If you’ve been to Washington, D.C. the odds are good that you’ve spent time on The National Mall and the odds are also good that you’ve visited the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. And I bet that if you have been to the Air & Space Museum you can conjure up very specific and clear memories of what you saw there. Perhaps it was the rockets, the space capsules, the exhibit devoted to the Wright Brothers or any number of the aircraft on display. Whatever you remember, you probably loved visiting that museum. More than 6 million people a year visit it and love it, too. In fact it is the most visited museum in America. Not surprising.
But, have you made time to visit the Steven Udvar-Hazy Air & Space Museum in Chantilly, VA? What? You’ve not heard of it? Didn’t know there is an annex to the beloved museum on the Mall? Yep. There is. And it is massive, fascinating and will blow your doors off!
To call it an annex is to miss the point entirely.
The Udvar-Hazy Center is quite possibly one of the most magnificent museums in America. It’s a little known giant of a gem. Possessing hundreds of air and space craft and thousands of artifacts, the Udvar-Hazy Center boasts a Lockheed Martine SR-71 Blackbird, The Enola Gay, a Concorde, every type of fighter jet you can think of, and every type of flying machine you can imagine. Oh, and they also have the Space Shuttle Discovery. Visitors stroll among these remarkable machines laden with history and feats of engineering and are able to survey them from ground level, mid-level and higher level vantage points thanks to a well-designed system of ramps. Want a tour? No problem. The docents are all retired pilots, mission control specialists and air flight experts who stroll the hangars wearing little speakers to project their voices. The stories they tell are brilliant and even our young children were able to stop, listen and truly enjoy the information they had to share. And if all this looking at airships of great historical importance is not enough you can also ride an elevator up about 16 floors to a control tower which boasts floor-to-ceiling windows from which you can survey planes landing at Dulles Airport next door. This tower offers an educational display about life in an air traffic control tower, how control tower operators conduct their jobs and the whole thing is just so beautifully designed that it is down-right awe-inspiring.
Though I have never thought of myself as an aviation buff I was emotionally moved by the level of sophistication this museum presents the visitors. You can visit and just walk amongst the giants or you can have really sophisticated, technical conversations with the docents. Our kids, aged 5 and 8, contentedly strolled along from plane to plane with a tour led by a docent for more than an hour without complaint. The tours are intellectually accessible and the presentation of the artifacts engenders a feeling of national pride, of admiration for the engineers who design and build these things and for all the people who have taken chances and flown in air and space under the best and worst of conditions. Our kids both proclaimed this museum to be “awesome”! They especially loved looking at the Space Shuttle and asking questions about its missions and history. They also enjoyed roaming up and down the enormous ramps to get different perspectives on the flying machines on display. Upon leaving, both of our kids asked “when can we come back?” You know a museum is good when you spend hours roaming it and on leaving it everyone wants to plan their return visit.
The Udvar-Hazy is an easy drive beyond Washington, D.C. and it is a place not to be missed. Written descriptions just can’t do justice to the impact of experience standing in these beautiful, massive hangars with such a visually irresistible, dynamic display. Admission is free, parking is $15 and you could easily bring a picnic lunch or stop in to the on-site McDonald’s as you will want to take your time and take in the vastness of this magnificent museum.
Learn more here: http://airandspace.si.edu/visit/udvar-hazy-center/