Thursday, July 24, 2014

Airplanes, Spaceships & Other Flying Wonders

In the Boeing hanger at the Udvar-Hazy Center

I love the Smithsonian museums. Located in the heart of Washington D.C. they play tribute to the best of all aspects of American history and society. Whether it be a visit to the National Museum of American History to see the First Lady's gowns, the Natural History Museum to see the dinosaurs or the American Indian Museum to learn about America's first residents, each museum is impeccably organized. (And is the case with all of the Smithsonian Museums, entrance is free). And because I love the museums, no visit to Washington D.C. is ever complete without paying a visit to at least one of them. So because we had an airplane loving little boy with us, on our most recent visit we spent a day at the Air & Space Museum. I had been to this museum as a teenager but during my first visit as an adult Glenn gave me a guided tour, taking the time to explain everything we were seeing better than any docent could. It was a memorable visit and I knew Sidney would love it as well. And he did.

Sidney excitedly darted from one display to another exclaiming at how big each airplane was. From the very first airplanes that more closely resembled bicycles to modern day aircraft we saw it all. Sidney immediately identified the military aircraft from both World Wars and more modern times and even went as far as spotting the planes that had been flown by the German army. (Perhaps we have visited one too many World War II battlefields....). We toured a model of an aircraft carrier where Sidney took his turn at steering the ship, looking out of the tower, and exploring the ready room. Afterwards he even rode in a simulator where he flew as though he was the Red Baron. He loved it. So much so that following the advise of several people we spoke with, we went to yet another air and space museum the next day.

A very small airplane

The Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia is adjacent to the Dulles airport and is the most recent addition to the Smithsonian air and space family. It was a first visit for all of us and even I, the least enthusiastic airplane fan in the family, was looking forward to it. Set in two large hangers on the edge of a runway, the museum is indeed impressive. Visitors can take an elevator up to the mock control tower where you can see the planes landing and taking off at the nearby airport while listening to the communications between the pilots and air traffic controllers. I always forget how busy the airport is the number of aircraft flying by reminded me that it really is a busy transportation hub.

Back down on the ground floor we saw airplanes. And more airplanes as well as helicopters and other flying apparatuses dating back to the start of human flight. Visitors can circumnavigate the largest hanger on a catwalk which puts you both at eye level and above the numerous planes that are suspended from the ceiling. There were big planes and small planes, military aircraft and commercial jets. A Concorde jet anchored one section of the bay and visitors were able to walk directly under the plane's nose. Standing underneath it, you realize just how large (and fast) this jet was. The Udvar-Hazy Center is also home to the Enola Gay. But not all of the aircraft are large; we saw planes so small I would never even think about stepping foot inside of them. And as was the case with the museum in D.C., so many of the displays were interactive. There was even a Cessna where visitors of all sizes could sit in the cockpit and go through the motions of flying the aircraft.

But for me, the most impressive exhibit was the aircraft that filled the second hanger bay. NASA's retired Discovery Space Shuttle is the most recent tenant in the museum. From its first flight in 1984 to its final flight in 2011 the Discovery flew 149 million miles over the course of 39 missions including carrying the second American woman into space (Judith Resnik), being piloted by the first female captain (Eileen Collins), being the first shuttle to land at the International Space Station, and launching the Hubble Space telescope. And now the shuttle is spending her retirement in Virginia.

So if you are in the greater Washington D.C. area, make it a point to visit the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. Better yet, visit both of them. You won't be disappointed.

As Sidney said, its a plane from the movie Planes!
The Discovery, the centerpiece of the
Udvar-Hazy Center
If you go:

Washington DC location:
Independence Avenue at 6th Avenue SW
Open 10.00-17.30, extended hours on some days
Admission is free

Udvar-Hazy Center
14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway
Chantilly, VA
Open 10.00-18.30
Admission is free but parking is $15.00 per vehicle

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