- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2003

CHANTILLY, Va. — Fifteen years in the making, the $310 million Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center — the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s vast new annex off Route 28 southwest of Washington Dulles International Airport — opens Monday, just in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ historic first powered flight on Dec. 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Ultimately, more than 200 aircraft and space vehicles will be displayed on more than 17 acres of floor space at the five-building complex adjacent to an east-west runway at the airport.

Smithsonian planners expect 3 million to 4 million visitors in the first year alone, compared to the 10.4 million who last year stopped by the main museum on the Mall. That 161,000-square-foot facility — about the size of an average Wal-Mart — opened in 1976 but only has enough space to exhibit about 10 percent of the museum’s collection.

“It’s a dream come true for us,” says Donald S. Lopez, deputy director of the National Air and Space Museum. “I can remember when I was a little boy growing up in New York, when [Charles A.] Lindbergh came back from Paris with the Spirit of St. Louis, the tremendous parade in Manhattan. I remember him waving from an open car, and I guess that was the beginning of my love of flight.”

An air ace over China at age 19 during World War II, Mr. Lopez retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1964 and joined the Smithsonian in 1972, and with astronaut Michael Collins helped design the first air and space museum on the Mall.

“Now we finally have an opportunity to let people see about 80 percent of our collection [now] in storage, including big ones we couldn’t get into the Mall museum even if we wanted to. And having a live runway makes all the difference in the world; we can bring any aircraft in the world to Dulles, land it right out there and showcase it safely in a museum setting people can enjoy.”

Still to come is the restoration hangar, where visitors will be able to watch as Smithsonian curators repair and restore vintage planes, he says. Less than half of the planned installations have been brought to the new museum, and much of the exhibit support structure remains in planning stages.

• • •

Who is Steven F. Udvar-Hazy? To gauge his significance, go back to 1988, when Congress authorized $8 million to pay for architectural work on the Dulles project but no money to build the proposed annex. The Smithsonian raised the $300 million needed through a solicitation campaign; Mr. Udvar-Hazy, 57, a Hungarian immigrant and pilot, came up with the largest donation, $65 million.

Mr. Udvar-Hazy, a Los Angeles resident and one of Forbes magazine’s “world’s richest people,” had made a fortune in the aircraft-leasing business; he said the donation was motivated by his desire “to give back to America part of the rewards” that aviation had given to him.

Another $92 million is needed, according to the Smithsonian. Those resources will complete the installations within the 245,000-square-foot main aviation hall.

Admission is free, but the museum will draw revenue generated at the Imax theater built into the facility, the food court, the $12 parking fee, and bookstore and other concession sales within.

• • •

Sleek and shiny, the new museum glistens like a moon base resting in the forests of Virginia. Before the curved-roof aviation hall stand the 20-story control tower (built right into the museum and meant to let visitors learn about flight controlling) and the smaller, snaillike, circular Imax theater. The main aviation hall itself is 980 feet long and 250 feet wide and rises 103 feet at its highest point.

The structure is reminiscent of the giant control panel of a 1935 zeppelin or perhaps the imagined universe of a Steven Spielberg movie. (The mother-ship model used in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is, in fact, displayed within.)

The walk from the parking lot to the main entrance replicates the layout of nearby Dulles airport, with its circular road rising in a great bow across the front of the building to deposit passengers at the entrance, one story above ground level. A glass-covered catwalk for pedestrians passes over a lower roadway to deposit visitors at a glassed front, behind which security systems and personnel monitor everyone entering.

Inside, to the right, are bookstore and ticket kiosks for renting headphones or buying some “flight training” time at one of the four flight simulator stations scattered through the hall. On the left is the food court, which is not yet operational and won’t be ready for opening day. Meantime, several temporary Subway sandwich kiosks are located throughout the complex.

Down a long, broad walk leading to the aviation hangar, one’s eyes slowly grow accustomed to the muted interior. The big-nosed space shuttle Enterprise looms at the end of the corridor. The enormous shuttle, its brutish angularity and curving economy held still within a well of light from overhead skylights, is neatly circled by a Roman arch composed of sleek and shiny silver steel.

The effect induces reverence, bringing the astonished visitor to silence.

Like entering St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time or marveling at the slam-bang strut of the astronauts ambling in time to Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D in that famous scene from “The Right Stuff,” the visitor is summoned to inspiration, encouraged to consider the heavens and stars, the nobility of man’s aspirations and achievements.

• • •

At the end of the broad walk is the soaring, seemingly endless space of the hangar. It dwarfs the giants within yet remains user-friendly. Welcoming lighting gives warmth to overhead girders and struts that hold up the building. The airplanes, rockets and gliders are arranged and hung from cables and risers, giving the impression of flight, of dipping and swooping, zooming and rushing through the wild blue yonder of time.

Immediately below that welcoming balcony is the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the 40-year-old Air Force spy plane that flew faster and higher than the fabled U2 and still holds the record as the fastest jet ever built. Behind it is the enclosed silvery basilica holding the space shuttle Enterprise; one day, it will be the area where most of the space relics are displayed. These include the trailer — it looks like an old AirStream recreational vehicle from 1959 — used by NASA to isolate lunar astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin after their return from the moon — as well as Soviet satellites and rockets, early spacesuits, and the “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” mother-ship model.

To the right are U.S. and Soviet fighters and helicopters from the Cold War era. The F-4 Phantom on display shot down a Soviet MiG during the Vietnam War. Two MiGs are shown nearby. To the left are World War II fighters and bombers of the U.S., Japanese and German air forces.

The Enola Gay, the Boeing-built B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, is jacked up about 10 feet off the floor, seemingly poised for landing. Dismantled in 1960 and stored outdoors for years at Andrews Air Force Base — leading conservators to worry that it would fall apart — the bomber has been reassembled for display here. Two years ago, its fuselage was displayed at the downtown museum for a temporary exhibit. The Udvar-Hazy Center is its permanent home.

It is a beautiful machine, and a marker acknowledges its wartime duty, even as protesters come out on weekends to stand outside the gate on Route 28 demanding a mention of the Japanese civilian casualties caused by the atomic bomb.

“We’re going to present the aircraft primarily in terms of its technical capabilities,” retired Marine Corps Gen. John R. Dailey, the museum’s director, says, “and leave the interpretation as to how it was used to the visitor.”

A few paces away from its gleaming nose rises a sleek Air France Concorde, a model introduced in 1968 and retired this year. You almost can get close enough to touch its underbelly, and the imagination marvels at the roar that once carried it at 1,336 miles an hour across the Atlantic between New York and Paris.

Beside it is the first Boeing 707 of 1954, the plane that is said to have killed the ocean liner, as thousands and then millions of post-World-War-II travelers took to flying instead of sailing to and from Europe. Across its left wing is a breathtakingly romantic Boeing Stratoliner of 1936, a gleaming four-engine propeller plane called the Clipper Flying Cloud. You want to wear a tie or string of pearls just to stand by it.

• • •

Amelia Earhart’s showy velvet flight suit is displayed at ground level in a glass case. Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s family recently donated compasses, stocking and boots, a sewing kit and canned beans and biscuits the couple took along on their map-making flights to plot what would become the jet lanes of today.

From the ceiling hang stunt aircraft, crop dusters and hang gliders seemingly suspended in time. Brief floor-level signs and pictures accompany each of the 84 planes and rockets displayed. In time — when the remaining $92 million is raised — interactive media stations at each exhibit will be able to show archival pictures and films of each exhibit as well as close-up interior views not possible in a place welcoming millions of visitors annually.

As exciting as it is, the newness of the Udvar-Hazy Center also shows its limitations. None of the jazzy computerized hardware is ready, and sign- age at present is but a ghost of what really is at hand.

Happily, plans include digital archiving of Hollywood aviation-themed films, as well as historical footage linking these wonders to early films of the Wrights’ flights and to Alexander Graham Bell’s movies showing the Wright brothers’ demonstrations of flight at Fort Myer in 1908. Old Soviet space films, rocket testing, early airplane failures, and other one-of-a-kind images now stored unseen and unavailable to the public surely are on the list as well.

“I’m completely overawed” by the museum and its future, Mr. Lopez says.

“My first memory was watching Lindbergh and those other pioneers take those first steps in making flying a reality. Now with this museum, we can show visitors more of those great discoveries, and the people and planes that made it all happen.”

Opening timed to Wright feat

It was Dec. 17, 1903, when Orville Wright lifted the Wright Flyer into history at Kitty Hawk, N.C., with a 12-second, 120-foot-long trip through the air, the world’s first powered, sustained and controlled heavier-than-air flight.

So it’s no accident that the opening of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s vast new annex just south of Washington Dulles International Airport, has been set for Monday, just in time to mark the 100th anniversary of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s historic feat.

Mark the day in your calendar — and block out, too, the Udvar-Hazy Center Family Day on Dec. 20. Here are the details:

• Grand opening: Features 90-minute docent tours at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. and music by three local high school bands (Stonebridge H.S. Marching Band, 9:30 a.m.; Westfield H.S. Jazz Band, 11 a.m.; Potomac H.S. Jazz Band, noon). “Discovery stations” throughout the exhibit hall allow visitors to touch and explore certain exhibits. 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Dec. 15.

• Family Day at the Udvar-Hazy Center: Become an Aerospace All Star. Precision indoor kite-flying demonstrations, the Great Paper Airplane Contest, collectible flight-related postcards, films, speakers, live music. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 20.

• If you can’t make it in person, you can see it live on the Web. Two Web cameras, one facing north toward the SR-71 Blackbird, and one facing south toward the Air France Concorde, provide continuous images inside the vast aviation hangar every second. See www.nasm.si.edu/museum/udvarhazy/vtour.cfm.

WHAT: The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

WHERE: 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly, south of the main terminal at Washington Dulles International Airport, near the intersection of Routes 28 and 50.

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily except Christmas Day

PRICES: Admission free. Docents available upon request. Temporary Subway outlets (food court to come) and ATM machine. Imax theater $7.50 adults, $6 per child 2 to 12 years old. Aircraft flight simulators: three-minute fly-yourself ride in modern jet fighters, $6 per ride.

CREDIT CARDS: American Express, Discover, VISA/Mastercard

PARKING: $12 per car; tour buses free

PUBLIC TRANSPORT: Daily bus service from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on the Mall, $7.

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

INFORMATION: 202/357-2700 or www.nasm.si. edu/museum/udvarhazy

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