Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center

Not to be Missed

  • Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird
  • Air France Concorde
  • B-29 Enola Gay
  • Space Shuttle Discovery
  • Observation Tower Tour

Description and Comments

The Udvar-Hazy Center is the second half of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space collection. Located next to Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia, Udvar-Hazy has enough space to hold the planes and spacecraft that don’t fit in the downtown museum.

Pick up a museum map as you enter the facility. The Boeing Aviation Hangar, straight back from the entrance, holds about two-thirds of the Center’s exhibits, and all of the aircraft and memorabilia. Most of the Boeing hangar is dedicated to military aircraft, with a particular focus on examples from World War II. The rest holds commercial and general aviation aircraft, including ultra-lights and helicopters. The James S. McDonnell Space Hangar, accessible at the center-back of the Boeing Hangar, is dedicated to space flight, with missiles, spacecraft, and satellites.

Unofficial Tip: See the Center’s IMAX movie schedule and book tickets online at http://tinyurl.com/Udvar-IMAX

The first airplane you’ll see in the Center is Betty Skelton’s Pitts Special S-1C Little Stinker aerobatic biplane, done in dramatic red and white, and on the entrance walkway to the Boeing Aviation Hangar. Ms. Skelton won two aerobatic championships flying this plane in 1949 and 1950. Little Stinker is displayed upside-down, and all aerobatic planes in the Center are hung in something other than level flight.

Beyond the Pitts are two World War II-era fighters marking the entrance ramp and stairs to the Hangar’s main floor: the Curtiss P-40E Kittyhawk and the Vought F4U-1D Corsair. The P-40E Kittyhawk was one of the few modern fighter designs available to the Allies at the start of World War II. It was eventually replaced by the better-performing P-51 Mustang (on display downtown) and P-47 Thunderbolt (on display here), with the last P-40 rolling off the assembly line in 1944.

The F4U-1D Corsair was designed in 1938 as a carrier-based fighter, built around what was the largest engine and propeller ever used on a fighter aircraft. In fact, the prop was so big that the Corsair’s wings had to be bent into a gull shape for ground clearance. Unfortunately, the gull wing, large engine, and huge prop made the Corsair a difficult plane to land on an aircraft carrier. (Eight times as many Corsairs were lost to accidents than to enemy combat during WWII.) It was therefore launched primarily from land bases around the Pacific, where its guns and armament proved very effective against Japanese fighters.

Head down the ramp to your right and start a counter-clockwise tour of the Boeing Aviation Hangar with Modern Military Aviation. There are more than a hundred aircraft on display throughout the floor, and we’ll guide you through the highlights of the collection.

At the end of the ramp, and before you get to the military planes, is a DSI/NASA Oblique Wing, one of the oddest aircraft you’ll ever see. In the late 1970’s, NASA engineering studies suggested that you could get better fuel economy and speed from a fixed-wing airplane if you could “pivot” its wing in flight to reduce drag. NASA has built a couple of prototypes to test this theory, one of which is displayed here, but so far the results haven’t been convincing enough for a commercial vendor to try it. Beyond the Oblique Wing at the end of the ramp is a North American F-100D Super Sabre, the first US fighter aircraft able to exceed the speed of sound in level flight.

Turn left and start a counter-clockwise tour of the floor with the Modern Military Aviation section first. The first plane on display is the prototype of the Lockheed Martin X-35B Joint Strike Fighter, the latest and most expensive fighter in the U.S. Air Force inventory. The prototype on display here served as the technology platform, demonstrating the feasibility of (among other things) short take-offs and vertical landings.

Collection Highlights

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Bear to the left of the X-35B and walk a short ways to the display of Cold War Aviation airplanes. The museum’s done a nice job here of putting the U.S. planes of each era next to their Soviet counterparts. On your right are the two planes that fought for air superiority over Korea: The North American F-86 Sabre and the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15.

The Soviet Union introduced the MiG-15 into combat over Korea in November of 1950, and it quickly dominated the skies. At the time, the U.S. was still using piston-engine aircraft to supplement its first generation of jet fighters, the F-80 Shooting Star and F-84 Thunderbolt. None were a match for the MiG-15, which was faster, more maneuverable, and had better armament. In fact, the U.S. stopped flying piston-engine aircraft over Korea because of the MiG-15, and fast-tracked the release of the F-86 Sabre as a result.

The F-86 was one of the first fighters the U.S. developed as World War II came to an end. You’ll notice that unlike World War II fighters, the F-86 Sabre has swept wings that angle back from the fuselage. This is the result of aerodynamic data obtained from German scientists during the war, showing that swept wings handled better than straight wings at speeds above 600 miles per hour.

Besides swept wings, the Sabre had six .50-caliber machine guns (and sometimes air-to-air missiles) attached to a radar-assisted gun sights. Designed by engineers at MIT, those gun sights were a distinct advantage for the F-86, because they automatically calculated the range, angle, and speed of their target. With these, the F-86 could shoot down an enemy aircraft at distances above 1 mile away. (For comparison, a few hundred yards was the maximum effective range of World War II-era guns.) As a result, the F-86 had a 10:1 kill ratio versus the MiG-15 in combat. The F-86 on display here fought in combat above Korea starting in 1950.

Across the walkway from these Korean War fighters are their counterparts from the Vietnam War: the Russian Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 and American McDonnell F-4 Phantom.

The Soviets began development of the MiG-21 shortly after the end of the Korean War, based on what they had learned operating the MiG-15 in combat. The MiG-21’s improvements included better radar, faster engines, air-to-air missiles, and a delta (triangle-shaped) wing. That said, the MiG-21 has some serious design problems, including poor pilot visibility badly placed fuel tanks that made the plane unstable after 45 minutes of flight.

Still, the design helped it narrow the gap with American fighters of the era – only 5.5 MiG-21’s were shot down for every one F-4 Phantom, a loss rate of about half that of the MiG-15 from Korea. The MiG-21 began service in 1960, and some are still used by air forces around the world today.

The F-4 Phantom entered service in the U.S. Navy in 1959, and was the Navy’s first fighter jet able to fly at twice the speed of sound. It was used primarily to defend the Navy’s carriers, but was also a solid attack plane. It could be fitted with a variety of air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, depending on the need. The plane on display here flew combat missions over Vietnam from 1972-3; its one confirmed victory came against a MiG-21.

The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft is the centerpiece of the Cold War Aviation gallery. There are many examples of outstanding engineering in the Air and Space museums, but the Blackbird is, as the kids say, on another level. For starters, the Blackbird is the world’s fastest jet-engine aircraft. How fast? The Air Force won’t say, but various sources list its top speed at around 2,200 MPH. That’s almost certainly too low – the plane on display here averaged 2,124 mph on its flight to the museum (setting the current transcontinental speed record of 64 minutes), and we think the Blackbird has a little something more for flying over Vladivostok than Valdosta.

Unofficial Tip: During its transcontinental record flight, this SR-71 flew from St. Louis to Cincinnati in 8 ½ minutes.

Flying at 3 times the speed of sound generates a lot of heat from air friction, and the Blackbird design team had to invent solutions to heat-related problems. One solution was the use of a titanium alloy skin instead of aluminum for the outside of the plane, because aluminum would weaken at the Blackbird’s typical operating temperatures. Same thing for the windshield, which is made of quartz, not glass, and welded to the frame.

Another problem was accounting for the thermal expansion of the plane’s metal skin during flight – heat from air friction makes the titanium alloy expand. To allow for this expansion, the SR-71’s wings were designed with small gaps between each titanium plate. But since some of the plane’s fuel was stored in the wings, it meant that the Blackbird intentionally leaked fuel between these gaps during takeoff, in-air refueling, and while flying at lower speeds. Also, much of the wing surface was corrugated for strength and stability at high temperatures.

The Blackbird was also designed to fly higher than other aircraft, typically above 80,000 feet. At those altitudes, Blackbird pilots had to wear astronaut-like pressure suits, in case the cabin depressurized suddenly.

Altitude and speed were the Blackbird’s primary defensive capabilities, because the plane carried no guns or missiles. It did carry an assortment of electronics designed to confuse or disable ground- and air-based anti-aircraft arms. Besides those, the Blackbird had some early stealth technology: the plane’s cross-section was designed to minimize radar reflection, and the airframe was painted in a radar-absorbing black material that also dissipated its heat signature. No SR-71 was shot down during its 32-year service. The last SR-71 was retired by the Air Force in 1998.

Beyond the Cold War Aviation gallery is an area dedicated to World War II aviation. A subsection here includes German aviation, with a Focke-Wulf Fw 190, one of Germany’s fighter mainstays, and a Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, a rocket-powered fighter prototype that actually included a pilot. It was able to fly at more than 600 MPH, far faster than Allied aircraft. Unfortunately, the plane could only store enough fuel for eight or nine minutes of flight, after which it landed unpowered and unable to evade American fighters. That made it impractical as a mass-produced attack aircraft, but it’s still an interesting design.

The Allies’ World War II aircraft includes:

Republic P-47 Thunderbolt - The Thunderbolt was the most-produced American fighter of World War II. It was well armored, had eight .50-caliber machine guns, and excelled at ground support. It wasn’t as fast as the P-51, and didn’t have the Mustang’s range in Europe, so its role as a bomber escort fighter was limited.

Northrop P-61C Black Widow - The P-61 was designed to be a nighttime fighter, using radar to find and target enemy bombers and their escorts. It had a large fuel capacity, allowing it to stay airborne for long patrols. However, it was introduced in 1944, and only served for about a year until the war ended.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning - A two-engine fighter designed by the same Lockheed group that later designed the SR-71, the Lightning excelled in the Pacific theater. Certain models had a range of 2,000 miles, and it could reach speeds over 420 MPH, more than enough for Japanese fighters of the time.

The Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay displayed here deserves special mention, as it dropped the world’s second atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. It also flew on the atomic bombing of Nagasaki three days later, performing weather reconnaissance before the bombing.

The B-29 was considered the most advanced piston-engine bomber of World War II. It featured four engines, and a heated, pressurized cabin, allowing the bomber to fly at high altitudes. It also had eight gun turrets, some of which could be controlled remotely by one gunner, and the B-29 could carry 2,000 pounds of bombs more than 4,000 miles. It was introduced in mid-1944, relatively late in the war.

The left side of the Boeing Aviation Hangar is dedicated to general and commercial aviation. If you’re near the Enola Gay, turn so that you’re facing the Space Hangar, then turn left at the main walkway near the Junkers JU52.

The Junkers Ju52 was a 17-passenger commercial plane that debuted in 1932. It was to German aviation what the Ford Tri-Motor or Douglas DC-3 (see page XREF) was to American aviation. The Ju52 could fly from small, primitive fields, making it a favorite of countries around the world trying to build up their air transportation networks cheaply. More than 4,800 Ju52s were built, and they continued to fly commercially well into the 1960’s. A handful are still flying today. The Boeing 367-80 “Dash 80” shown here is the original prototype for what would be known as the Boeing 707, one of the most successful aircraft designs in history. Boeing proposed the design in the early 1950’s, as a military tanker for in-air refueling. When the Air Force balked at the idea, Boeing pushed ahead with building a prototype anyway, hoping that commercial and military sales would come after the plane had proven itself.

The prototype shown here first flew in mid-1954. It was far faster and larger than other commercial planes of its time, and could fly up to 3,500 miles without refueling. It didn’t take long for Boeing’s gamble to pay off, either: with slight modifications, the Air Force bought more than two dozen planes for air refueling and transport, naming it the KC-135. More than 700 were eventually built.

Boeing called the commercial version of the 367-80 the 707, and it was wildly successful too. It was cheaper to operate than the piston-engine planes currently being flown by the airlines, and could fly almost 40% faster, allowing it to move more passengers every week and make more money for the airline. More than 850 707’s were built, in dozens of variations. Millions of Americans got their first jet ride in a Boeing 707.

The prototype on display is notable not only because it’s the first 707 – it also performed one of the most famous aerobatic maneuvers of in the history of flight. Test pilot Tex Johnston barrel-rolled the Dash 80 over Lake Washington during a boat race on August 7, 1955. No one had ever seen a plane this large do a roll, and for decades after, the feat was considered an urban legend. Home movie footage surfaced a few years ago, however, taken by a spectator at Lake Washington, confirming the Dash 80’s feat. You can see the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3IV9PZW1N9U.

The star of the commercial aviation section is the Air France Concorde in the middle of the floor. The Concorde was the world’s first commercial, supersonic plane, able to fly from London to New York in under four hours, at more than twice the speed of sound.

The Concorde was conceived in the optimistic, early 1960’s, when it was thought that the trend of faster commercial airplanes would eventually mean supersonic transport. To get a jump on competition from the Americans, the governments of France and England teamed up to design and build the Concorde together. The first prototype flew in 1969, and commercial service began in 1976.

The Concorde was definitely fast, but as a complex, high-performance aircraft it was also expensive to operate. Unfortunately, it could hold only about a hundred passengers, so each round-trip ticket on the Concorde between London to New York cost around $12,000, when a regular, subsonic flight could be booked for less than $2,000. Most people decided that eight hours of their time wasn’t worth ten grand, so the Concorde was never economically viable as a business.

The Concorde on display here was the first delivered to Air France in 1976. It flew almost 18,000 hours before being retired in 2003. It was given to the people of the United States by Air France to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution and ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Next, make your way to the back of the Boeing Hangar and in to the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar. The highlight in this area is the Space Shuttle Discovery, the oldest surviving shuttle in the U.S. fleet. It flew 39 missions and spent a year in orbit around the Earth. Among its flights it carried the Hubble Space Telescope, and 77-year old John Glenn, the oldest person to ever fly in space. Discovery was retired in 2011.

Also in this area is the Sirius FM-4 Broadcasting Satellite, behind the shuttle. If you listened to satellite radio on the way to the museum, satellites like this one provided the signal that spans the United States.

Touring Tips

The Udvar-Hazy Center is larger and less crowded than the main Air & Space Museum downtown. Still, it can take up to 20 minutes to get in during holidays and for special exhibits. Your best bet is to arrive at opening or after 3 PM.

Finally, the Center is adjacent to Washington Dulles International Airport, and you can take an elevator ride up to the Center’s Observation Tower for a 360-degree view of Dulles’ runways, and aircraft on approach and at takeoff. Besides the view, the Tower holds an exhibit on how the U.S. air traffic control system works. Capacity for the Observation Tower Tour is limited, and tours end at 4:30 PM. No reservations are available, so try to get in line first thing in the morning, or around 12:30 PM, when other visitors may be taking a lunch break.

It’s possible to reach the Udvar-Hazy Center from the main Air & Space museum downtown using Metro and buses, though the trip takes 90 minutes one-way versus 60 by car. To get there, take the Silver line to Wiehle-Reston East, then take Fairfax Connector Bus 983 to the Center. You’ll need $1.75 exact fare per person or a SmarTrip card, because drivers don’t carry change.

The Center’s on-site food court is a McDonald’s.


14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway
Chantilly, Virginia
The Mall

Daily 10am-5:30pm

Free, parking $15 before 4pm