Smithsonian Museums are free to the public, which I absolutely love. And the collection of interesting and historical things these museums house is incredible. One of the most popular of the Smithsonian Museums downtown is the Air ad Space Museum. I visited it for the first time 20 years ago with my two younger cousins, Renee and Ryan. Their father (my uncle, Richard) retired as a Colonel from the Army since then and is now serving as a Docent at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
It’s one of the greatest privileges I can imagine to have him guide me through the museums on two separate days last week. First, he takes us to the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport and we spend an entire day going through some of the most incredible pieces of aviation history imaginable.
The Space Shuttle Discovery is here. It flew 39 missions and shows scars on its heat-shield tiles from each re-entry. It’s unbelievable that I stand just feet from it.
The Enola Gay is here too. This B-29 Superfortress was the first aircraft used to drop an atomic bomb when it bombed Hiroshima, Japan in August 1945.
The number of both military and civilian aircraft here is unbelievable, and reminds me how enormous the Boeing Hangar is. In addition to the aircraft named above there are a Boeing 707, a Concorde, a Blackbird SR-71, fighter jets, helicopters, gliders, and so much more – all in this one museum.
After running out of steam and deciding I wanted to stop for something to drink, I look at my watch and realize I’ve been here more than 4 hours. It’s gone by in the blink of an eye and I can’t remember ever being so engrossed in a museum in my entire life. But the thing is, I’m not done yet. We go up to the mock Air Traffic Control tower and can watch aircraft on their glide path to Dulles runways. We spend a wonderful and exhausting 6 hours in the Hazy Center, and to be honest, if I’d stopped for lunch anywhere in the middle, I could have spent another 2-3 hours there.
The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum located on the Mall in D.C. is a smaller facility than the Hazy Center, but it holds some important pieces of aviation history. The Bell XS-1 nicknamed Glamorous Glennis is here. It was the first aircraft flown at a speed that broke the sound barrier by Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager in 1947.
The Spirit of St. Louis still soars above the ground, nearly nine decades after Charles Lindbergh flew it from New York to Paris in the first solo non-stop crossing of the Atlantic.
We visit the Wright Flyer here as well. This was the first successful powered and piloted aircraft and was designed and flown by the Wright Brothers in December 1903. It sustained severe damage shortly after that flight when a gust of wind caught it and flipped it over. The frame was preserved and restored with new canvas covers and is here too.
Apollo 11 was the first space flight that landed humans on the moon. The Apollo 11 Command Module brought Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins home safely after that incredible mission.
These two days of being immersed in the collections have been incredible. But I have to say the most special part for me was that my Uncle Richard was our tour guide. He is obviously passionate about the subject and I find it inspiring and contagious.
As we walked around Hazy we saw several veterans being guided around the hangar as part of an Honor Flight. This non-profit organization honors American veterans by transporting them to Washington, D.C. to visit memorials built in their honor as well as other inspiring locations in the city. Today there are a couple dozen Honor Flight guests touring the Hazy Center. As we pass one my uncle says “thank you for your service” to one of the veterans. And for a moment I am a little choked up because those words were uttered by a man who served his nation for more than 26 years in the U.S. Army, and who still serves the public now. Thank you, Uncle Dick, for your service. Our entire family is so proud of you. And thank you (and Aunt Ruth) for making this such a wonderful week. I love you both.