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Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

Chantilly, Virginia

It sure looks big enough as you walk toward it through acres of parking. But once you’re inside, big becomes astounding. Its components spread before you, like a huge 3-D jigsaw puzzle. The effect is conjured by the teasingly brilliant, floor-to-ceiling layout of dozens of flying craft. They run from between the wars to the Skunk Works’ awesome Blackbird, contemporary ultralights, and—what else?—a space shuttle. The dazzling presentation (the result of years of detective work, gathering, and restoration) produces a kind of technological trompe l’oeil.

Fittingly, World War II opens the experience. At the end of the entryway, past the security guards and the corridor leading to the McDonald’s, ahem, Café, a platform has you looking up at a suspended P-40, the single-engine fighter-workhorse used by 28 countries, including most of the Allies—the size of a small private plane today. Adjacent hangs an even smaller Lysander, used mostly for picking up secret agents and downed air crews; its high wings looked outmoded even then, but belied its exceptional aerodynamics. Descend the stairway ramp to the floor to see the larger P-61C, a.k.a. the Black Widow, with its familiar twin-tube silhouette— the first operational American aircraft designed to use radar. There’s also a P-47D Thunderbolt, a F6F3 Hellcat, and the Enola Gay. Ironically, even this B-29 behemoth, all spit and polish, is dwarfed by a nearby supersonic transport.

Just follow your eyes and stroll. Regularly placed maps identify the aircraft in each sector, and most planes have a panel of basic data in front of them. Dial into the well-distributed touchscreens for info and images. Linger near the terrific docents for offbeat tidbits and detailed expositions. Don’t miss the sectors of World War II–vintage Japanese and German planes (boasting a J1N1-S Gekko; an MXY7 Ohka, a kamikaze favorite; and an M6A1 Seiran, a submarine-launched bomber; as well as an FW 190F, He 219A Uhu, a Ju 52, a Fa 330A, and a Do 335)—these samples, like the rest, are in fine restored shape.

Seeing these machines like this lets you feel how fragile the line between life and death was for any World War II flier, how vulnerable the minutes must have felt as you squeezed into a cramped cockpit without radar, pressurized air, computers, and the contemporary, ho-hum like.

But, darker subtexts duly noted, the display inevitably turns you into a wide-eyed kid. The cornucopia of machinery here pours out of human ingenuity— seeing so many solutions to the question of what planes can be and do is simply staggering. So stop and gape. There’s time and space. Despite its awesome number of visitors, the museum never really feels crowded. Two exceptions: the flight simulator and the observation tower. If you plan to visit those, add an hour for the wait—or come on a weekday.


Originally published in the April 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.