Air & Space is the world’s greatest collection of flying machines. Its galleries contain more of the aviation world’s “firsts” - first airplane, first to land on the moon – than anywhere else. But what Air & Space does well is tell the story of the pilots and engineers whose inventions, bravery, and risk-taking, took humans from their first flight of 120 feet in 1903, to the moon and back in 1969.
A quick tour of Air & Space can be done in 2 ½ or 3 hours, assuming you’re willing to skip some galleries and give others a quick walk-through. A comprehensive tour, including lunch and an IMAX movie, takes 5 to 7 hours, depending on how much time you spend reading the details in each gallery. (Many galleries have 10- to 20-minute movies – we think none of them are mandatory for enjoying or understanding the exhibits.)
Start your visit at the Independence Avenue entrance. During summer and holidays, plan to arrive 20-30 minutes prior to opening; arrive 45 minutes in advance around July 4th and Thanksgiving.
Each of the museum’s galleries is dedicated to a specific era of flight, but the galleries are not arranged chronologically. Thus, if you start a clockwise tour from the Welcome Center, you’ll go from the wood-and-canvas planes of Early Flight, to the aluminum-clad, supersonic military fighters of The Jet Age, and then back to the 1920’s Golden Age of Flight’s wood-and-metal racers. That makes it a hard to trace the development of flight technology. The alternative is to walk across the museum to maintain the right historical timeline. Our touring plan (below) avoids skipping around the museum in favor of less walking.
Click to Expand
The Early Flight exhibit is a good place to start a comprehensive tour. The room is designed to look like an early 20th-century airplane festival, promoting “the latest” in aeronautical developments. Near the entrance is a set of displays summarizing man’s fascination with flight, from birdwatching, to DaVinci’s 15th-century helicopter sketches, to the first flying gliders and full-scale, powered airplane prototypes. You’ll also find photos, models, and posters recounting the first European flight attempts, wall-size displays featuring the Wright Brothers’ and Glenn Curtiss’ aircraft innovations, and, toward the opposite end of the room, various early designs for gas-powered engines.
The aircraft displayed here surely demonstrate their builders’ technical skills and innovation in solving the problem of controlled, powered flight. The thing that amazed us was the pilots’ willingness to risk their lives strapped to wood-and-canvas contraptions that you could probably build today inside a well-stocked Home Depot.
The full-size planes on display here show how various builders approached the challenge of maneuvering an airplane once it was in flight. If you have children, point out the differences in where the engine and vertical and horizontal control surfaces are located on each plane. Aircraft on display include:
Lilienthal Hang Glider of 1894: Otto Lilienthal, a German, built and flew several unpowered gliders in the 1890’s, about a decade before the Wright Brothers’ first powered flights. The version hanging here, a Model 11, features wings curved at the top to generate lift, confirming an important theory of flight that would be used later by the Wrights. The glider was controlled by the pilot shifting his body around.
Blériot XI: Made in France, another of these single-wing airplanes was the first to cross the English Channel, in 1909. The one on display here was built in 1914 and flown extensively in South America and the U.S. Of the planes on display in this gallery, the Blériot most closely resembles the configuration of a modern propeller-driven aircraft: engine in the front, wings in the middle, and elevator/rudder in the rear.
Wright 1909 Military Flyer: This wasn’t the world’s first airplane – that’s in Gallery 209 upstairs - but this model was the first military aircraft ever purchased by the United States, and the one displayed here was flown by Orville Wright. Its major features include a “canard” elevator (at the front of the plane), two wings, and two engines “pushing” the plane from behind those wings, and a vertical rudder in the back.
Curtiss D-III Headless Pusher: The big difference between this Curtiss D-III, circa 1911, and the Blériot and Wright models is how the pilots turned the plane left and right while in the air. In the Blériot and Wright, the pilots used cables attached to the back edges of the wing to “warp” the wing’s shape, causing the plane to turn. In contrast, this Curtiss used discrete ailerons - small flaps on the far, back edges of the wings that move up and down – to turn the plane. Ailerons proved a better solution than wing warping, and are found on virtually all modern planes.
Ecker Flying Boat: Built around 1911, this plane has relatively standard control mechanisms. What’s interesting about this plane is that it was designed and built by one man (although probably modeled after an earlier Curtiss design), and it was able to take off from both land and water.
The Early Flight Theater shows a newsreel-style movie about the early days of flight. At over 15 minutes’ running time, it’s not essential on any touring plan.
Marking a huge time and technological leap forward into the modern era is The Jet Age, next door. In the years leading up to World War II, airplane designers were grappling with the physical limits of how fast and large an airplane could be when powered by traditional piston engines similar in design to the ones seen at the end of the Early Flight gallery. (An engine’s pistons have to be larger and move faster for a plane’s propeller to spin faster. At very high speeds, the back-and-forth stress on the pistons will shatter the metal they’re made of, and the engine will fail.)
The gas turbine engine, invented independently by Dr. Hans von Ohain, a German, and Sir Frank Whittle, a Brit, was a completely new method of aircraft propulsion. Like the piston engine, the gas turbine uses the controlled detonation of liquid fuel for propulsion. However, the detonations in a jet engine spin a circular turbine, turning around a central shaft, to produce power. Because the turbine spins in a circle instead of moving up and down like a piston, jet engines don’t have the same mechanical stress as piston engines, and can be made larger and more powerful. (That’s the main reason jets go faster than propeller-driven airplanes.) As you enter the gallery, you’ll see a cutout diagram of a typical jet engine’s main parts and how they work together.
With fast jet engines, aircraft designers faced a new problem: the straight, mostly rectangle shape of traditional aircraft wings would lose control or break apart as the plane approached supersonic speeds (around 761 miles per hour). New wing shapes had to be designed and tested to achieve faster, supersonic flight, and each new wing shape had its own set of pros and cons. A display at the entrance to this gallery shows several common wing shapes, their tradeoffs, and photos of common planes with each wing configuration.
One of the better displays, at the far end of the gallery, is a miniature wing section from a Lockheed L-1011 jet. Push a button to activate the display, and the wing will step through the process of changing its shape for a typical landing. An audio track plays simultaneously, providing the sound you’ll hear in the cabin as the wing’s flaps deploy farther and farther out, to generate the low-speed lift needed to keep a heavy airliner aloft before landing. If you’re flying out of DC and have a view of the wing of your plane, you can see the same mechanism and movement on your flight home.
Three early, jet-powered military aircraft are on display in The Jet Age:
Messerschmitt Me 262A Schwalbe: Development of the ME 262 started prior to World War II, and the Me 262 became the first jet fighter used in combat, in June, 1944. To get to that point, German engineers had to overcome a number of technical problems: developing metals that wouldn’t melt from the sustained heat of jet engine combustion; control problems at takeoff resulting from the jet engine’s more powerful thrust; and low-speed stability for a plane designed to fly very fast.
With these issues sorted, the Me 262 was the fastest aircraft of World War II; its top speed of around 540 m.p.h. was more than 100 m.p.h. above the Allies’ P-51 Mustang (in Gallery 205). At this point in the war, fortunately for Allied pilots, Germany had neither the time nor the industrial capacity to mass-produce enough Me 262s to affect the outcome. The aircraft on display here is one of the most commonly produced models, and was captured in Germany.
McDonnell FH-1 Phantom I: This model was the first production jet fighter to be based from a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, in 1947. Because they’re heavier and faster than similarly sized piston-engine planes, it’s harder for a jet to take off and land in the limited space of a carrier deck. (The steam-powered catapults seen on today’s Navy ships were not deployed until the mid-1950’s.) The FH-1 Phantom on display here could use small wing-mounted rockets for takeoff, and split wing flaps and speed brakes to slow down for landing.
Lockheed XP-80 Shooting Star: This experimental jet served as the testbed for the F-80 jet fighter, the first operational combat fighter for the U.S. Air Force, from 1944 to 1949. The aircraft displayed here is the original prototype, and was the first jet-powered U.S. aircraft to exceed 500 m.p.h. in flight.
Along the main walkway in this gallery is a collection of gas turbine engines, including the first models produced by von Ohain and Whittle, as well as more advanced versions. Other exhibits include various jet aircraft cockpit displays, showing how vastly more information was conveyed to pilots as the planes they were flying became more complicated. While they’re moderately interesting, we think a cursory glance at these is sufficient.
This gallery’s movie, Sneaking Through the Sound Barrier, is a fictional comedy about a test pilot, and isn’t worth your time.
The Golden Age of Flight room covers the public’s expanding fascination with civilian aviation between 1919 and 1939, roughly the time between the World Wars.
The basic principles for powering and controlling an airplane in flight were well-known by the end of World War I. With these mastered, airplane manufacturers and pilots began to push the limits of how fast, far, and high their planes could go. Crowds flocked to the new air shows and air races springing up across the U.S. and Europe; many people were inspired to become amateur pilots themselves. This gallery’s displays includes trophies, photos, and results from these races, and the newspaper and magazine coverage their pilots garnered. At the end of the gallery is another set of aircraft engines, this time from the 1920’s, showing how much larger and more powerful their capabilities had become since the early days of flight.
Five aircraft are displayed in Golden Age of Flight:
Hughes H-1 Long: before he was the reclusive billionaire with the crazy fingernails, Howard Hughes was an aviation legend. Wanting to break the world speed record, Hughes commissioned the design of this plane in 1934. Built with the most modern aircraft design methods of the time, including wind tunnel testing, a retractable landing gear and flush rivets for less drag, and two sets of purpose-built wings, Hughes piloted this H-1 to a then-record speed of 352 m.p.h. in 1935. In 1937, Hughes set a new transcontinental speed record in this H-1, flying from Los Angeles to New York in under 7 ½ hours (current record: 64 minutes by the SR-71 Blackbird displayed at the Udvar-Hazy Center). This H-1 is the last civilian aircraft to hold the world speed record.
Curtiss Robin J-1 Deluxe: In 1935, this airplane used air-to-air refueling to set a world’s record for longest sustained flight: 27 days, 5 hours, and 34 minutes from takeoff to landing (the current record is just under 65 days). You see the small metal catwalk attached to the left side of the fuselage, under the cockpit? The pilots stood on that to perform engine maintenance during their record flight while the plane was flying! We’ll never complain about sitting in the middle seat again.
Wittman Special 20 “Chief Oshkosh” / “Buster”: This Wittman was neither the fastest nor the highest-flying of its time. What’s remarkable about it is that it was designed by one guy, Steve Wittman, and competed successfully in air races for three decades. Among its achievements, this plane won at the 1932 National Air Races, the 1947 and 1949 Goodyear Air Races, and finished third at the 1954 Continental Motors race, before being retired and donated to the Smithsonian.
Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing: By the early 1930’s, people were using airplanes for private transportation instead of trains, ships, or cars. And while most early planes were sparsely furnished, focusing more on basic, safe flying than luxury, Beechcraft outfitted its Model 17s with leather interiors, essentially making it the Depression-era equivalent of today’s private jet. Even though it was posh, the Model 17 still won air races and set speed and altitude records. The example in this gallery was originally owned by the father of American astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
Northrop 2B Gamma Polar Star: As the gallery attests, the golden age of flight involved setting speed records and flight “firsts.” For example, the first transatlantic crossing by plane happened in 1919; the first transpacific flight in 1928. With the number of potential “firsts” being crossed off the list quickly, it was inevitable that someone would try to be the first to fly across Antarctica. This plane made that attempt, in 1935, falling just 25 miles short of its 2,400-mile course.
The gallery’s film, Jimmy Doolittle Remembers, is one of the better in the museum, but not needed on any partial-day tour.
Covering roughly the same 1919 to 1939 time period as The Golden Age of Flight, this gallery focuses on the development of aircraft for America’s commercial air service. The surprising thing about this era’s progress is that it was largely spurred by a visionary U.S. Postmaster General, Walter Brown.
Up until around 1930, commercial airline revenue came mostly from transporting mail for the U.S. Post Office. Some airlines configured their mail-carrying planes to fit a few passengers, but for the most part, the mail made the money. Airlines got paid by the weight of the mail they delivered, and it probably won’t surprise you to learn that many airlines charged the government large fees just to shuttle loads of junk mail between cities.
That changed in 1930, when Congress passed legislation giving the Postmaster General more control over airmail rates and routes. In particular, the legislation specified that airlines would be paid for the volume of mail their planes could carry, not the weight. To be profitable, airlines had to build larger planes to handle bulkier boxes, and the airlines quickly realized that larger planes made more money flying passengers than packages. Walter Brown also consolidated the Post Office’s mail routes to only three airlines (United, American, and TWA), giving them the economies of scale needed to justify large investment in new aircraft.
With that, the early 1930’s saw the rapid development of larger, faster commercial airplanes for passenger service, plus supporting infrastructure such as airports and air-traffic control. These achievements are explained in various displays around the gallery. Don’t miss the walk-through section of the American Airlines DC-7, showing what the inside of a pre-WWII airliner looked like (we’re pretty sure airplane bathroom design hasn’t changed in 70 years), and the huge Airbus A320 simulator performing takeoffs and landings.
Important aircraft on display show the rapid transition from airmail to passenger service; several of the planes made the plane hanging next to them obsolete. Aircraft include:
Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing: Built in 1927, the PA-5 on display here shows the state of most commercial aviation in the U.S. at that time: the pilot flew in an open cockpit exposed to the weather; there was no room for passengers, but capacity for up to 500 pounds of mail. The PA-5 flew at a top speed of around 130 m.p.h.
Fairchild FC-2: Designed as a one-off, high-altitude airframe for Sherman Fairchild’s aerial photography business in the late 1920’s, the FC-2’s features, including an enclosed, heated cabin, large carrying capacity and flying range, and lots of windows, soon found commercial use in mail delivery and passenger service. The plane on display here could fit 4 passengers plus a pilot, and flew for Pan Am in South America. It had a top speed of 122 m.p.h. but a range of 700 miles.
Northrop 4A Alpha: This plane is the predecessor to the Northrop Gamma found in The Golden Age of Aviation gallery across the hall. The Alpha, like the Gamma, had all-metal construction. The Alpha is notable because its 1929 design introduced two features now found on virtually all commercial aircraft: wing fillets, the smooth, aerodynamic transition area where the wing meets the fuselage; and stressed-skin construction, which keeps the airplane’s wings and body rigid without heavy internal bracing.
The Alpha could carry up to 6 passengers, who managed to squeeze themselves into a small, enclosed cabin just behind the engine. (The Smithsonian delightfully describes this seating configuration as “cozy.” You decide.) The pilot, however, sat behind the wings in an open cockpit. That, coupled with the cramped passenger quarters, limited the Alpha’s potential.
Ford 5-AT Tri-Motor: In addition to automobiles, the Ford Motor Company tried its hand at making commercial airplanes between 1924 and 1936. Their most notable achievement was the Tri-Motor, made between 1927 and 1933. When it was introduced, the Tri-Motor was the largest passenger plane in the world, able to carry two pilots, a stewardess, and up to 10 passengers more than 500 miles. The Tri-Motor’s airframe was made entirely of metal, while most planes still used wood and canvas, and the plane could be flown with just 1 of its 3 engines running. Those 3 engines produced a whopping 120 decibels of noise, however, inside the plane. For comparison, that’s 10 decibels louder than sitting in the front row of a Van Halen concert.
Still, Ford’s manufacturing expertise with cars gave the Tri-Motor a reputation for being well built and durable. The public associated the Ford name with quality and safety, and this surely helped convince many to fly for the first time. More than a hundred airlines and services operated the Tri-Motor, well into the 1950’s. At handful of these planes are still flying, more than 80 years after being built. The one displayed here was flown by American Airlines in the 1930’s.
The Boeing 247-D: is the plane that ended production of the Ford Tri-Motor. It was based on the design of the B-9, a 2-engine, all-metal, prototype bomber that Boeing was developing for the U.S. military. Perhaps because of its military roots, the 247-D could fly 50% faster and 50% farther than the Ford Tri-Motor while carrying the same number of crew and passengers, and on 2 engines instead of 3. Besides speed and range, other 247-D advances included the use of a retractable landing gear, and cabin soundproofing and air-conditioning for passengers.
The airlines’ demand for the 247-D was so great that Boeing was unable to fulfill their orders when production started in 1933. That shortage led to the development of the last plane displayed in this gallery, the Douglas DC-3. The DC-3, in turn, quickly ended the production of the 247-D.
Douglas DC-3: Trans World Airlines was one of the companies that couldn’t get the 247-D. In mid-1933, TWA asked the Douglas Aircraft Company to design an alternative. The initial model, the DC-1, first flew in late 1933, and an improved revision, the DC-2, in early 1934. The third iteration, called the DC-3, first flew in late 1935 and would go on to become one of the most successful aircraft designs in history.
The DC-3 was larger, faster, and more refined than the 247-D, and proved to be a far more versatile airframe. It could be configured to hold 21 seated passengers, or, for overnight service, 14 in “sleeper” compartments. With a wider, taller cabin, the DC-3 set a new standard for passenger comfort. In fact, it was large enough that airlines started showing in-flight movies on longer routes.
More than 600 DC-3 planes were built for commercial airlines, but that number is dwarfed by the 10,000 variants built for the U.S. military through the end of World War II (plus an additional 5,400 built by Russia and Japan). Known as the C-47, the plane continued flying for the U.S. military into the 1980’s.
The DC-3/C-47 proved so rugged that thousands of used planes entered the post-war commercial market. With spares and parts readily available, hundreds are still flying today, including a few commercial airlines. The next time you’re in Yellowknife, Alaska, visit Buffalo Airways (buffaloairways.com) for a seat in one of their fleet of 8 DC-3s.
It can take a lot of time to read each of the displays found in this large gallery; our summary above gives you the general background for most. The “What Makes an Airliner ‘Modern’” and Pan Am Clipper displays are worth a longer look.
In between the America by Air and Milestones of Flight galleries is a scale model of the Hindenburg airship.
The Air and Space museum’s centerpiece display is a priceless collection of some of the world’s most important flying machines. Most of these aircrafts’ names, their pilots’ names, and achievements will be instantly recognizable.
Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis: Charles Lindbergh was the first solo pilot to fly an airplane, this Spirit of St. Louis, nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean, in 1927. While the public regarded Lindbergh’s flight as a demonstration of how reliable airplanes had become, the fatality rate was still roughly 50% for pilots attempting long-distance flight records over oceans in 1927. Lindbergh became a household name around the world and went on to a distinguished aviation career.
Bell X-1Glamorous Glennis: Chuck Yeager was the first pilot to break the sound barrier, in this Bell X-1 in 1947. To fly faster than the speed of sound, the X-1 used liquid-fuel rocket motors instead of a piston or jet engine. The X-1 never took off from the ground; it was dropped from a military bomber before igniting its engines. Thus, the X-1 is essentially a missile with wings. Still, it showed that controlled flight could be achieved above the speed of sound, and this led to the development of supersonic aircraft within a few years. Yeager later flew this plane to its top speed, 947 m.p.h., in 1948. The U.S. Air Force donated the X-1 to the Smithsonian in 1950.
Mercury MA-6 Friendship 7: John Glenn, Jr. was the first American to orbit the Earth, in this Mercury spacecraft on February 20, 1962. The Soviet Union had placed the Sputnik satellite into orbit in late 1957, catching the United States off guard and prompting the start of the Cold War’s space race. The U.S. responded by creating NASA to guide its space program, but the Soviets were able to launch a man in orbit around the Earth before the U.S. had even achieved its first suborbital flight. John Glenn’s orbital flight in the Friendship 7 demonstrated that the U.S. was back in the game against the Soviets.
Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia: The Columbia is the most important man-made object in the history of the world. Launched on July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission was the first to land men on the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin reached the lunar surface on July 20, and, with pilot Michael Collins, returned safely to Earth in this Columbia command module on July 24, 1969. The Apollo 11 success effectively ended the expensive, high-stakes space race between the U.S. and Soviet Union, to land first on the moon. Five more Apollo missions made successful lunar landings, all returning in modules similar to this Columbia. The last men to visit the moon left on December 14, 1972.
Why is the Columbia the most important object ever made? It represents the point at which humans definitively controlled Earth’s materials and mastered the universe’s fundamental physical laws. And not coincidentally, the only nation that has shown the collective will and capability to build one of these things, has its basic ideas of freedom and governance displayed for you to read in a couple of documents a few blocks away.
Besides these, the Milestones of Flight Hall includes: the Bell XP-59A Airacomet, one of the U.S. military’s first jet fighters; the North American X-15, another rocket-powered plane that in the 1960’s helped the U.S. test metals and control systems for spaceflight (the one shown here was flown by Neil Armstrong to a speed of 3,989 m.p.h.); the Gemini IV spacecraft, outside which the first American spacewalk took place, in 1965; an engineering model of the Viking Lander, the first two of which landed on Mars in 1976; SpaceShipOne, the first privately-owned, manned spacecraft; a moon rock sample you can touch; a full-scale NASA wind tunnel fan; and the American Pershing-II and Soviet SS-20 ballistic missiles, developed to carry nuclear weapons during the Cold War, and retired in 1988 by treaty between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.
The Space Race gallery is an open, multi-story exhibit area, similar to the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, but dedicated to rockets, missiles, test vehicles, and spacecraft developed primarily by the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Start your tour of this huge area at the front middle of the room, with the display of military missiles. Then turn right and begin a counter-clockwise tour of the room beginning at Race to the Moon. Save your walk through Skylab for when you’re on the second floor.
The Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviets began before the end of World War II. During the war, Germany had built the V-2 missile, on display here, to attack Britain. Each of the 5,000 V-2’s made were a technical marvel, able to lift a 2,200-pound warhead more than 200 miles, and reach speeds of almost 3,600 m.p.h. For comparison, the U.S.’ WAC Corporal, also on display here, could lift 20 pounds for 20 miles in 1944.
The engineers who built the V-2, including Werner von Braun, were highly recruited by the U.S. and U.S.S.R. when Germany surrendered. Von Braun and most of his team went to the U.S., where they got the U.S. space program off the ground (see what we did there?) using captured German V-2’s. A postwar V-2 rocket was the first man-made object to reach space.
Next, head to your right and the Sputnik 1 display, which is the beginning of the Space Race display cases. Sputnik 1, launched by the Soviet Union in late 1957, was the first manmade satellite to orbit the Earth. While it was a huge scientific achievement for the U.S.S.R., it also clearly showed the U.S. government that the Soviets had rockets able to deliver warheads to the U.S. mainland, when the U.S. had no corresponding capability. The small piece of Sputnik 1 on display here is the only surviving part of the satellite.
Almost the entire right side of this gallery is dedicated to artifacts, models, and memorabilia from the 1960’s race to the moon, which ended when the U.S. landed first, in July 1969.
With the race over, the U.S. and Soviets began working on long-range scientific and military projects in space. In 1975, the two countries each launched a spacecraft that would dock together in space; the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project capsules shown in the back of this gallery are the test and training craft used in that project. Other Soviet hardware here are the TKS Almaz Manned Spacecraft, which flew in 1983; and the Soyuz TM-10 landing module, which flew in 1990.
On display above the middle of the room is an American M2 Lifting Body aircraft. The M2’s are airplanes without wings - the shape of the body produces the lift needed to fly – and these research vehicles helped the development of the Space Shuttle. Here’s a cool fact for anyone old enough to remember: this Smithsonian’s plane, the M2-F3, is the one you see crashing in the Six Million Dollar Man TV show title sequence. The plane was rebuilt and flew again before being donated to the Smithsonian. See here for the video. (Like Steve Austin, the real pilot, Bruce Peterson, survived. The Smithsonian claimed “no knowledge” as to whether Mr. Peterson was made bionic, but we all know the truth.)
On the right side of the room is a test version of the Hubble Space Telescope. This mockup was used to train the astronauts who repaired the Hubble in 1993. The Hubble continues to send back valuable scientific data today.
Other artifacts on display in Space Race include: a V-1 Cruise Missile, the world’s first cruise missile; an Aerobee 150 rocket, the successor to the WAC Corporal; A Viking rocket, one of the U.S.’ postwar designs based on the V-2; a Jupiter-C rocket, which launched America’s first satellite in 1958; a Vanguard rocket, which had a terrible failure rate as a satellite launcher; a Scout-D rocket, which launched other satellites in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s; the guidance system to a Minuteman III missile; and a U.S. Navy Tomahawk cruise missile.
To show how much missile (and warhead) technology developed after World War II, consider that the V-1 could carry just under a ton of explosives about 160 miles, while the Tomahawk can deliver the nuclear warhead equivalent of 10 million tons of explosives more than 1,500 miles.
At the far end of the first floor, in front of the food court, are the Lunar Exploration Vehicles. Here you’ll find the Apollo Lunar Module LM-2, the second of 12 built for the Apollo moon missions. While this one never flew in space, it shows how relatively small and delicate these spacecraft needed to be, while safely carrying astronauts a quarter-million miles. Also on display are the Apollo 11 spacesuits worn by the Apollo 11 crew.
Above the lunar module are hung the Ranger 7 Lunar Probe, which sent back high-resolution television images of the moon in 1964, confirming the feasibility of landing a spacecraft on its surface; the Surveyor spacecraft, which flew between 1966 and 1968, and looked for good spots to land the Apollo spacecraft on the moon; and the Lunar Orbiter, which captured photos of most of the moon’s surface and also aided the selection of an Apollo 11 landing site.
This gallery includes relatively modern space artifacts, including spacesuits, large-scale models of the space shuttle, parts of the Hubble Space Telescope, and a lifesize replica of the space shuttle crew compartment. Interactive displays show the Earth, moon, and Mars. This room is also used for live presentations and talks. While the walk-in space shuttle crew area is interesting, much of the material here is covered elsewhere in the museum.
This room covers the history of man’s observations about the heavens and how they helped us refine our understanding the universe.
The first third of the exhibit illustrates the development of the telescope, from the early glass and mirror models of Galileo’s 17th-century “optic tube” and 18th-century British astronomer William Herschel’s 20-foot telescope, to modern satellite observatories currently flying in space.
The technical details of telescope construction get dry quickly, but two things make this gallery worth a visit. First, there’s excellent photography displayed in the exhibits, showcasing the increasing ability of successive generations of telescopes to see farther and clearer. Second, there’s a good, simple explanation of what Edwin Hubble did to get his name on the Hubble Space Telescope: discover that the universe is expanding, and expanding faster and faster. That helped support the “Big Bang” theory of the universe’s origin, and much of the middle part of this gallery describes later experiments, using different techniques, that also support the Big Bang.
This gallery contains a short overview of the technologies used to look at our own planet. Fans of classic airplanes will want to stop in to see the de Havilland DH-4, a World War I-era biplane used for military reconnaissance; and the Cold War’s Lockheed U-2 spy plane, whose legacy includes high-altitude spying missions over the U.S.S.R., and a fairly successful Irish rock band. Besides these, there are several Earth-facing weather satellite models on display. These aren’t the most glamorous topics in the museum, and much of it is covered elsewhere.
One of the best and most kid-friendly galleries at Air & Space is How Things Fly, sponsored by Boeing. As its name suggests, the gallery is filled with small, hands-on displays, most about the size of a phone booth, that demonstrate the physical principles of airplane and rocket flight: thrust, drag, lift, and weight. Young museum volunteers circulate around the room to explain the displays, answer questions, and reinforce what the displays have to do with flight.
For example, one display has part of an airplane wing submerged in a clear, plastic pipe full of colored water. Push a button to start the display, and a pump moves water over the wing, showing how the water on top of the wing has a lower pressure than the water below. The display explains why this happens (the Bernoulli Principle), and how the same effect is what creates lift in an airplane wing, allowing it to fly. Other nearby kiosks show the same effect with different toys, ranging from baseballs hung with string, to inflated beach balls spinning untethered above an industrial air blower.
Other hands-on displays show why wings are round at the front and pointy in the back; how airplane flaps work; how fast different objects fall in air and in a vacuum (explaining drag); and high-speed flight wing design. For that, several consecutive hands-on displays explain what “the speed of sound” means, how to visualize it (using a large coiled spring), and why it’s important for anyone designing a fast plane or rocket.
The section on thrust describes how piston, jet, and rocket engines work. There’s a great hands-on display that shows kids how, at high altitudes with thin air, airplane propellers stop working while rocket engines keep going. It’s an excellent explanation of why you can’t fly a propeller plane to the moon.
The museum holds short, instructor-led talks throughout the day on a small stage set up inside this gallery. Most of the talks have a hands-on activity, such as how to build a great paper airplane, and kids are given plenty of opportunities to ask questions. If you’ve got the time and your kids have the interest, it’s definitely worthwhile (we got some fantastic paper airplane designs).
The last part of How Things Fly includes a chance to sit in a real Cessna 150 cockpit, a sit-down-and-spin lesson on gyroscopes (it’s surprising and loads of fun), and a quick lesson on the material sciences that bring us strong, lightweight airplanes and spacecraft.
The name of this room doesn’t sound all that fun, but this is a remarkably interesting set of exhibits, and definitely worth a visit. If you used a GPS or SatNav system to get to DC, this gallery explains part of how it did that.
Even before Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas in the late 15th century, European countries were sending out explorers to find and claim new areas of land. Each new land found meant more natural resources and wealth to the country that claimed it.
By Columbus’ time, sailors had developed some basic techniques for navigation; using charts and measuring the positions of certain stars in the sky, they were able to roughly determine their latitude – how for north or south they were on the globe. But because the Earth is round, those same techniques can’t be used to accurately determine how far east or west you are.
That was bad, because as anyone who’s ever bought a house knows, to claim ownership of land, you need to be very specific about where your land is. To have a really precise idea of where he was in the world, surprisingly, a sailor needed a clock.
The problem was that reliable clocks of that era used pendulums – weighted sticks that swing back and forth – to keep time. And the up-and-down bobbing of a ship on the ocean wreaked havoc on pendulums, making them useless. Another method was needed, and several countries offered big bucks to anyone who could come up with a clock that worked on a ship. And between 1735 and 1772, Englishman John Harrison did just that.
What does any of this have to do with flight? A lot, because early pilots faced exactly the same navigation problems as early sailors, especially when flying over water. In fact, pilots initially adapted a sailor’s tool – the sextant – for use on planes. It was complicated to use, however, slow at the airplane’s fast speeds, and didn’t work in bad weather. In a section of the gallery dedicated to Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, it’s noted that good weather played a significant part in his success. Clouds prevented him from using a sextant for navigation, but winds were light and only pushed him off course by a few miles from his course; things could have ended much worse for Lindy.
The middle part of this gallery highlights the efforts in World War II to develop radio navigation, including radio beacons, and LORAN (Long Range Navigation) that worked in all weather conditions, and gave time measurements to within a fraction of a second.
After World War II, the U.S. and Soviet Union both needed more precise clocks for their global militaries, which grew to include fast, precise missiles; and submarines that couldn’t see the stars in the sky. The gallery’s display on how the U.S. military merged various timekeeping satellite systems into the Global Positioning System (GPS), and how it works, is an excellent conclusion to the theme of time and navigation.
This gallery contains artifacts from the Apollo space program, which started in 1961 and ran through the mid-1970’s. The gallery is arranged in chronological order, so start your tour from the entryway closest to the food court for the displays to make sense.
The first part of the gallery is a wall display summarizing U.S. and Soviet space flight, starting with Robert Goddard and working through the early 1960’s, up to Apollo launches in 1968. Opposite that wall is an F-1 rocket engine from the Saturn V rocket. Five of these F-1 engines were used in the first stage of the Saturn V for the Apollo missions, giving you some idea of how huge these rockets were.
The bulk of the gallery contains various artifacts from the Apollo missions, from paper manuals describing how to operate the computers, to cameras, to a Command Module instrument panel. There’s an interesting display on why the Apollo spacecraft used fuel cells (similar to those in some zero-emissions cars today) instead of batteries.
A set of exhibits is set up to look like the lunar surface. Inside these you’ll see equipment used for experiments on the moon, including the Lunar Rover car, plus the spacesuits worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.
Above the gallery hangs the Skylab 4 Apollo command module, which flew in 1973-4. On the way out of the gallery is an actual moon rock you can touch.
The world’s first airplane, the 1903 Wright Flyer, gets its own gallery here on the second floor. Before you see the plane, however, you’re introduced to its inventors, Orville and Wilbur Wright, via a short biographical scenes. The gallery does a good job of pointing out how the brothers’ bicycle shop helped them build the airplane. The gallery also explains well the Wrights’ original ideas about propellers, and their extensive research program (they wrote to the Smithsonian for information!), including the use of wind tunnel testing, for their first flights.
Also on display are reproductions of several of the Wrights’ pre-1903 gliders, used to develop the design for their first powered airplane. At the end of the gallery is The Airplane and the Arts – a presentation on the impact the Wrights’ flights had on popular culture.
Because of its popularity, the gallery’s two walkways are set up as an entrance and an exit. Enter from the side closest to the middle of the gallery, and exit on the far side, closest to the food court. On very busy days, waits can exceed 30 minutes to enter the room, so see this gallery first thing in the morning, or wait until the hour before the museum closes.
A huge display of aircraft in the middle of the second floor, Pioneers of Flight’s theme and timeline overlaps considerably with the Golden Age of Flight downstairs, in that it showcases aircraft and pilots that flew farther, faster, and higher than those before them. However, this gallery also notes the achievements of women and African-American pilots, pioneers in their own right, in the early days of flight.
Aircraft on display in this gallery include:
Fokker T-2: This was the first airplane to fly nonstop across the United States, going from Long Island to San Diego in just over 25 hours, in 1923.
Douglas World Cruiser Chicago: The U.S. Army sent four of these Douglas World Cruisers on an around-the-world flight attempt in 1924: the Boston, the Chicago, the New Orleans, and the Seattle. The Seattle crashed soon into the trip, in Alaska, and the New Orleans went down in the North Atlantic (all of the pilots survived). The Boston and Chicago, however, made it all the way back, becoming the first airplanes to fly around the world.
Surrounding the Chicago are photographs and artifacts from the journey, showing what the pilots endured and enjoyed on their flight. (The New Orleans is on display at the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica, California.)
Curtiss R3C-2 Racer: James Doolittle flew this seaplane to a new world speed record of 245.7 m.p.h. in 1927. Doolittle was an accomplished pilot who set several air speed records. He was also a top-notch engineer, earning a Ph.D from M.I.T. in aeronautical engineering along the way. Doolittle’s most famous achievement is surely “Doolittle’s Raid” – the high-risk 1942 bombing mission over Tokyo that was the first Allied attack on the Japanese mainland.
Lockheed 8 Sirius Tingmissartoq: Charles Lindbergh flew this plane extensively, including to Asia in 1931. Later, Lindbergh flew it across the North Atlantic while researching new air routes to Europe for Pan Am.
Explorer II Gondola: This gondola and its helium-filled balloon set a new altitude record of 72,395 feet in 1935.
Lockheed 5B Vega: One of Amelia Earhart’s own airplanes, this was also the first aircraft design produced by Lockheed. Earhart used this plane, which she called the “Little Red Wagon” on two record-setting flights, across the Atlantic and the United States, in the early 1930’s.
Besides there, on display is the Wright EX Vin Fiz, flown across the country (with 70 stops!) in 1911; the Bud Light Spirit of Freedom gondola, in which Steve Fossett made the first solo circumnavigation of the world in 2002; the original Piper J-2, first in a line of highly successful civilian, recreational aircraft that continues to this day; and a replica of the third liquid-fuel rocket, built and flown by rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard in 1928.
Displays on air races, flying, and rocketry in popular culture (including Plane Crazy, a Mickey Mouse cartoon, because you can’t escape Disney) line two of the walls of this enormous room.
These displays cover man’s discovery and exploration of the planets in our solar system (and beyond), starting from the invention of the telescope.
One of the first big exhibits in the room is a scale comparison of the planets’ size. Note that the sun is so large in comparison to everything else, that only some of it can fit into the floor-to-ceiling display.
Each planet (and Pluto) gets a dedicated section in this gallery, with detailed photos, video, and other data. Along with information on each planet is displayed the spacecraft sent to view or explore it. Among the highlights there are replicas of Curiosity, Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity (Mars); Voyager (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune); and New Horizons (Pluto and beyond).
At the risk of losing our Neil deGrasse Tyson Fan Club badges, this gallery is expendable if you’re short on time.
The exhibits in this gallery cover the aircraft and aerial tactics deployed in Europe during World War I. Like other galleries, the displays here are arranged chronologically. If you’re facing the gallery, enter on the left side (closest to Gallery 207, Exploring the Planets).
Several European countries had used balloons to observe the position and movement of enemy troops, both prior to and in World War I. As the airplane was introduced into combat during the Great War, its role was also mainly as a forward observer. This was because early planes were slow and relatively underpowered – they couldn’t carry much in the way of bombs, and their wood-and-fabric construction didn’t protect the pilot from ground gunfire.
Most of World War I was fought in trenches, and the gallery includes a reproduction trench bunker whose walls describe the successes (Tannenberg, Verdun) of airplane reconnaissance, and its failures (the Somme).
While the airplane had little impact on the outcome of the war, the gallery does a good job of describing how the combatants’ press and governments benefitted from celebrating their aviators and airplanes. Pilots such as Manfred von Richthofen (the “Red Baron”) became household names, and their fame used to sell a variety of commercial products, including frozen pizza.
Also in this gallery is a replica German aircraft factory room from around 1918, showing the difficulties faced by Germany a few years into the war. German engineers had produced the best aircraft engine of the war – the BMW IIIa, shown here – but a lack of raw materials meant that they were forced to make plywood from wood scraps in building their planes.
The last scene in the gallery is a reproduction of a British air defense unit operations office from 1918. These units were responsible for defending Britain from German bombers. They received information on the number, type, and direction of incoming German airplanes, and coordinated the British fighter response.
The strength of this gallery is in the full-size aircraft on display, which we’ve listed below. One notable aircraft is displayed as a scale model is the Zeppelin-Staaken R.IV Bomber. Its wingspan of more than 138 feet – bigger than a Boeing 747-200 – enabled it to carry a 2,200-pound bomb, but is too large to be displayed here.
Aircraft on display include:
Albatros D.Va: The Albatros line of aircraft was Germany’s best fighter design in the middle of World War I. Among its advanced features were a streamlined engine cowling and propeller spinner, a strong Mercedes engine, and two machine guns. The combination of armament, speed, and agility briefly gave Germany the upper hand in aerial dogfighting during this period of the war. In fact, although he’s usually associated with a red Fokker triplane, Manfred von Richthoffen scored most of his combat victories in an Albatros similar to this one.
Voisin VIII LA.P: The airplane displayed here is the world’s oldest, surviving, dedicated bomber, constructed in 1916. Built by the French company Voisin, it was slower than fighter aircraft of the time, and, having the propeller behind the pilot, was difficult to defend from rear attacks. For that reason, it was relegated primarily to nighttime bombing missions, where it could drop almost 400 pounds of munitions. Although 1,100 of these aircraft were built, this is the last surviving example.
Royal Aircraft Factory F.E. 8: The presence of the F.E. 8 in this gallery is to show how quickly aircraft design progressed during the war. In the case of the F.E. 8, it was obsolete by the time it made it to the front.
The F.E. 8 was designed in 1915, but didn’t make it into the war until late 1916 – an eternity in those days. Its pusher propeller was an interesting concept in 1915, but had proven to be a gaping hole in the plane’s rear defenses.
In early 1917, a squadron of nine F.E.8’s ran into a group of 5 Germans flying Albatros aircraft, led by von Richthofen. The F.E.8’s were completely outmatched, despite having almost double the planes. Four F.E.8’s were shot down and four were significantly damaged. That marked the end of the F.E.8’s major duty in the war.
SPAD XIII Smith IV: The story of some great aircraft, such as the P-51 Mustang, is that their superior airframes had to wait for the right engine. In the case of the SPAD XIII, however, the engine already existed and the plane was built around it.
In the SPAD’s case, the engine was the Hispano-Suiza model you see at the left of this display. It was an 8-cylinder engine made of aluminum, and developed between 180 to 220 horsepower. Its light weight and good power made it perfect for an agile fighter aircraft, and SPAD had already developed one.
The SPAD XIII, designed in early 1917, was based on the design of the earlier SPAD VII, another small biplane that was a good match for the German fighters in 1916. As the year went on, however, German design advances meant the VII had to be updated, and the SPAD XIII was born. Heavier and bigger than earlier versions, and equipped with two machine guns, the XIII was faster and better armed than most. At least five fighter pilot aces flew in SPAD XIII, among them American Eddie Rickenbacker. The plane on display here was flown by American pilot Ray Brooks.
Fokker D.VII: By 1917, Allied airplanes were regularly defeating Germany’s fighters. In response, the Germans held a competition to produce improved designs for both fighters and bombers. The Fokker D.VIII model shown here was the fighter chosen, and went into production in 1918.
The D.VII was substantially better than earlier German fighters. When coupled with the BMW IIIa engine (also on display), it could remain vertical for a few seconds, allowing it to attack Allied planes from below. Among the pilots who scored victories in the D.VIII was Herman Goering, head of the German Luftwaffe in World War II. When the war ended, the armistice agreement included specific language that transferred all of the D.VII aircraft to the Allies.
Pfalz D.XII: Like the Fokker D.VII, the D.XII was a German fighter that went into production late in the war, in mid-1918. The Pfalz’s wing was designed after the SPAD line of fighters, but the Pfalz lacked the maneuverability of the Fokker D.VII, and German pilots preferred the Fokker.
Sopwith 2F.1 Snipe: Like the PFalz D.XIII, the British-made Snipe suffered in comparison to another contemporary fighter. In the Snipe’s case, it was the Sopwith Camel. The Camel joined the war in 1917, and while it was successful, the British Air Board began asking for designs for the next generation of fighter aircraft. The Snipe was proposed by Sopwith and ultimately chosen by England. The Smithsonian notes, however, that the way the Snipe won was by being declared “the least undesirable overall.”
Lots of aircraft engines are on display throughout the museum, many of them, frankly, less interesting than the planes near them. The ones in this room, however, are integral into the stories of their planes. Be sure to read about them.
World War II produced some of the most well-known airplanes in history. In fact, it produced so many famous and significant aircraft that it’d be close to impossible for the Smithsonian to display all of them in this museum. For that reason, Gallery 205 is dedicated to land-based fighter aircraft from the European and Pacific theaters. (See below for where to find more aircraft from this era.)
Five aircraft are on display here: Britain’s Spitfire; America’s P-51D; Germany’s Bf 109; Japan’s Zero; and Italy’s Folgore. Generations of children, including at least one of this book’s authors, grew up building balsa models of these planes, and they’ll be familiar to almost everyone with an interest in aviation.
Supermarine Spitfire Mk. VIIc: The Spitfire was the best fighter aircraft produced by England during World War II. It was designed by Supermarine’s R.J. Mitchell. Prior to World War II, Mitchell had designed the S.6B, a racing aircraft that won the Schneider Trophy (shown in Gallery 105) in 1931 and broke the world speed record.
Mitchell started designing the Spitfire in 1934. Like the S.6B, the Spitfire has elliptical wings, which lower drag and improve speed. Through a series of design upgrades before and during the war, the Spitfire got a powerful Rolls Royce engine (the Merlin, shown at the entrance to this gallery), and eight machine guns in its wings.
The combination of speed, agility, and armament helped lead the Spitfire to its finest hour – defeating the attacking German Luftwaffe in the decisive Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. The Spitfire became famous after that, and with its proven performance, remained in production past the end of World War II. The aircraft on display here was sent to the United States near the end of the war, and never saw combat.
North American P-51D Mustang: Arguably the United States’ best fighter aircraft during World War II, the Mustang was fast, maneuverable, well-armed, and had a 1,600-mile range. That range would change the course of the war.
Initial versions of the P-51 were unremarkable. The first two models, the P-51 and P-51A, introduced in 1941, had an Allison V-1710 engine that didn’t perform well at high altitudes. When paired with versions of the Rolls Royce Merlin engine, however, for the P-51B, the Allies knew they had a special fighter. The model shown here, the P-51D, has the Mustang’s distinctive “bubble” canopy, allowing for better pilot visibility during dogfights.
Prior to the P-51, the Allies had no fighter aircraft with the range to accompany its bomber groups on missions over Germany. Early attempts at flying “self-defending” bombers over Germany proved disastrous, and the Allies were forced to switch to nighttime bombing, which wasn’t as effective, or simply accept the losses.
Things changed dramatically when the P-51s started flying with the 8th Air Force in the spring of 1944. The P-51s were markedly superior to the Germans’ Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter, and could hold its own against the Messerschmitt Me 109. In combat, the P-51 shot down 11 enemy planes for every loss it suffered.
In addition, the Allies’ factories could make P-51s faster than the Germans could make replacement planes. The combination of better performance and numerical advantage broke the German air defenses in a matter of months, allowing daytime bombing missions over all of Germany. The head of the German Luftwaffe, Herman Goering, was reported to have said “When I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the jig was up.”
After the war, the Mustang served in the air forces of dozens of countries, including (briefly) the United States in Korea, until the introduction of jet aircraft. So many P-51s were built during the war that a thriving community of fliers continue to use them to this day. At least 200 P-51s are flying around the world, many in air races, where the P-51’s speed makes it a perennial contender.
Messerschmitt Bf 109: The Bf 109 was Germany’s best fighter aircraft of World War II. Designed in the mid-1930’s, the Germans had already used the plane in combat in Spain in the late 1930’s. That gave the 109’s engineers and pilots valuable experience, even before England joined the war.
The Bf 109 was the primary Germany attack fighter for the Battle of Britain in 1940, and the primary defensive fighter for the Allied bombing campaign over Germany in 1944. More than 20,000 of these planes were built, with various upgrades in engines and armament. The plane on display here at the Smithsonian was flown during the war, by a German pilot who defected with the plane to Italy.
Mitsubishi A6M Reisen “Zero”: This was Japan’s best fighter of World War II. It was designed in 1937 to be deployed from navy carriers, and so had to be lightweight and fast. As a result, the Zero could out-turn and out-climb most American planes. It also had a tremendous range – 1,600 miles, about that of a P-51D – and could stay in a dogfight for a very long time. Those characteristics were a huge advantage over early American naval aircraft at the start of the war, and forced the Allies to develop new tactics and planes. Still, like the P-51 Mustang, the Zero shot down around 11 airplanes for every one lost.
The Zero was the primary fighter used by Japan at Pearl Harbor and throughout the war, making it something of a rarity in World War II aircraft; more than 11,000 were made.
However, the defeat at the Battle of Midway in 1942 cost Japan four of its aircraft carriers, limiting how many Zeroes could be deployed, and was the turning point in the Pacific theater. For the rest of the war, Japan couldn’t produce planes or pilots fast enough to cover their losses. The airplane shown here was captured on Saipan Island in 1944.
Aeronautica Macchi C.202 Folgore: Let’s be honest here. This was Italy’s best fighter aircraft of World War II, but the Folgore’s performance didn’t match that of England’s and U.S. fighters. The Folgore’s top speed of 372 m.p.h. was 65 slower than the Mustang; the Folgore’s range of 475 miles was almost 1,200 less; and its service ceiling almost a mile lower. It was also heavier than the Messerschmitt. Besides their physical limitations, it took Italy’s manufacturing sector around 22,000 staff-hours to build one Folgore, as compared to around 4,000 for a Messerschmitt, further limiting their impact.
That said, the Folgore does have one interesting feature: the left wing is about 9 inches longer than the right wing. The longer left wing is there to provide a bit of extra uplift on the left side, counteracting the torque developed by the engine and spinning propeller that wants to push the airplane down to the left. It’s an interesting solution.
Besides the airplanes, the gallery includes displays of aircraft engines, armament, and uniforms worn by the pilots of different nations during the war. Also on display is a good display recounting the first Allied raid on Tokyo, led by Jimmy Doolittle in 1942. On the wall at the far end of the gallery is a mural showing a B-17 bomber in flight.
If you want to see more World War II aircraft, two American carrier-based planes are across the hall in the Sea-Air Operations gallery: the Grumman F4F Wildcat and the Douglas SBD Dauntless. For even more fighters and bombers, including the F4U Corsair, P-40 Warhawk, Focke-Wulf Fw 190, B-29, and more, head to the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, about 30-40 minutes outside D.C.
This entire gallery is dedicated to naval aviation, and is a fitting end to your tour of the exhibits. The highlights here are replica aircraft carrier hangar deck and air traffic control center, on different floors within the gallery. Huge video screens, actual audio, and real carrier artifacts surround you as you watch footage of jets catapulting off the deck and returning in for landings.
While the simulated carrier rooms are the highlight of this gallery, there are several good displays covering life and flight operations on an aircraft carrier. Among the displays are an overview of carrier development, including the U.S.S. Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear-powered combat ship; how to land an aircraft on the pitching deck of a carrier; and carrier defense systems.
Naval aircraft on display in Sea-Air Operations include:
Boeing F4B-4 This was one of the U.S. Navy’s primary carrier-based fighters in the early and mid-1930’s. A biplane, its top speed was around 186 m.p.h., and it could carry just under 500 pounds of bombs.
With limited speed and capabilities, the F4B-4 was obsolete before the U.S. entered World War II. Only one of the 586 F4B’s made ever saw combat, and that was as part of China’s air force in the late 1930’s, against Japan (it was shot down). The plane on display here was built for the Marines and donated to the museum in 1959.
Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat The Wildcat became part of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft fleet in 1940, and, as the F4F-3, it was the best carrier-based fighter the U.S. had in the Pacific until the F6F Hellcat (on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly).
The Wildcat was slower, less maneuverable, and had a shorter range than Japan’s A6M Zero (on display across the hall). However, the Wildcat had a great deal of armor, and fuel tanks that could seal themselves if hit by enemy bullets. That meant the Wildcat could absorb a lot of punishment and still keep flying. The Zero, on the other hand, could not. When the U.S. switched from one-on-one dogfight tactics to group formation, the Zero’s advantages were nullified, and the Wildcat racked up an impressive air victory ratio of almost 7:1.
The vast majority of Wildcats were fighters based on Pacific carriers, but a few flew from carriers in Europe into 1945, including attacks off the coast of Norway. The F4F-4 version on display here was introduced in 1942 and featured more machine guns than earlier versions. The actual plane shown in this gallery was based in Oklahoma during the war. Although it features the markings of planes from the carrier Breton, this plane never saw combat.
Douglas SBD-6 Dauntless: If it’s possible for an airplane to change the course of naval history, then the SBD-6 Dauntless did just that.
The “SBD” acronym stands for “Scout Bomber Douglas”) and the Dauntless was used as both a scout plane and a dive-bomber when it entered service in 1940. Early versions of Dauntless saw action at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, 1942. While the Dauntless didn’t fly very fast (255 m.p.h.), it had a range of more than 1,100 miles, could carry 2,250 pounds of bombs, and was strong enough to hold together during steep dives when attacking enemy ships. Those are important characteristics for a dive bomber.
The Dauntless’ finest hour was at the Battle of Midway in June, 1942. It was not yet six months since Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, sinking four U.S. battleships and killing more than 2,400 sailors. While the U.S. had fought well at Coral Sea, they had, to this point, only succeeded in stopping some of Japan’s naval advances; a decisive victory had not yet been won.
After Jimmy Doolittle’s bombing of Tokyo in April, 1942 (see above), Japan sent its naval forces farther out into the Pacific, to capture islands and prevent the Allies from establishing air bases for more raids. In particular, Japan sent 21 major ships towards Midway, which was around 2,200 miles from Tokyo, and an important refueling point for ships and planes heading out from Hawaii.
What Japan didn’t know was that the U.S. had just cracked the secret communication code used by Japan’s navy, allowing the Allies to know how many ships Japan was sending, where, when, and of what kind. To keep the element of surprise, the U.S. positioned its aircraft carriers just outside the range of Japanese radar, on the other side of the island.
At Midway, Japan’s four aircraft carriers had launched a first wave of bombers against the island’s airstrip, and fighters to escort them. While those bombers were refueling on the carrier decks (and the fighters waited their turn to refuel), four squadrons of Navy SBDs attacked from different directions. It was incredibly fortunate timing.
The SBD’s bombs ignited massive firestorms on the Japanese carriers – three of them sank in under 10 minutes. All told, Japan lost 4 carriers, a heavy cruiser, 248 airplanes, and more than 3,000 men. In contrast, the U.S. lost 1 carrier, about 150 planes, and 307 men. It was a huge victory for the Americans, and Japan’s navy never recovered.
The SBD-6 continued in service through mid-1944. It was eventually replaced by the faster Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. The SBD-6 shown here was delivered in March, 1944, and spent the war in Maryland.
Douglas A-4C Skyhawk: One of the longest-serving aircraft in U.S. Navy history, the Skyhawk flew from U.S. ships for almost 50 years. Bucking the trend of each aircraft generation to be larger, heavier, and more complex than the previous one, the Skyhawk was specifically designed to be small, lightweight, and simple. It had a single engine, and its small wingspan meant it didn’t need to be folded up to save space on aircraft carriers, thus saving weight. It also had the ability, with an external fuel tank, to refuel other airplanes in flight, making it easier to keep airplanes aloft in far-away places.
The A-4’s were one of the Navy’s main attack planes during Vietnam. It was capable of carrying up to 8,200 pounds of bombs and missiles. Because of the plane’s lightness and speed, it found roles as part of the Navy Fighter Weapons School (you know it as “TOPGUN”), and in the Navy’s Blue Angels aerobatic team.
The museum’s IMAX movie theater shows high-definition, large-format movies throughout the day. Naturally, most of the films are related to airplanes or spaceflight; the rest almost always have something to do with American history. Tickets for popular mid-day shows can sell out, so get your tickets early in the day if you know you want to see a particular film at a specific time. Tickets cost around $9 per person.
In addition to IMAX movies, the Einstein Planetarium shows movies on its curved planetarium ceiling. Among the best current offerings is Dark Universe, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s an exploration of dark matter and dark energy, which make up the vast majority of the stuff in the universe, yet can’t be detected or analyzed directly. It’s also playing at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Tickets cost around $9 per person.
Finally, the Smithsonian has dedicated an entire gallery room to large flight simulators that you can try out for yourself. These are fairly advanced for what they are – way more than an arcade game. With just a little prompting, you can spin one 360 degrees around in a loop. (Fortunately, you’re strapped in with a 5-point harness before you begin.) There’s ostensibly a game involved, where you try to shoot down another aircraft, but it’s also a lot of fun to just fly around upside down for the 3-minute ride. Tickets are $8 per person for a two-person simulator, or you can fly alone for $16. Empty your pockets first.
The museum’s food court contains a McDonald’s, a Boston Market, and a Donato’s Pizza. The food court gets very busy at lunch time. On weekends and during summer, expect waits of 10 to 40 minutes to order and get your food. According to the staff we spoke with, waits can approach 90 minutes on July 4 and Thanksgiving weekend. If the line for food looks substantially longer than the line to get in to the museum, consider going to the cafeteria at the Museum of the American Indian around the corner. There’ll be a much shorter wait and better food.