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Lope's Hope

Airplane heaven: visiting NASM's
Udvar-Hazy Center

Rank has its privileges, at the museum as well as in the officers' club. So the first planes you see upon entering the new Udvar-Hazy Annex to the National Air & Space Museum have a connection to NASM's leaders. On the right is a Vought F4U Corsair in a left turn with its wheels down, as if landing on a carrier deck (the father of NASM's director was a Corsair pilot during World War II). On the left is a P-40E Warhawk in sharkface warpaint, with Lope's Hope lettered on the cowling (that was the plane the associate director flew in China in 1943, and that survived a close encounter with a Nakajima Ki-43 "Oscar" fighter).

That view is actually from the second of the museum's three levels. You must go downstairs to the hangar floor for the serious walk-around. I went immediately to the far wall and turned left, where the World War II stuff is on display. Wow! I needed two hours to work my way down the line, from a wingless, unrestored Ki-45 Toryu fighter of the sort the AVG Flying Tigers met at Hengyang in June 1942, to an elegant copy of the Focke-Wulf Fw-190, to the menacingly gorgeous Enola Gay, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress that dropped the Little Boy uranium bomb on Hiroshima. There are also such "lesser" aircraft as a fully fledged Air France Concorde and the Dash-80 prototype of the Boeing 707 jetliner. None of the last three planes--B-29, Concorde, or 707--could have fit into the NASM facility downtown. At Udvar-Hazy, they don't even seem to crowd the hangar.

The selection of planes is excellent, though anyone who hasn't visited NASM downtown might be mystified by what's included. Apparently the curators went out of their way not to duplicate the downtown holdings. Thus you will see a Hawker Hurricane but not the more famous Spitfire; the Fw-190 but not a Messerschmitt Bf-109; a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt but not the North American P-51, at least not one in warpaint; and a handsome Kawanishi N1K Shidan Kai ("George"), rather than the expected Zero. A few planes, like Lope's Hope, were moved out here from downtown. Others, like the Northrop NM-1 Flying Wing, could formerly only be seen at the restoration works at Silver Hill, Maryland. (Eventually, Udvar-Hazy will boast a new restoration hangar, where visitors can gawk at the work underway.) And several are on loan from other museums.

I was struck by the number of foreign tourists--German, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese, to name only those I could identify from their voices. Many were young, too. The Japanese were older; they were very serious; and they lingered longest at Enola Gay and at the even more frightening Yokosuka Naval Arsenal Ohka human bomb. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be Japanese and to be faced with those two instruments of death.

At the far end, Udvar-Hazy is currently serving up box lunches from Subway. This has engendered some complaints, but I liked it. No decisions! Eat and go, eight bucks with soda. You're here to see the planes, right?

AEC Super Cub

I moved more quickly in the afternoon. Say an hour to cover the rest of the ground floor--World War I, post-1945, generation aviation--and a final hour on the walkways, which are the only way to look many of the planes in the eye. My favorites among these were a sparkling 1941 J-3 Piper Cub and a red-and-white PA-18 Super Cub, the latter all kitted out to search for uranium. By coincidence or design, the Atomic Energy Commission Cub hangs almost directly over Enola Gay. (These walkways are a bit of a problem for the first-timer. You can't get to the third level without going back down to the ground floor, so you're apt to spend a bit more time on the inclined ramps than you expected.)

For me, the only downer was the gift shop. I was under strict orders to bring back something for my granddaughters; it was a bitterly cold day, and somehow the management had heated the gift shop to what seemed like body temperature. I nearly had a meltdown there. As for the Imax theater, I have no comment on that. We're here to look at airplanes, right?

Udvar-Hazy is located at Dulles airport, though there's no connection between them. (You could take a cab, then telephone for another to take you back to the airport.) There are hotels a mile or two away, but the walking would be dangerous and unpleasant; make sure you stay at a place that will shuttle you to the museum. Parking is $12 a day, and the parking lot was only one-third full the day I was there--a Saturday, though a cold one. I took the shuttle bus from NASM downtown. That cost only $7 round trip, though it took most of an hour to cover the 28 miles.

As for the name, well, Stephen Udvar-Hazy was born in Hungary and made a fortune leasing jets to airline companies. He ponied up $65 million to enable the annex to open in time for the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight (most of the corporate donors backed out or reduced their pledges after the recession and the terrorist attacks put a hole in their balance sheets). According to NASM's website, the name is pronounced OOD-vahr HAH-zee. However you pronounce it, it's a great success.