Friday, July 15, 2016

Birds and Buildings | Washington, DC Part 3

Here are some photos from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Like all other Smithsonian institutions, it is free and requires security checks. Because I don't want to drag out the DC posts any longer, I've also included photos of various federal buildings.

Commercial aircraft

Looking out over the Udvar-Hazy Center. WWII aircraft in the foreground, commercial civilian aircraft in the background. Note: Japanese planes (rising sun on the wings and tail), the Enola Gay (huge R), Air France Concorde jet

The Air and Space Museum is split into the museum on the National Mall in DC and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in a giant hangar in Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia. The combined museum houses the world's largest collection of air and spacecraft, and is the second-most visited museum in the world (first is the Louvre and third is the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History). The main museum is horribly crowded in the summer, but Udvar-Hazy is comfortably populated. I spent perhaps four hours between the two, but could have spent at least that much in each facility.

Learning about the Space Race. Note an unlaunched Skylab, Hubble Space Telescope, Apollo 11 command module Columbia, and a V2 rocket

Vought F4U-1D Corsair, Pacific theater of WWII

Contrary to what these photos may suggest, there are non-American aircraft and non-military aircraft. German and Japanese planes were in abundance, including a Messerschmitt Bf 109, a very powerful and feared Luftwaffe fighter.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk with shark nose art "Lope's Hope", WWII American fighter

A German Pfalz D.XII supposedly used during WWI...that eventually appeared in Hollywood movies about WWI. Part of the Red Baron exhibit

Here's a personal aside about this museum. When I was a young child, this museum floored me. I went through a phase of aircraft mania that prompted me to apply as an mechanical or aerospace engineering major to half the colleges I applied to. I watched a lot of History Channel programs about aircraft, was briefly obsessed with a mythic future career of designing top secret military stealth birds X years ahead of the most advanced civilian aircraft.

Boeing X-45A, an unmanned combat air vehicle, stealthy

All this was ignited by this museum. I doubt we went to the Udvar-Hazy Center, but perhaps the very spark was a little model of the SR-71A Blackbird on display at that very hangar that my parents bought for me. It was lost somewhere in between moves, but for several years, it sat on my desk and kept me company (it was also a pencil sharpener). I miss it so, and tried to find that same souvenir when I visited this time (among the cornucopia of Blackbird-themed mass-produced merchandise, no luck...the one truly functional souvenir). My sibling got a non-pencil sharpener model of the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird in all her glory

Space Shuttle Discovery surrounded by other spacecraft

And, I would be irresponsible in forgetting to warn about the throngs and throngs and throngs of middle school and younger kids packed into the museum on the National Mall. It's almost impossible to stand still and read a plaque intently, the aircraft and additional artifacts speak for themselves.

Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Vega 5B

I also needed to remind myself that certainly, one grand purpose of this museum is to inspire the children of America to want to learn more about aircraft, to be curious about engineering and history, and to help them see their own futures in those very exhibits. Another thing: the free guided tours are wonderful. My tour guide was a retired engineer and history buff and a great educator; tour guide at Udvar-Hazy was similarly engaging and informative. As annoyed as I wanted to be at the crowds of children, I had to remind myself that this museum really was made for them.

Wright 1903 Flyer, the first heavier-than-air powered aircraft

I'll continue this sermon and stick the logistics in at the end. This museum is my favorite museum in the world (and to spoil, I prefer the Udvar-Hazy Center over the main museum). It was incredibly easy to get carried away with AMERICA FUCK YEAH-type patriotism looking at all the military aircraft, reading about and watching footage of American pwnage in basically all the wars in the past century. Especially at the Udvar-Hazy Center, which is mostly military aircraft, it was very easy to fill up with nationalistic excitement.

Space Shuttle Discovery

In the museum and the hangar in Virginia, the planes are just planes in a museum. Even with little info plaques, they're decontextualized engineering marvels, and maybe just an abstract representation of American domination and heroism. But, I do think that this is a personal distinction to make, and that the mostly neutral presentation of the exhibits of the Smithsonian museums in general are appropriate. I just need constant reminder of geopolitical context to prevent crazy mythologizing of the USA.

I show Enola Gay here, but there were flocks and flocks of Cold War planes from Korea to Vietnam, and an even larger flock of helicopters used in the Gulf War, Afghanistan, etc, etc that I didn't take pictures of. There's a kind of unsubstantiated (but possibly very true) Reddit claim that the first, second, and third largest air forces of the world are the USAF, the US Navy, and the US Army. It's a huge source of patriotism and national pride, but, again, decontextualizing and mythologizing.

Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber "Enola Gay", dropped atomic bomb "Little Boy" onto Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945 and participated as weather recon in the bombing of Nagasaki three days later

I've neglected to mention the space stuff, but a lot of that went right by me. I don't have much to say other than to appreciate the vast collection of space artifacts and space craft, particularly the Space Shuttle Discovery, which is simply breathtaking. Another note is that many of the objects I took pictures of are models or versions of a craft that never entered orbit. Much of what is sent into space is not returned, and the objects that do come back are in fairly bad condition.

Soviet capsule, Soviet capsule, American capsule

Cosmonaut and astronaut

At long last, here are my opinions on going to the Udvar-Hazy Center 26 miles away from the National Mall. If you have any interest in aircraft, spacecraft, or twentieth century war, the Udvar-Hazy site is a mandatory destination. It took me about 1.5 hours to reach the Washington-Dulles International Airport from the Smithsonian on the National Mall at around 12:30 PM, though the return trip was twice that amount due to rush hour traffic. By car, it should not take more than an hour, but I've realized that 35 miles on the highway means something different in northern California than northern Virginia. The Metro is easy to navigate, and the Fairfax Connector bus service to the hangar and the international airport are regular and reliable, but horribly vulnerable to bad traffic. Because I wanted to return to Washington by 7 PM, I only stayed about 1.5 hours at Udvar-Hazy, when I could have easily spent 3 or 4 there. If you have time in your itinerary, this can absolutely be a day trip. If you are taking public transportation, I recommend leaving DC in the morning and returning in the early afternoon to avoid gridlock.


And finally, here are the photos of various federal buildings. No comment other than about the intense security everywhere...and the tour groups everywhere. All the glorious interiors are from the Library of Congress.

United States Capitol

Left: Library of Congress
Right: Supreme Court

Left: Athena
Right: an eagle

The White House


  1. The federal buildings are quite grand! I wouldn't have associated buildings like that with the US, for some reason. I've got to admit, those exhibits would've been lost on me - I've never been into aircraft! It was interesting to see how they laid everything out, though.

    1. The interior of the Library of Congress completely shocked me. But, I guess I shouldn't be surprised at all the Greco-Roman influence and the bigger-is-better/more-is-more aesthetic. There were too many mosaics and reliefs to look at.

      I don't know if my photos showed the scale of the museums themselves, but I omitted about half of the Udvar-Hazy Center's hangars. The way the planes are laid out are essentially however they can fit (and which ones would look the coolest dangling from the ceiling).

  2. I went to a museum like this when I was little and I was so fascinated by it. I love that kids are so curious and wide-eyed about everything. // The federal buildings are so beautiful!! -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey's

    1. Our local aviation museum (common field trip destination) completely floored me when I was little. Perhaps many future pilots and engineers are inspired there