Udvar-Hazy: Surprises & Friends Restored

By Scott Spangler on March 28th, 2016

634A9600After reading almost every word written about the National Air & Space Museum ‘s Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the last emotion I expected when walking through the door was overwhelming surprise. But taking in the second-floor panorama of the Boeing Aviation Hangar turned me into a deeply rooted tree. No matter which way I turned my eyes, up, down, to the left and to the right, I saw airplanes that were old friends, known only to me by photos of the well-thumbed pages of books on my shelves at home, and winged creatures that silently asked, do you know me?

To the left was the Enola Gay. The last time this B-29 and I met during a behind the scenes tour at the Garber restoration facility in the 1990s, she was in pieces. Looking at her reassembled form standing proud on an elevated stand, what came to mind were the signatures of her caretakers on the end ribs of the engineless wings while the B-29 was in storage at the former Douglas C-54 factory on the airport, Orchard Field, built during the war to support it. Today we know it as Chicago O’Hare.

634A9709To the right was a battered P-61 Black Widow. With shiny aluminum showing through its matt black finish, grizzled is the word that best describes it. On its twin tails were the worn yellow point remains of its last duty assignment with NACA, preceded by white block letters on the tail booms that spelled test. Before I read the placard telling of the airplane’s history, I knew from my visit to Dayton that this airplane was an Operation Thunderstorm squadron mate of the P-61 on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Sitting before the Black Widow was another product of Northrup Aviation, the predecessor of the B-2, N-1M flying wing.

Wandering throughout the vast hangar I renewed my acquaintance with a number of old friends, many of whom I’d first met at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Standing next to each other were the Concorde and Boeing 307 Stratoliner. Above us were Leo Loudenslager’s Laser 200, a Rutan VariEze, and Art Scholl’s Super Chipmunk. The surprise was finding Little Gee Bee, the homebuilt George Bogardus flew from Oregon to Washington, DC, to lobby for the rule that gave life to amateur-built experimental aircraft. Through the windows overlooking the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Center was the Sikorsky JRS-1 amphibian that survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and the storied B-26 that flew more than 200 combat missions, Flak Bait.

634A9699The Space Hangar introduced flying machines seen only on TV, from the space shuttle Discovery to the suits that protected their occupants from the harsh environment outside. What surprised me most, in looking at the suits, boots, and helmets is how physically small astronauts are. At the end of a time line of space craft was a Mercury capsule, Freedom 7 II, and the day’s last surprise. In all my reading about the space program, Mercury ended with Gordon Cooper’s long duration flight. But reading the placard before the fully equipped Freedom 7 II I learned that it was to be flown on a long duration mission by Alan Shepard, who made the program’s first flight, a short suborbital jaunt downrange.

If there was a disappointment about my visit is that I didn’t allocate enough time to see it all. But that might take a good week or more. But that in itself is more than a good enough reason for several return visits. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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6 Responses to “Udvar-Hazy: Surprises & Friends Restored”

  1. Iron City Says:

    I think you may have underestimated the amount of time needed to really go through the UHC. I’ve been a docent there for a few years and every time I go I learn something new. There are 180+ airplanes in the Boeing hanger and docents have a 6 month training course and do refresher or most usually new material training class about monthly. Most of these classes are conducted by the curators responsible for the artifacts or other work. It doesn’t get any better than Tom Crouch going over the 1908 Flyer reproduction for your class or some one on one with the lead restoration specialist on the 100 year old Caudron G4 parked behind the Flyer.

    And just because you mentioned it, the first 2 Mercury capsules that did the sub orbital rides were launched with a Redstone, just look to the left from looking at the capsule…tall and green with windows in the side. The Freedom 7 II is one of 2 complete Mercury capsules in the world (still has parachutes/nose cone and retro rocket pack (inert, I hope).

  2. Glen Towler Says:

    I went there last year it has been on my bucket for a years. And it didn’t disappoint me one bit it was a amazing I loved doing the guided tour it was just mind blowing the whole place. I see they have a Japanese jet fighter there as well which I never even knew the they built any during WW2. I spent the whole day there. I must return one day

  3. Raegan Says:

    I have considered going many times and have always talked myself out of it. Honestly i didn’t realize what i was missing but reading this blog and the comments here i am sad that i haven’t been before. I am going to plan a trip to go soon. I am a big fan of aircraft in fact i am about to graduate from http://www.flyhaa.com/airplane/ as a pilot. I think only those who understand the beauty and complexity and history in a plane can really appreciate it. I am happy to say that i will be going soon. thanks for the post.

  4. Scott Spangler Says:

    Oh, what a lucky aviation geek you are, Iron City. I’ll second your opinion of Tom Crouch’s encyclopedic knowledge. I had the pleasure of meeting him at the symposium held by Dayton’s National Aviation Historic Alliance.

  5. AirplaneGeeks 396 The Emirates Employment Model | OnBrave People Informer Says:

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  6. Dale Rush Says:

    Years ago I worked with a guy named Joe Rosio who was a plant manager for the fertilizer division of Union Oil. Joe was a WW II pilot who was shot down over France while piloting a B 17. He told many good stories about his escape to Spain, imprisonment, and how his treatment changed (improved greatly)as the Spaniards and Franco realized the Nazis would lose the war. Anyway, Joe who ended up as Curtis Lemay’s pilot, also told stories about flying P 61s after the war into hurricanes and other very bad weather, and probably flew the one described in the above article. He said the P 61 was chosen because it was thought to be the toughest airplane in the US inventory. Some of Joe’s stories were so incredible many though he was making most of it up, that is until he brought in a box of documents and a scrap book that validated his many amazing and amusing tales.

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