Smithsonian | Udvar-Hazy Center

by Jim and Melanie

When we get a chance, we enjoy visiting the National Mall in Washington, DC. Over time we’ve experienced many of the museums and monuments. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum is one we have visited several times. It is full of thousands of artifacts documenting the history of aviation and space exploration. Did you know about their companion facility the Udvar-Hazy Center? It is located near Dulles airport west of the DC area in Chantilly, VA. It consists of two hangars with some iconic space and aviation exhibits. We finally got to visit and urge you to do the same if you have an interest in aviation and space.



The hangars are enormous and contain displays at every turn. It would be impossible to tell about them all. We will focus on a few exhibits that were especially impressive and memorable.


Space Shuttle Discovery

Launched in August 1984, it flew 39 missions over 27 years of service. Cargo included the Hubble Space Telescope. It flew the return-to-service mission after the Challenger disaster. Jim was especially moved by this exhibit. In the early 1980s he filled out the application papers for the Teacher In Space program, which selected Christa McAuliffe to fly on Challenger. To see one of the huge orbiters up close was exciting and brought back many memories and mixed emotions.


Enola Gay Boeing B-29

Seeing the Enola Gay was very sobering for both of us. Melanie, especially, was affected. This is what she said elsewhere about it:

I’d imagined it as small, assuming it like the images of World War II planes I’d seen in movies and news reels all my life. The Enola Gay is not small. It’s a B29 Superfortress, 99 feet long. Years of hate, realized in the murders of millions of “others,” had played out in Europe and other parts of the world. We, as a nation, determined that the only way we could stop the hate was to hate bigger. We used a large plane to drop a super bomb, destroying a Japanese city, destroying a different kind of “other.” We had already imprisoned many of those “other” in the US, simply because of their genetic background. Hate begets hate. Murder begets murder. And the hate did not stop there. We see it today blooming again around the world and in the US, this time focused on different “others.” Where will hate take us this time?


Air France Concorde

We have seen two of the Concorde planes. The first was at the Boeing Museum of Flight in Seattle. The plane at Boeing was open for people to walk through. We could only walk under this one. The Concorde is narrow and cramped. Think of a regional small jet with 3 or 4 seats across the fuselage and little headroom above the center aisle. Its fame came from its speed, able to fly from New York to Paris in about half the time of most commercial planes.

Landing and take-off required a steep angle due to the delta wing design. That forced engineers to design a drooping snout activated at those times. Take off and taxi needed a 5˚ droop. Landing required a 12.5˚ droop, illustrated below, so the pilot could see the runway.

Steve Fitzgerald

The Concorde flew commercial service for 27 years starting in 1976. One of the planes crashed on take off from Paris in July 2000 killing all 100 passengers and 9 crew, the only fatal accident of Concorde. Service never fully recovered and was ended in 2003.




Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

Blackbird was built for long-range reconnaissance and was capable of flying at speeds over 2000 mph and at 85,000 feet altitude. The sign near this one said it flew from Los Angeles to Washington, DC (Dulles) in just over 1 hour and 4 minutes. That was its decommissioning flight, after which it was installed at the museum. The planes flew between 1966 and 1999. They took off with nearly empty fuel tanks. Seven minutes later they fueled in the air from a tanker plane.


Lighting makes the plane not appear dark grey or black.



The Shop

We looked into the shop area in the back of the center to see what planes were being prepared for future displays. They have skilled men and women who can refurbish planes and make new parts so they look original.

We’ve been to other aviation museums over the years. This one was a big thrill for us both and well worth the side trip to get there.


17 thoughts on “Smithsonian | Udvar-Hazy Center

  1. Faraday's Candle

    We would love to see the Space Shuttle Discovery.
    It had to be a mixed emotion moment.
    To have been disappointed by not being selected for Teacher In Space but living because of it.
    Amazing to think that there is always another side to disappointments.

    1. Jim Ruebush Post author

      I clearly remember the day of launch of Challenger. I went to the school library to watch on a TV wishing the best to Christa. It was a stunning thing to see it destroyed.

  2. Eliza Waters

    I was recently wondering what happened to the Concorde… Now I know! I was unaware of the Blackbird and its jaw-dropping speed. Wow, coast to coast in an hour – amazing. Thanks for sharing this great museum with us.

  3. Steve Morris

    I would love that. I have always been in awe of Blackbird and Concorde. I’ve never seen a Blackbird, but I lived under the Concorde flight path near Heathrow for many years. I never tired of the sight and sound of it landing.

  4. Almost Iowa

    I could spend days there…

    A side note about the Enola Gay and the bomb. Of course it was terrible, there is no getting around that – but most Americans see the event from their perspective. It is a perspective not shared in places like China where the war was still raging and the cost in the lives of innocents, matched and exceeded the losses in Japan.

    History is such a harsh teacher, you would think we would learn from it.


    Your photos are amazing; I can’t imagine what it must be like to see the Enola Gay. I’ve been through the Smithsonian and the Boeing Museum of Flight a couple of times and enjoyed both enormously, My grandfather flew open cockpit craft and a Ford Trimotor before the war and worked at Curtis during the war so I feel a real connection to the aircraft industry.

    1. Jim Ruebush Post author

      I understand how you would have strong feelings about visiting those museums. They house some of the most monumental machines and memories about human achievement. I have no earlier connection to flight from past relatives. Mine is from the study of physics and the dynamics of flight. Today, my connection involves our son (C-17).

      Please pardon me on being so late to respond to your comment. Your comment was put by WordPress into the spam folder by mistake. I must check that more often. Please return and comment in the future.


  6. shoreacres

    As it happens, Space Center Houston is opening its fabulous Explorer/Indepence exhibit tomorrow. There was a lot of negative feeling when Houston didn’t get one of the real shuttles, and had to make do with a replica. But a little creativty has resulted in an exhibit that looks wonderful. For one thing, it’s an exhibit you can visit, and in that respect, it may be a better teaching tool than a shuttle you only can look at.

    There’s a nice preview article here.

    Somehow I missed the Blackbird. It’s fascinating what’s been achieved since Wilbur and Orville’s day.

  7. Mrs. P

    I had heard about this museum but have never visited. Seeing as I have family in the area, I’ll be sure to schedule this one for an upcoming visit! Thanks for sharing.


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