The National Mall in Washington, DC is one of the great public spaces in the world. It’s lined with the various buildings that make up one of the greatest museum systems in the world: the Smithsonian Institution. One of the greatest blessings of this system is that the Smithsonian Museums are FREE, a benefit that even extends to the buildings outside of downtown Washington. For example, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is two huge hangars near Dulles Airport (about 45-50 minutes outside DC in Loudon County, Virginia) filled to the ceiling with iconic pieces of aviation history.
You can even get a close look at some of those icons being restored, according to Alison Mitchell, Public Affairs Specialist for the National Air and Space Museum.
“One of the most unique features of the Udvar-Hazy Center is the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar. From a glassed-in mezzanine, visitors can observe museum conservation staff members working on behind-the-scenes work rarely seen by the public.”
The museum also has a great collection of supersonic aircraft, like the SR-71 Blackbird (one of the coolest aircraft from the cold war, pictured left). The foreboding black aircraft with its sharp edges was designed to cruise at mach 3.2 – just over 2,200 miles an hour – and fly as high as 85,000 feet to complete photo reconnaissance in the age before stealth technology. Check out this video of the Blackbird in flight.
A Concorde is also in the hanger, and for those of you too young to remember the Concorde was a commercial aircraft that flew between Washington Dulles, JFK New York, Paris and London from 1976 and 2003. The trip from New York to Paris took just 3.5 hours; now that is a way to fly.
The most amazing piece of history in the hangar is the Space Shuttle Discovery. The shuttle spent a cumulative time of 365 days, 22 hours, 39 minutes, 33 seconds in space during its career. I look at the shuttle and feel pride at what we’ve accomplished as a people and sadness in what we’ve lost with all the shuttles now sitting in museums instead of exploring space. I also suggest taking a good look at the tires, for the size of the aircraft they don’t look too big; they aren’t much larger than a truck tire.
The center gives you a chance to be a little more active than just walking around the catwalks and looking at the legends of flight. You can purchase tickets for three ride simulators, SpaceWalk 2004 that simulates the experience of riding aboard the space shuttle; Wings described as a “fast-paced ride through the history of aerial combat”; and the Cosmic Coaster ride through the cosmos. You can also try your hand at flying an F-4 Phantom in the interactive simulator, no tickets required for that one, just patience to stand in line.
The Udvar-Hazy also holds summer concerts outside the hangars. You’re welcome to bring a blanket, cooler and lawn chairs to listen to military bands along with other local musical groups. You don’t need tickets or to pay for parking as parking is free after 4 pm. You could make a nice date out if it, with a stroll through the museum, an IMAX movie, and then relax with a picnic and music.
The Udvar-Hazy can be reached by bus from the steps of the National Air and Space Museum, although that trip can take over an hour. The drive there isn’t bad either, taking only about 35-40 minutes, depending on traffic. If you decide to drive the parking is $15, but the museum is free.
Whatever you happen to be into, there are plenty of big attractions for us big kids with a love of flight to enjoy.