Winged icons roll out of mothballs

Email|Print| Text size + By Hope Cristol
Globe Correspondent / December 14, 2003

CHANTILLY, Va. --There it was, that gleaming silver Boeing B-29 Superfortress: huge, plump, and more evocative now, as a retired bomber on clunky yellow stands, than on the morning of its major mission, before it changed the world.

Fully assembled for the first time in 40 years, the Enola Gay is a chilling centerpiece in the National Air and Space Museum's new companion facility, opening tomorrow at Dulles International Airport. It dominates the other World War II planes on display beneath its 141-foot wingspan. Its bomb bay doors hang open, taunting visitors to peer into the dark cavity that dropped the first atomic bomb used in combat.

I was born decades after the benignly named "Little Boy" bomb obliterated Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. I didn't lose any family in that war, and I don't particularly like planes. Yet standing before this icon of great historic contradictions -- ingenuity and ignorance, honor and shame, the end of World War II and the start of the Atomic Age -- I felt inexplicable tears try to force their way out.

A lot of what's inside the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center, named for its $65 million donor, can evoke such visceral reaction. In a world of Disney renditions and dead-ringer replicas, this Smithsonian Institution museum is packed from floor to ceiling with the original history-makers -- from the earliest planes to modern rockets. You don't need a passion for aviation or space exploration to stand in awe of these machines. They speak of the human spirit of exploration; they tug on the heartstrings of triumph and tragedy.

They also look really cool. Aerobatic planes, gliders, and fighter jets hang from the arched steel trusses of the massive, hangar-shaped space. Bigger military and commercial planes, including a sleek, delta-winged Air France Concorde, fill the gray concrete floor space.

It looks like a boy's dream toy-room, all grown up. The museum, south of Dulles's main terminal and a short taxi ride away, is nearly three football fields long and 10 stories high, and filled with some 80 aircraft and 60 large space artifacts, a fraction of the more than 200 aircraft and 150 artifacts that will ultimately be on display.

One of the best vantages for all of them is the landing. Hanging overhead is the Curtiss P-40E Warhawk, a first-line fighter that scored important US victories, and the jet of the famed Flying Tigers, recognizable by the toothy shark mouth painted on its nose.

Below the landing is a jet that looked to me like something Batman would have flown. I didn't know what it was, but I got the feeling that this big, black, needle-nosed plane had to be important.

Apparently, it still is. The Lockheed SR-72 Blackbird, and built in the early 1960s, is still the fastest, highest flying operational jet-powered aircraft ever built. It can fly faster than three times the speed of sound, at altitudes of over 85,000 feet. On its last flight, this Blackbird set a transcontinental speed record, flying from the West Coast to the East Coast in 64 minutes and 20 seconds.

Behind the Blackbird is the James S. McDonnell space hangar, named for the founder of the company that built the nation's first manned spacecraft. This wing is much smaller than the main aviation hangar, but features items of historical and technological significance, from X-ray telescopes to the first US space shuttle, Enterprise, a test vehicle designed to operate in the atmosphere.

So how do the smaller planes get attention against the backdrop of the Blackbird, Enterprise, and Enola Gay? With big stories.

In the shadow of the Enola Gay, for instance, is a smallish, dark green, Japanese World War II bomber, the Aichi M6A1 Seiran. Designed to be launched from -- a submarine, its wings can be folded back onto the fuselage. The plane sits on two pontoons.

This wasn't the first Japanese floatplane used in the war. Japan operated reconnaissance aircraft from submarines before the United States entered World War II; in 1942, one attacked the Oregon coast. None of the 26 Seirans ever built saw combat, however.

"What happened was, the Japanese had these airplanes loaded on ships and as the end of the war came, the crews basically destroyed them," said Dik Daso, the museum's curator for modern military aircraft. After the war, US forces discovered a single Seiran in the Aichi factory. That's the one in the Udvar-Hazy Center, the only one in existence, Daso said.

The objective of the center, 20 years and $311 million in the making, isn't just public intrigue. The National Air and Space Museum has a federal mandate: to "memorialize the national development of aviation and space flight; collect, preserve, and display aeronautical and space flight equipment of historical interest and significance." It is difficult to do right by that mandate when much of the collection is dissembled in storage hangars.

"What I'm getting out of this is a vastly improved storage space," says David DeVorkin, museum curator of astronomy and the space sciences. His "storage space" is the James McDonnell space hangar, which will be closed for several more months while Enterprise undergoes restoration. Instead of being boarded up, it will be glassed off -- so visitors can watch the restoration in process.

The hangar will be home to an unflown Mercury series spacecraft and the Gemini VII spacecraft, flown on a two-week orbital endurance mission in 1965. Until it opens, some of the artifacts will be displayed in the aviation hangar.

In addition to the important aircraft from World War II, the Cold War, Korea, and Vietnam, there are the commercial, sport, business, and private planes. Display cases house aerial cameras and aircraft machine guns, astronaut equipment, Amelia Earhart artifacts, and flight suits. There is an IMAX theater and an observation tower, where visitors watch planes take off and land at Dulles. Eventually, there will also be a restaurant. Temporary food service will be available until a food court opens later in 2004.

Just months ago, the Udvar-Hazy Center seemed to be taking shape as a jazzed-up aircraft warehouse. Now, in time for the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers first powered flight on Wednesday, the facility is a full-fledged tourist attraction.

Hope Cristol is a freelance writer who lives in Washington.

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