A slightly delayed blog this week, because I spent the day playing tourist and looking at planes and spaceships and generally being like a 3 year old boy again. Did I mention spaceships?
With the time in DC coming to an end soon, it was time to do some touristy stuff. Not that I hadn’t mind you; there have been plenty of trips to the art museums in DC, and to Smithsonian after Smithsonian. However, there was one Smithsonian I hadn’t had the chance to see yet, and yet it was the one I really wanted to visit – the Udvar-Hazy Center.
Most people know of the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall, home to some of the most legendary aircraft in history such as the Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St Louis, and the X-1 and X-15 rocket planes. Lesser known is their “other” Air and Space Museum, the Udvar-Hazy Center next to Dulles Airport. This is the museum that houses the big stuff that you can’t exactly fit into downtown DC. And because of that, it’s an even grander experience.
The problem had been getting there. There’s virtually no public transport out there (Google Maps helpfully suggests a 6 hour round trip costing close to $30 in fares), so short of renting a car I was stuck. Thankfully, a couple of my fellow interns were also interested, and one had a car, so we met up in the late morning and navigated the traffic on the Beltway and out to the west of the city.
Not to put too fine a point on it but the place is huge. The complex is a series of hangars, stacked full of aircraft. If they can’t fit it on the floor they hang it from the ceiling. And they are some large aircraft too. The Boeing 707 prototype, Enola Gay, the Concorde – they’re all there, surrounded by smaller craft (relatively speaking; a fighter jet looks small next to a Concorde).
There’s even a tower and observation deck where you can go up and watch the planes take off and land from Dulles Airport. There weren’t many planes taking off when we were up there, and then we found out why. I spotted a couple of lights on the runway, and thought that they were cars doing a safety sweep (they do this to check for debris). But they were moving far too fast. That’s when I realised that we were watching two fighter jets taking off side by side and heading straight past the tower at full throttle.
That alone would have been enough to call it a great trip, but I was there to see two special items in the collection.
The first was the Space Shuttle Discovery. A truly monumental feat of engineering, and utterly incredible up close. The craft has been kept pretty much as it was when it finished service; the tiles are still scorched from re-entry, white streaks of ash along its black underbelly. It’s also somewhat bittersweet to see it in a museum, a remnant of an era now at an end.
The Shuttle was without a doubt an incredible craft, but it wasn’t the one I wanted to see.
I was there for the SR-71 Blackbird.
As a young child, my father had made a kit model of an SR-71 that he kept in his study. It was magnificent to look at, and as a kid all I wanted to do was grab it from the high shelf and fly it around. It was irresistible, sleek curves and infinite blackness. I’m pretty sure I managed to break it at some point, when I finally grew tall and wily enough to reach it (sorry Dad).
I never thought I would be lucky enough to come face to face with the real thing.
Even in the midst of hundreds of planes, it stands out, an inky void in the centre of the hangar. It doesn’t fit in amongst the others, it looks different, as if designed by an alien race. More science fiction than reality. Organic lines supporting giant engines. For a time, it was the greatest secret in the Cold War. The fastest jet plane in the world, tearing across the edge of space.
Arguably, it’s just as much a work of art as any of the paintings in the National Gallery.
Observations on music, coffee, and the occasional controversial thought.
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