Gen. Jack Dailey hefted the comically oversized scissors to approach the ribbon. Hundreds waited to pass metal detectors for the December 15 opening of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. After a mock slice for the cameras, Dailey reached for real scissors to snip a new era at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM).
The Hazy Center is officially a “companion facility” to the NASM’s flagship building on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., but eventually will house the world’s largest collection, some 200 aircraft and 135 space artifacts, sprawled on 176.5 acres abutting Washington Dulles International Airport. More than a third were installed for opening day. Many are hung from 21 steel trusses from as high as 10 stories, while others, such as the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, are at floor level. The presentation makes history accessible.
With access came anger. After the ribbon cutting, families streamed in for a first look, but among them was a small group of activists. They hid blood, or at least a red liquid, past security to splatter and dent the meticulously restored B-29. After two arrests, the group moved outside to taunt arriving tourists with protests against atomic war, Iraq and all things Bush. Nearly two-thirds of media attendance was Japanese, who captured every exclamation. Indoors, four stories above the fray on a catwalk, a high-school band played Christmas tunes with a jazz twist.
Higher still were a happy group of first-day visitors, pressed against glass in the 164-foot observation tower that overlooks short final to Dulles. The tower’s cab presents the facts on air traffic control, as sponsored by Raytheon. The chants of protest were also drowned by the thundering speakers of the 479-seat IMAX theater.
The center is named for Steven F. Udvar-Hazy, chief executive of International Lease Finance Corp., who kicked in $65 million toward the project. Udvar-Hazy is a Gulfstream IV captain, with additional type ratings in Citations, Gulfstreams and Learjets.
Entrance to the Hazy Center is free, but the Smithsonian’s lease with its neighbor, Dulles Airport, requires parking fees. That $12 tab and the 25-mile ride from downtown may challenge projections of three million visitors in its first year. An additional $93 million in non-federal funds is needed for the second phase: a restoration hangar, archives and storage. The downtown flagship location will still house the select 10 percent of the collection, that is, among those sized to fit, and remains the world’s most visited museum, with nearly 10.8 million people walking through the door last year.
Beyond the throng at Enola Gay, most visitors flowed to the Air France Concorde, which had been donated after its final transatlantic flight. The few who followed its fuselage to the tail came upon the unmarked back wall of the business aviation exhibit. Flanked with the sexy Concorde and shadowed by the Boeing 367-80 (forerunner to the 707), the business aviation collection pleads its place with a raised signpost. A feisty “Business Aviation” sign pokes above the left elevator of the Boeing jetliner.
In the shadow of the heavies sits Lear Jet N802L, the first production Model 23 Continental. Suspended above are the first arrivals of the Business Aviation exhibit–a Beech King Air and Bonanza; Grumman Goose; Dassault Falcon 20 in FedEx livery; and soon a North American Rockwell Shrike Commander 500S to be flown to Dulles by airshow legend Bob Hoover.
Visitors to Concorde curious enough to venture past the unmarked wallboard can fix on an engaging, wide-screen panel sponsored by NBAA and Jeppesen, that airs a video emphasizing the benefits of business aviation. Others can linger at the glass case stocked with 32 exquisite models. Model scales range from 1:55 to 1:15, with donations from Bombardier, EADS North America and Eurocopter. The displayed 1951 Directory of Executive Aircraft, published by the NBAA’s forerunner, the Corporation Aircraft Owners Association, speaks to a time when business aviation was more unknown.