- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy was just 7 years old when he caught the flight bug while watching an air show in his native Hungary. On Wednesday, about a half-century later, the multimillionaire airplane-leasing mogul led a black-tie crowd in a toast celebrating the new National Air and Space Museum annex named in his honor.

“Airplanes have served as the raw materials for my dreams,” said Mr. Udvar-Hazy, whose $65 million donation to the Chantilly center jump-started its fund-raising drive.

The spacious museum teems with history, from a World War II-era Lockheed P38 Lightning to the Concorde and the Space Shuttle Enterprise.

As if the Smithsonian’s spectacular center needed any more theatrics, guests traveled through blankets of fog to reach the reception. Unlike grounded flights, however, the party took off more or less on time.

Oohs and ahs echoed through the hangar space and even into the facility’s bathrooms, where guests didn’t take a break from voicing praise.

The evening also brought out some of the country’s most revered pilots, including former senator and astronaut John Glenn. Sens. Conrad Burns of Montana and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont dropped by, along with Rep. Norm Dicks, whose Washington state district has a good deal of aerospace business. Also spotted were James F. Albaugh, executive vice president of the Boeing Co., and James M. Guyette, president and chief executive officer of Rolls-Royce North America, which underwrote the festivities.

Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lawrence Small gave Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta a personal tour of the gleaming annex. Both were anxious to inspect the exhibits.

“This is really exciting, especially since a lot of the airplanes here couldn’t be accommodated downtown,” Mr. Mineta marveled as he took in the massive (161,000 square feet) museum. “When Orville and Wilbur [Wright] were trying to figure out how to get their [plane] off the ground, they didn’t imagine how they were advancing the freedoms we enjoy.”

Flight, he added, revolutionized everything from transportation to the economy and the way wars are fought.

“It’s all embodied in this exhibit,” he noted.

Mr. Glenn surveyed the impressive hangar, mentioning that he had flown many of the aircraft on display.

The center’s purpose, Mr. Glenn said, “is not just to look back, but to look forward.”

Mr. Small, his mood as bright as his polka-dot bow tie, dismissed the notion that the Chantilly center is too far away to lure tourists the 28 miles from downtown.

“Every capital city in the world except D.C. has between eight and 10 attractions within an hour [traveling time],” Mr. Small said. “This will bring in millions,” he added, buoyed by the sights around him. Officially, the Smithsonian expects the center to draw 3 million visitors a year.

“The most impressive thing,” he continued, “is that there are 119 planes that aren’t even here yet.”

The center has space to spare, which will be filled in the months to come with more mothballed aircraft and large space artifacts, boosting the total number on display from 145 to 335.

Earlier in the day, actor and avid pilot John Travolta gave the center his official thumbs-up during a media-guided tour. A noted flight fanatic, Mr. Travolta might have been scouting locations for a future chase sequence set in the museum. Or the wealthy “Saturday Night Fever” star could have been merely looking for a few gift ideas for Christmas.

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