While most people visiting Washington DC will be aware of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in the centre of the city, some will not know that there are actually two museums. The second one lies at Chantilly, Virginia, near to Dulles International Airport, and is called the Udvar-Hazy Center. With two major hangars, it has space for some of the best exhibits – including the retired Space Shuttle Discovery.
Why was it built and what is the catch?
Let us start with the basics. Using a US$65 million donation by the ILFC aircraft leasing guru Steven F. Udvar-Hazy, the Udvar-Hazy Center was designed as a spacious annex to the main Smithsonian Air and Space museum in central Washington. Like the main museum, admission is free, but car parking costs US$15. And for those that don’t own or want to hire a car…well here comes the major downside…it is quite hard/expensive to get to.
For when it was opened in 2003, a bus service linked the city centre museum to its Chantilly sibling, but this has ceased. And so the museum now suggests other routes to Udvar-Hazy. One is to get to Dulles Airport and then catch a bus (Fairfax Connector 983). Great you might think – but there is no baggage storage at the airport, although you can store bags at the museum.
The other option is to take the metro to Wiehle-Reston East – at least part of the way, with a taxi (or Uber) or the same 983 bus for the final leg. The latter plan works relatively speedily, though the tilting metro does induce nausea in some (including this writer) on its longer stretches.
However, being hard to get to gives the museum one major benefit: no crowds. While the main museum on Independence Avenue is awash with the world and his wife (and kids), all trying to see the same exhibits, Udvar-Hazy has the space to let you move around unimpeded.
So are the exhibits any good?
Until recently the SR-71 Blackbird fought it out with the Air France Concorde and the atom bomb-carrying Boeing Superfortress bomber, the Enola Gay, to be the key attraction at Udvar-Hazy. However,,about two years ago, an interloper stole their thunder. The now-retired NASA Space Shuttle Orbiter Discovery, sans dangerous thruster engines, and sporting dummy main engine nozzles (its real main engines are being used on SLS) now takes pride of place at the museum.
It replaced the never-to-fly in orbit ‘Fake Shuttle” – well actually the aerodynamic test glider Shuttle prototype Shuttle Enterprise. Discovery joins other spacecraft in a display ranging from a TDRS communications satellite suspended from the roof to a Project Mercury capsule rooted firmly to the ground.
There are, of course, lots of other planes on show, including some excellent war plane foes from the past including: the Soviet built Mig-15 vs the US North American Sabre of the Korean War, and similarly, the Mig-21 vs the McDonnell F-4 Phantom and Republic Thunderchief jets from Vietnam.
Some World War II-era planes from both sides are also on display. Representing more modern types, that “Top Gun” icon, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat is shown in its full glory. And for those interested in civil airliners there is the Boeing 707 and a Stratoliner, plus a (paid for) viewing tower to see Dulles next door.
It also has the ubiquitous IMAX film theatre showing both documentaries and feature films about aerospace.
What is it missing?
There are a few displays in the main city museum that the Udvar-Hazy site lacks. The Apollo lunar landing module is one, as well as some of the World War I aircraft – especially the prettily painted Albatross. And, of course, it has other key aerospace craft including the Wright Brothers Flyer and the X-15 that will never be beaten by any other museum.
Mind you, the main Smithsonian does not get everything right. Virgin Galactic SpaceShipOne really is given a little too much pride of place.
Food and drink are available but there is not much choice: like the main museum in the city, it is McDonalds or nothing. Its food is mixed. A tepid Big Mac or quarter pounder hamburger, served up with the compensation of some good fries and a coke, is the best you can hope for.
The gift shop is good, however – albeit not quite as extensive as the three-floor one at Air and Space museum central.
Overall, it is hard to get to but the Udvar-Hazy museum is worth it. But do a short stint at the main city centre Air and Space museum as well.
Seradata’s rating: 8 out of 10. If they brought back the bus service from the city centre it would have been a nine. Steal the lunar module, the World War I Albatross and the Wright flyer for Udvar-Hazy, and a 10 would beckon.