I still laugh everytime I watch the movie Airplane, and watch the Captain make inappropriate comments to the young boy. Perhaps its time for me to grow up, as I’m well over thirty years, but I’ve been fascinated by aviation since I was young. My father spurned my interest by taking me to museums focusing on this subject, and did not object to my staying up late to watch programs about airplanes, flying, or space travel. While I never became a pilot, and require a sedative to fly, I am still enthralled by aviation. Its amazing how far we’ve come in around 100 years, from that day that two crazy brothers took off that sacred ground in North Carolina. Now we are flying on planes made with specialized alloys, there are spacecraft that fly to previously unimaginable heights, and future advances are hard to comprehend.
The Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport will capture your attention. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, because you could easily spend a day here. Its a gigantic facility, much bigger than museums in the area, so get your walking shoes on. First you enter the gates, and are charged what seems to be an outlandish sum of $15 per car. It is expensive, but you are getting “quality over quantity here,” and if you have a minivan full of kids, its worth the cost. This will guarantee you a parking spot, and if you go during the weekdays, you won’t have to walk a mile to the museum either. It is a modern building, that just looks like it is from a future date, and as you walk in you’ll be checked by friendly security staff for weapons, and other normal American contraband.
This process doesn’t take long, and you soon realize that you are in a really big “toy store” for aviation fantatics. The first thing you will notice is the SR-71 Blackbird sitting in front of you. Its truly spectacular, and I had no idea how big it was. While you cannot touch it, you can get within five feet of it, an take plenty of pictures. Same goes for all of the fighter jets in this area, and they even have a prototype Joint Strike Fighter X-35. Soon this will be in production as the Lightning II, and its amazing to see up close. I had no clue how big F-4 Phantoms were until going here, and it was fascinating to gaze upon the aircraft that my next door neighbor flew in the Vietnam War.
Interested in Russian aircraft? They have a couple of “Cold War Specials.” The Mig 15 and 19 are here, with the Soviet Red Star on their tails. If you want to see Nazi aircraft from World War II, you can see them as well. Those are some scary looking pieces of machinery, and I’m thankful that the allies defeated them. The Enola Gay, is also displayed, and I get chills walking underneath it, knowing of the damage it caused to Japan during this war. For those of you who want to avoid the military aircraft, check out the civil aviation side, and fall in love with the Air France Concorde. A totally sleek and beautiful plane, it saddens me that they were retired, because as a boy I used to see them flying in the area.
For the space aficinados, you’ll be impressed. What is truly spectacular, is the Enterprise. No, this isn’t the vessel from the television show and movies, but rather NASA’s first space shuttle. I actually saw this flown on top of a Boeing 747 as a boy, as it was brought all over the D.C. area back in the 1980’s, and seeing it up close brought back a lot of happy memories. It also caused me some serious reflection, when thinking about the Columbia and Challenger tragedies. You might be awestruck by how large it is as well, and the size of its engine compartments on the rear. That’s some serious power.
The Observation Tower is a neat place to visit, but don’t go there if you are afraid of heights. At the very least, don’t look over the railings. Its fully enclosed by glass, and here you can watch airplanes taking off and landing at just next door Dulles International Airport. You can listen to the Air Traffic Controllers talking to pilots, and it offers a birds eye view of the runways, and if you look to the west on a clear day, you’ll get a look at the famous Blue Ridge Mountains. The elevator here is operated by docents, who are happy to answer your questions, and know a lot about aviation history. A level below the observation deck, is an exhibit that shows how many planes are in the air on a map, and the skies above the United States don’t have a lot of “breathing room.”
There’s an Imax Theater as well. While I will recommend the fighter jet movie, it did cause me some nausea due to it making it feel like you are in the cockpit. A more calm movie is “The Moon,” and while its narrated by Tom Hanks, its a slightly boring. Kids might enjoy it, as it challenges them to become interested in space travel, which currently is the political crosshairs due to budgetary concerns. If they get hungry, drag them to the McDonalds on the campus, which is only a bit more expensive than ones on every neighborhood block. The gift shop is overpriced, but they do occasionally have clearance sales, where you can get anything from space ice cream to t-shirts.
You’ve got to see the Udvar-Hazy Center if in the area. Its a must visit museum, and I visit it at least once a year. You’ll learn something new on each visit, and everyone I’ve taken here has been impressed. There’s so much to see and do, and if you are up for an adventure, sit in one of the flight simulators prior to eating. You can get here easily, as its convenient to Route 28 and 66, which aren’t far from the Capital Beltway. The physical address is 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway Chantilly VA, and its open every day. Give it a try and see for yourself, why it is the best museum you can spend a day at.