring over an amazing world below me. After the dreams, I would wake with a wonderful sense of freedom, except when I would crash. Then, no worse for the wear, I would pick myself up and brush myself off.

No wonder I later came to fly all over Alaska (as a passenger) in planes so small I could almost wear them. Working for NASA in its heyday took my interest to even greater heights. I followed air shows over the weekends.

The space shuttle Enterprise and the Monocoupe 110 Special Little Butch on display.
Back when Dulles Airport was newly rising out of the fields and dairy farms of Northern Virginia, an air transportation expo showcased the world of aviation. State-of-the-art civilian and military carriers and barnstorming biplanes entertained and dazzled aviation buffs. At a break in the program as visitors settled into their picnic lunches and contrails of fighter planes dissipated in the air, I wondered why so few seemed interested in what was going on high above us, planes loop de looping, an extraordinary show of daring and technology. Someone finally pointed out that they were tiny model remote-controlled planes.

The access road to Dulles International Airport is no longer the ride in the country that my father used to enjoy when taking me to catch a flight to Paris or London, though the Eero Saarinen-designed airport is still a knock-out glimpsed suddenly at the end of the road — particularly at night.

Nowadays BWI flies Marylanders most places, but a trip to Dulles is a destination all its own now that a permanent showcase of aviation history has risen next to the airport. Named for a major donor to the museum, the newly opened Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is an annex of the National Air and Space Museum for preserving and displaying the huge collection of historic aviation artifacts and aircraft far too large for the museum on the Washington Mall.

Huge separate hangers for aviation and space house aircraft and engines, rockets and satellites, helicopters and airliners, experimental flying machines and the space shuttle Enterprise. Education programs and an IMAX theater are also part of the new annex museum.

You’ll also learn about aviation greats: World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker and a petit lady named Betty Skelton, who was a daredevil acrobatic champ from the 1940s and 1950, the first woman pilot to execute a show-stopping maneuver called the inverted ribbon cut. Skelton donated her restored 1948 Pitts Special, hoping kids seeing that inverted plane would think maybe I should be a pilot. ‘It’s a freedom you’ll never experience anywhere else,” said Skelton. Unless, of course, you dream of flying.

National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, Virginia. Open 10am–5:30pm daily except December 25. Admission: free but parking $12: 202/357-2700.

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Last updated March 12, 2004 @ 1:37am.