Last Updated on September 23, 2022 by Jim Ferri
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
By Jim Ferri
The National Air and Space Museum Dulles is just awesome.
I don’t know anyone who has ever visited the National Air and Space Museum in downtown Washington, DC and hasn’t been wowed by the place. After all, it contains the Wright brother’s original plane, Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and the Apollo 11 command module – and that’s barely scratching the surface. The Smithsonian claims it’s the most visited museum facility in the world.
But the museum on the mall is just part of the National Air and Space Museum. The other half of the museum – the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, aka the National Air and Space Museum Dulles – is on the far side of the runways at Washington’s Dulles International Airport. It’s just as spectacular as the museum downtown. Perhaps even more so, when you consider it holds the bulk of the museum’s collection. In fact, this is the largest collection of aviation and space artifacts on earth. And admission is free.
I had wanted to see it, so when flying to London I scheduled a connection through Dulles. And I gave myself several extra hours between flights to view the museum. I could have used another hour or two.
The Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center
The Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center is an aeronautical fantasy land. Even if you aren’t interested in aircraft you’ll enjoy the museum. That’s because it really makes a connection with history. It brings you up close to many things you had only read about, or seen on TV or in the movies.
For example, at the Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center you can walk right up to the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Japan in World War II.
I had always thought that this B-29 Superfortress was somehow larger than it really is. Evidently the word “Superfortress” fueled my childhood imagination a wee too much.
Likewise, I never thought the National Air and Space Museum Dulles would be as large as it is. In fact, it is huge, 10 stories high and the length of three football fields.
When I walked through the museum’s entrance I saw the Space Shuttle in front of me and headed for it. I walked all around it for a while and looked at several satellites hanging above it. To me they appeared like candelabras in some gigantic hotel ballroom.
I left the space area and went back to the main part of the building. There I found all sorts of planes all over the place. They were parked on the floor as well as hanging in different positions from the ceiling above.
Huge and Tiny Airplanes
There were World War II fighters diving down from above as if on a strafing runs. I looked at a Japanese plane that got launched out of a submarine. There were helicopters, an Air France Concorde and lots of experimental planes.
There was an acrobatic airplane so small I felt I could fold it up and put it in my luggage. Along the walls were skywalks four stories high. You can use them to get close-up views of just about everything that’s not on the ground.
One of the jewels in the collection is the SR-71 Blackbird, the super-secret spy plane from the Cold War era. The day I visited the National Air and Space Museum at Dulles I was lucky enough to meet Col. “Buzz” Carpenter. He was one of the Blackbird’s former pilots, and was now being a docent for a tour group.
We chatted after the group dispersed, and he told me how the plane was a record setter. It flew faster than a bullet at 2,200 mph at more than 16 miles high. It could fly from New York – London in less than two hours, Los Angeles – Washington in 64 min. During the Carter presidency he flew the plane out of the UK and down around Spain and Portugal. He then crossed the Mediterranean and flew into the Middle East on a nine-hour secret mission.
It was pulled from service not only due to the expense factor – it cost $85,000 per hour to operate – but also because “it had no data link,” he told me. “You had to land the plane, process the film and then send it on to commanders. Today that’s all done instantly from the air.”
Ride In a Simulator
The are also simulators in the museum you can take for a ride. There’s also an IMAX Theater, multimedia classrooms/learning labs, a museum store and a cafeteria. From the museum’s control tower control tower you can view planes approaching the airport and listen to communications between them and Dulles’s tower across the runway.
The museum’s location out in the Virginia countryside certainly makes it less accessible to visitors in downtown Washington, DC. But it still draws quite a number of people. And keeps them wandering around the extensive display for quite some time.
You’ll be doing yourself a favor if you’re one of them next time you’re in Washington.
If You Go:
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway
Chantilly, Virginia 20151
Open: every day except December 25 from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm.