THE first thing visitors encounter in the main display area of the Udvar-Hazy Center, the National Air and Space Museum annex near Dulles airport in the Virginia countryside, is a huge black spy plane.
By Henry Fountain
The New York Times
It’s an SR-71A Blackbird, the ultimate hot-rod aircraft, one of about 30 built at the Lockheed Skunk Works in California in the 1960s. This one last flew in 1990, traveling the 2,300 miles between Los Angeles and Washington in 1 hour 4 minutes 20 seconds — a transcontinental blur.
But now it’s at a standstill, giving visitors the chance to appreciate its outrageousness. There are the two massive engines on short, stubby wings; the tiny cockpit where the two-man crew was shoehorned in wearing bulky pressure suits; and the sweeping titanium fuselage that was built so loosely, to allow for expansion in the heat of supersonic flight, that the fuel tanks that made up the bulk of the plane routinely leaked, losing as much as 600 pounds of fuel taxiing to the runway.
Planes, including a Boeing 307, above, are ready for inspection. Photo by Andrew Councill for The New York Times
The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., is about air and space, yes, but as the Blackbird shows, it’s also about frozen time. More than 150 aircraft and spacecraft that in their day were among the swiftest or slowest, most graceful or ungainly, most useful or useless, sit on the floor and hang among the catwalks of this giant hangar of a museum as if plucked from the sky.
For Washington visitors whose encounters with the Air and Space Museum have been limited to the original 1976 building some 30 miles away on the National Mall, the Udvar-Hazy Center, which opened in 2003 and is named for a major donor, an aviation industry executive, can be quite a different experience. There are fewer “name” aircraft like the Spirit of St. Louis to gawk at, no moon rocks to touch, and while as in the Mall building there can be hordes of schoolchildren, their noise tends to dissipate in the cavernous arched structure. Over all, with more than twice the exhibition space and about one-fifth the visitors, the Virginia museum has a quieter, more worshipful feel.
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