The sliding glass doors retract and beckon you inside. Passing the metal detectors, navy blue jacketed security officers nod a quiet greeting. Walk through a cavernous entryway and on to a balcony overlooking the massive Boeing Hanger. On the gallery floor the world’s fastest jet powered aircraft, the SR-71 Blackbird stares back at you, sleek and silent. On the left, the toothy grin nose art of a P-40 Kitty Hawk welcomes you while an F4U Corsair dips its bent wing in a friendly gesture as if to say, “We’re glad you’re here, but you better get started. There is a lot to see!” Indeed, within the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center’s hangers are the products and byproducts of over two hundred years of aviation history.
For anyone interested in aviation and space exploration, it doesn’t get much better than this.
For most visitors to the Washington DC area, the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum is synonymous with the building on the National Mall. Currently undergoing renovation, that museum building can only hold a small portion of the Smithsonian Institute’s massive collection of artifacts and materials related to aviation and space travel.
A US Coast Guard Sikorsky HH-52A Seaguard Helicopter
The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is the other main component of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum. Located in Chantilly, Virginia, it adjoins Washington Dulles International Airport. Conceived as additional space for the display of the Smithsonian’s extensive collection of aviation and space travel artifacts, it opened to the public in 2003. Between the National Air and Space Museum’s building on the National Mall and the Udvar-Hazy Center, approximately 80 percent large aircraft and spacecraft from the Smithsonian’s holdings are on display.
The center’s namesake Steven F. Udvar-Hazy is a Hungarian-born immigrant who came to the United States in 1958. A lifelong lover of aviation, Udvar-Hazy eventually became chairman of the International Lease Finance Corporation, one of the world’s largest aircraft leasing firms. He donated $66 million of his personal fortune to the Smithsonian for the purposes of building this impressive facility with its three main galleries: the Boeing Aviation Hanger, the James McDonnell Space Hanger and the Mary Barker Engen Restoration Hanger.
The Boeing Gallery boasts nearly 200 aircraft in a space comparable to the flight deck on a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. Curators very carefully arranged the aircraft to maximize the available display space within the hanger. Organized into collections, the aircraft are situated either on the hanger floor or suspended from the ceiling. Balconies on multiple levels help visitors to see the meticulously restored aircraft up close.
The Udvar-Hazy Center features tours most days. Over 60 to 90 minutes, the volunteer docents lead visitors around the World War I fighters and reconnaissance aircraft, inter-war trainers and prototypes, Allies and Axis aircraft from World War II, early passenger airliners, experimental aircraft, general aviation planes, Cold War jets, helicopters and more. Some of the highlights of the collection include:
SR-71 Blackbird – The SR-71 is the fastest jet engine propelled aircraft. First flown in 1964, the operational performance and technological sophistication of the Blackbird is still impressive today. The centerpiece of the Boeing Gallery, the SR-71 Blackbird on display logged about 2,800 hours of flight time over 24 years. The U.S. Air Force donated this Blackbird to the Smithsonian. On its final flight, the Blackbird set a speed record flying from Los Angeles to Washington-Dulles International Airport in 1 hour, 4 minutes, and 20 seconds (about 2,124 miles per hour)
B-29 Enola Gay – The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was first conceived in the 1930s as bomber with a greater range and capacity than the B-17. The B-29’s extended range of about 4,000 miles when loaded made it especially suitable for use in the Pacific Theater during World War II. On August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis – On October 14, 1947, Captain Chuck Yaeger became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound after he was drop launched in the X-1 from a B-29 Superfortress. He named the aircraft after his wife.
F-14 D Tomcat – A naval fighter aircraft, this plane became well known to moviegoers following the release of the 1986 film Top Gun.
Boeing 367-80 – The Boeing four-engine jet powered aircraft was the prototype for the US Air Force’s KC-135 tanker and the Boeing 707 jetliner.
Concorde – The first supersonic airliner, the Concorde was flown by both Air France and British Air, serving customers willing to pay a premium for a faster flight. Unfortunately, higher fuel prices made the very sophisticated aircraft too expensive to operate. This Air France Fox Alpha Concorde on display was donated to the Smithsonian Institute on June 12, 2003 after its final flight from Paris to Dulles International Airport.
The Space Shuttle Orbiter Discovery
Compared to the Boeing Aviation Hanger, the McDonnell Space Hanger, arrayed with satellites, rockets, probes and other cosmic equipment seems less crowded. However, one artifact stands out from all the rest, the Space Shuttle Orbiter Discovery. Space shuttles were a unique reusable spacecraft, designed to take off like a rocket, land back on earth like a glider, and carry a variety of payloads. Discovery was the workhorse of the shuttle fleet, flying 39 missions and logging 365 days in space during its service life between 1984 and 2011.
Displaying aircraft and space equipment is but one mission of the National Air and Space Museum. Before anything is placed into a hanger or gallery, museum preservationists painstakingly restore the aircraft and prepare it for its new life in the museum. Much of this refurbishment work is conducted in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar.
The large open hanger space accommodates several restoration projects at a time. An observation area on the mezzanine above the hanger floor allows visitors to watch the restorers at work. One major restoration project currently underway in the hanger is on a Martin B-26B medium bomber from World War II named Flak-Bait. This bomber flew more than 200 missions over Germany from August 1943 until April 1945, more than any other American plane.
As captivating as they are, the Udvar-Hazy Center offers a few additional activities beyond just looking at the restored air and space craft.
Observation Tower – The Donald Engen Observation Tower provides a commanding view of the area, including the main operational runways at Washington Dulles International Airport. Watch the planes take off and land throughout the day. The tower also includes a quick lesson in the functioning of the air traffic control system, adding some helpful context to the highly choreographed movement of aircraft through the region’s airspace.
Simulators – After viewing so many exciting aircraft, a collection of simulators provides the realistic feeling of taking to the skies and beyond.
Theater – The Airbus IMAX Theater at Udvar-Hazy, the largest in Northern Virginia, shows a combination of current Hollywood releases as well as documentaries on different aspects of aviation and space exploration.
Additionally, the Smithsonian maintains a regular schedule of educational programs, lectures, and events for young people, such as the annual Air & Scare held the Saturday before Halloween.
The B-29 Superfortresss Enola Gay.
After a visit, it is easy to understand why the Udvar-Hazy Center is one of the top destinations not only in the Washington, DC area, but in all of Virginia. The building is expansive, easy to navigate and the exhibits are tantalizing to the eye with multiple legendary air and spacecraft on display. Beyond the artifacts, other aviation related activities are available to expand your understanding of flight and helpful staff are available to answer questions. For admirers of aviation, adventure or innovation, there are few better places (on the ground) to spend a day than the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
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The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is located just south of Washington Dulles International Airport, along Virginia Route 28 in Chantilly, Virginia.
The address is: 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly, VA 20151
From Washington, DC, and points south: Take Interstate 66 West to Route 28 North (Exit 53B): Travel on Route 28 North for 5.3 miles. Exit at Air and Space Museum Parkway and follow the signs to the Udvar-Hazy Center.
From Washington, DC, and points north: Take Interstate 495 West (the Capital Beltway) to the Dulles Toll Road West (Virginia Route 267). Exit the toll road at Route 28 South (Exit 9A) and travel south 3.5 miles. Exit at Air and Space Museum Parkway and follow the signs to the Udvar-Hazy Center.
NOTE: Online mapping apps may direct you to enter the Udvar-Hazy Center from US Route 50. This is not a public entrance. You must enter from Virginia Route 28.
Admission to the museum is free, but parking costs $15 before 4:00 pm. Free parking is available for all cars arriving after 4:00 pm. Vehicles dropping off or picking up visitors are not charged if staying less than 30 minutes.
From Washington Dulles International Airport to the Udvar-Hazy Center in VA:
From Ground Transportation bay #5E (lower level exit #6), take Fairfax Connector No. 983 one stop to Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Buses run every 25 minutes during peak times and every hour during non-peak times and weekends. Bus fares paid with SmarTrip card or cash. Bus drivers do not carry change. The bus ride from Dulles Airport takes approximately 25 minutes.
Take Metro Silver Line to Innovation Center station.
Fairfax Connector provides connecting bus service from the Silver Line’s Innovation Center Metro station. More information is available on the Fairfax Connector No. 983 website Buses run every 25 minutes during peak times and every hour during non-peak times and weekends. Trips between Innovation Center and the Udvar-Hazy Center take about 12-15 minutes.
Exit bus at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center stop.
Plan for an approximately 1 hour and 35 minute trip from Washington, DC to the Udvar-Hazy Center using Metro.
Shake Shack restaurant provides onsite dining at the Udvar-Hazy Center. The Shake Shack is open from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm daily. The restaurant serves burgers, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches, fries, frozen custard, shakes, and coffee. There are two shakes exclusive to the museum, the Constellation Crunch Concrete and Out of This World Shake. Additionally, pre-packaged salads and sandwiches are available from an automated vendor kiosk.