After reading almost every word written about the National Air & Space Museum ‘s Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the last emotion I expected when walking through the door was overwhelming surprise. But taking in the second-floor panorama of the Boeing Aviation Hangar turned me into a deeply rooted tree. No matter which way I turned my eyes, up, down, to the left and to the right, I saw airplanes that were old friends, known only to me by photos of the well-thumbed pages of books on my shelves at home, and winged creatures that silently asked, do you know me?
To the left was the Enola Gay. The last time this B-29 and I met during a behind the scenes tour at the Garber restoration facility in the 1990s, she was in pieces. Looking at her reassembled form standing proud on an elevated stand, what came to mind were the signatures of her caretakers on the end ribs of the engineless wings while the B-29 was in storage at the former Douglas C-54 factory on the airport, Orchard Field, built during the war to support it. Today we know it as Chicago O’Hare.
To the right was a battered P-61 Black Widow. With shiny aluminum showing through its matt black finish, grizzled is the word that best describes it. On its twin tails were the worn yellow point remains of its last duty assignment with NACA, preceded by white block letters on the tail booms that spelled test. Before I read the placard telling of the airplane’s history, I knew from my visit to Dayton that this airplane was an Operation Thunderstorm squadron mate of the P-61 on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Sitting before the Black Widow was another product of Northrup Aviation, the predecessor of the B-2, N-1M flying wing.
Wandering throughout the vast hangar I renewed my acquaintance with a number of old friends, many of whom I’d first met at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Standing next to each other were the Concorde and Boeing 307 Stratoliner. Above us were Leo Loudenslager’s Laser 200, a Rutan VariEze, and Art Scholl’s Super Chipmunk. The surprise was finding Little Gee Bee, the homebuilt George Bogardus flew from Oregon to Washington, DC, to lobby for the rule that gave life to amateur-built experimental aircraft. Through the windows overlooking the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Center was the Sikorsky JRS-1 amphibian that survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and the storied B-26 that flew more than 200 combat missions, Flak Bait.
The Space Hangar introduced flying machines seen only on TV, from the space shuttle Discovery to the suits that protected their occupants from the harsh environment outside. What surprised me most, in looking at the suits, boots, and helmets is how physically small astronauts are. At the end of a time line of space craft was a Mercury capsule, Freedom 7 II, and the day’s last surprise. In all my reading about the space program, Mercury ended with Gordon Cooper’s long duration flight. But reading the placard before the fully equipped Freedom 7 II I learned that it was to be flown on a long duration mission by Alan Shepard, who made the program’s first flight, a short suborbital jaunt downrange.
If there was a disappointment about my visit is that I didn’t allocate enough time to see it all. But that might take a good week or more. But that in itself is more than a good enough reason for several return visits. –Scott Spangler, Editor