The list of ‘Must Sees” for most Washington, DC visitors includes the National Air and Space Museum (NASM). It is one of the city’s most visited attractions, welcoming over 6 million people each year. It is easy to understand why. It is near the Mall, admission is free and the extensive collection of all things that fly attracts people of all ages. There are literally thousands of items on display, as well as a planetarium, an IMAX movie theater and flight simulators.
Some of the best military-themed exhibits within easy walking distance of the Mall can be found at NASM. In 1991, NASM opened Legend, Memory and the Great War in the Air examining the budding role of aviation during the First World War. The exhibit contrasts the romanticized view of the experiences of World War I pilots with the starker reality of combat aviation. The exhibit entices you to enter with a bright red movie theater façade, complete with flashing marquee and similarly colored Pfalz D.XII fighter aircraft suspended overhead.
Inside the theater, a short, looped film explains how Hollywood adapted stories of World War I pilots for American audiences. Nearby a child’s bedroom exhibit features books, games and toys from the post-war period celebrating the glory, bravery and derring-do of World War I flying aces.
Turn the corner and a somber reality sets in.
The lighting fades and the sounds of combat emerge. Ground combat and life in the trenches are portrayed. The focus shifts to a more detailed examination of the roles pilots and aircraft would play during the war as observers, fighters, bombers, and conducting photo reconnaissance missions. Three early battles in the war, Tannenburg, the Marne and the Somme are briefly examined where the warring parties learned both the great potential and many pitfalls of deploying aircraft into combat.
During the Battle of Tannenburg and the Battle of the Marne, respective German and French commanders successfully countered enemy troop movements detected by aerial observation. During the Somme however, the British learned the limits of using aerial observation. While pilots could detect troop movements, they would not assess the morale, or the level of training of the enemy units detected below. British commanders also experienced the difficulties of coordinating simultaneous air and ground operations.
For the aviation enthusiast, the highlights of the exhibit are likely the Smithsonian’s restored vintage WWI aircraft. In addition to the Pfalz D.XII fighter, other German aircraft include an Albatross D.Va, and Fokker D.VII fighters. There is a Sopwith 7F.1 Snipe fighter from the United Kingdom and a French Voisin Type 8 bomber.
There is also a SPAD XIII fighter. This French made aircraft was known for its sturdiness and ability to perform during dog fights. Multiple air services flew the SPAD XIII’s because of its excellent reputation and performance. In addition to the French, it was flown by the British, Italians, Belgians and Russians.
As the U.S. entered World War I with no combat ready aircraft, the SPAD XIII was also used by U.S. fighter squadrons of the American Expeditionary Force. The SPAD XIII on display was assigned to the 22nd Aero Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Service.
It was piloted by Lieutenant A. Raymond Brooks who named the aircraft “Smith IV” after his sweetheart’s alma mater. Lt. Brooks won one of his six aerial victories in Smith IV; other squadron pilots achieved additional victories. After being sent to the United States for a Liberty Bond tour in 1918, Smith IV was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in 1919.
There are no American made aircraft in the World War I exhibit, but a de Havilland DH-4, manufactured by the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company can be found in the “Looking at Earth” exhibit, downstairs in Gallery 107.
As the U.S. was preparing to enter the war, the military began looking at various Allied aircraft designs that might be adapted and built in the U.S. The DH-4 was modeled after the British de Havilland bomber and the DH-4 would serve the U.S. Army Air Service in the same capacity. The first models began conducting combat missions in August of 1918.
The DH-4 on display was a prototype, flying many flights and experiments to test the aircraft’s design. Although it never saw combat, this DH-4 is fitted with the standard military compliment of combat equipment: six 25 lb Mark II bombs, two DeRam DR-4 cameras, two fixed, forward-firing .30-caliber Marlin machine guns, and the observer’s position is armed with two flexible .30-caliber Lewis machine guns.
Because the NASM is such a popular destination, it can become very crowded in the spring and summer. Planning ahead can save you some valuable time. Use the “Visit” section of the NASM website to see what is currently on display, learn about the day’s special programs, get helpful tips, and buy tickets in advance for any of the IMAX movies or the planetarium. It is important to remember visitors must pass through metal detectors to enter the NASM and certain items are prohibited.
If the NASM Mall location leaves you wanting to see more about aircraft and space exploration, the NASM has a second complex, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located about 28 miles from downtown Washington near Dulles International Airport. Several Smithsonian Institution museums, including NASM, offer extended hours during the spring and summer. You can find more information at: http://www.si.edu/visit/hours#ExtendedHours
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The NASM is located at the intersection of Independence Avenue and 6th Street, Southwest. There is no onsite parking, but there are several commercial lots nearby. The nearest Washington Metro stations are the L’Enfant Plaza Station on the Yellow and Green Lines and the Smithsonian Station on the Blue and Orange lines. Both stations are about a two block walk to the NASM.
The Wright Place Food Court offers a variety of fast food meal options from Boston Market, Donatos Pizza and McDonald’s.