Reopening America’s Hangar

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When its doors opened to the public in December 2003, the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center was a dream come true for the Smithsonian Institution. After years of private fundraising efforts and lobbying government leaders for funding, the world-renowned museum and educational institution finally had a new facility to display the larger aircraft and space vehicles that were preserved as part of the national collection. For many of these aviation and space treasures, the opening of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center was the first time they were ever placed on public display.

In the years that followed its opening, millions of visitors passed through the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. The museum received rave reviews from aviation enthusiasts for its design, which featured many of the aircraft on display in a large vaulted space that resembled an airship hangar. This allowed many of the aircraft to be hung and displayed as if they were flying and gave the museum the nickname, “America’s Hangar”. The Donald D. Engen Observation Tower, designed to resemble an airport control tower, allowed museum visitors a bird’s eye view of aircraft operations at the nearby Washington Dulles International Airport. The Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar, at the rear of the museum, gave National Air and Space Museum curators a modern facility to work on aircraft and space vehicle restorations in public view of museum visitors.

In 2020, after being open continuously to the public for several years, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center was closed by the Smithsonian Institution in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Officials soon closed all museums and facilities within the Smithsonian Institution in response to government health directives designed to protect the public and to slow the spread of the pandemic. Although conditions improved and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center briefly reopened in the fall of 2020, a resurgence of cases caused Smithsonian officials to once again close the museum just a few weeks after it had reopened. The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center would sit closed for the rest of 2020 and the early months of 2021.

In late April, with cases declining and more Americans being vaccinated against the coronavirus, Smithsonian officials announced the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center would reopen to the public on May 8. Officials noted that the museum would reopen with limited capacity and that health precautions would be in place for museum staff and guests.

I, like many other people throughout the world, had very little to do throughout 2020. Most of the airshows and aviation events I attend were canceled. Although I have been to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center many times since its opening in 2003, I decided to visit the museum once it reopened. I have recently been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus and I felt that added layer of safety in addition to the Smithsonian’s precautions for visitors and staff made visiting the museum a safe activity.

Before visiting the museum, all visitors must obtain a timed entry pass. Admission to the museum is still free, the purpose of the timed entry passes is to space out the visitors entering the museum and prevent lines from forming at the security checkpoint. A limited number of passes are available each day, to ensure that the Smithsonian follows the capacity limits for museums outlined in the Commonwealth of Virginia’s coronavirus reopening plan. A set number of timed entry passes are available each day.

There are some other guidelines with the timed entry passes. Groups of people visiting the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center are limited to no more than six people and each person in the group needs a timed entry pass. The passes are available up to 15 days in advance and availability can be difficult, especially for weekend dates.

As guests reserve their passes, a series of questions are asked to make sure a person will comply with the coronavirus precautions in place at the museum such as wearing face coverings and observing social distancing. After completion of the timed entry pass form, the pass is emailed to the person who reserved it. The passes can either be printed out or scanned at the museum on your mobile device.

Before visiting the museum, it is recommended all visitors view the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center website and the floor plan of the museum. Portions of the museum are currently closed and certain amenities normally used by visitors are not available as part of the museum’s coronavirus precautions. Some of the museum activities currently not available to guests are the simulator experiences, IMAX theater movies, and the Donald D. Engen Observation Tower. Visitors to the museum are also requested to perform a health check on the morning of their visit and stay home if not feeling well or exhibiting any symptoms of the coronavirus. This health check is sent to visitors via email.

The most critical museum amenity not available for visitors at the current time is the McDonald’s restaurant. There is no other restaurant option available at the museum. For visitors traveling long distances or planning to spend a good portion of the day at the museum, it is recommended you pack a lunch or snacks to eat at or by your vehicle. The Smithsonian has also set up some picnic tables near the museum building and there are some grassy areas outside the museum as well people can use for picnic lunches. The timed entry passes allow visitors to exit the museum to eat outside and reenter when finished. The museum gift shop is open for business, but the merchandise selection is limited to allow for social distancing within the store and the number of people allowed inside the store at one time is also limited.

When I arrived at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center for my visit, I knew when I pulled into the parking lot, this visit to the museum would be different than any other. The museum has a 2,000 car parking lot and it was not even a quarter full. As I walked up to the building, signage alerted me to the precautions being taken by the Smithsonian Institution facilities to help protect their staff and visitors during the pandemic. One of these precautions includes wearing a face covering at all times inside the museum. Fortunately, I have some homemade ones made of fabric printed with airplanes that were the perfect fit for my visit to the museum.

As I entered the museum, a staff member at the door reminded me to have my entry pass ready to scan and directed me to an open security booth. After my pass was scanned and my camera bag checked by security personnel, I was ready to tour the museum.

Signage throughout the museum reminds visitors of the precautions the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is taking during the pandemic to protect visitors and staff. These precautions include reduced capacity inside the museum, the closure of certain portions of the museum, the suspension of guided tours, more frequent cleaning of the restrooms, and the use of face coverings by all staff and guests. The museum is also promoting social distancing throughout the museum and got creative with their social distancing floor signage. In the Boeing Aviation Hangar, the signage is in the shape of an airplane, in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar portion of the museum, the signage is in the shape of a space capsule.

During the museum’s temporary closure, curators at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center were busy adding some new aircraft on display. One of these aircraft is a Boeing F/A-18C Hornet that was donated to the museum by the U.S. Navy. The aircraft on display is in the markings of and was used by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron for flight demonstrations at airshows until its retirement in late 2020. This aircraft will help the National Air and Space Museum tell the story of military flight demonstration teams to museum visitors.

Another new aircraft on display is the German Heinkel He-219 Uhu (Eagle-Owl). The He-219 was an advanced night fighter used by the Luftwaffe at the end of World War II. This aircraft was captured by American forces at the end of World War II and later secretly brought to the United States for testing and evaluation before being donated to the Smithsonian Institution. On display in pieces for many years, museum curators have now assembled the aircraft for display on the museum floor with other examples of German aircraft from World War II. Curators are continuing restoration work on the rare aircraft’s nose and propellers.

As I began my journey through the museum, I made a trip to the back of the building and the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar. Although the hangar itself is not accessible to museum visitors, glass panels allow visitors to see inside the hangar and watch curators work on restoring aircraft and space vehicles that will go inside the museum.

Curators continued work on restoration projects in the hangar during the museum’s closure to the public. One of the restoration projects taking place in the hangar is the preservation and conservation of the Martin B-26 Marauder Flak-Bait. This aircraft holds the record for the most bombing missions survived by any American aircraft during World War II. Storage in less than ideal conditions for many years has taken a toll on the condition of this aircraft and preservation and conservation progress has been slow.

A recent addition to the restoration hangar is something a little different for the National Air and Space Museum. A full-scale movie prop of an X-Wing Starfighter from the movie Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is being assembled in preparation for museum display. The prop is on indefinite loan from Lucasfilm and will be displayed inside the National Air and Space Museum’s flagship facility on the National Mall when a renovation project for that building is completed in late 2022. The X-Wing will be part of an exhibit that details how spaceflight in popular culture has impacted the public’s perception and interest in human spaceflight.

The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center itself is also undergoing some important maintenance and restoration. The roof structure of the Boeing Aviation Hangar is at the end of its expected lifespan. Currently, the roof is being replaced and the construction work is resulting in certain areas of the museum and exhibits being closed to visitors. Some of the aircraft on display have been covered in plastic to protect them from damage as this work is completed. The closure of the entire building because of the pandemic means much of this work has been completed without impacting museum visitors. The repairs to the roof are expected to be complete by the end of 2021.

My next stop in the museum was the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar. The objects displayed in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center that are associated with human spaceflight are all displayed in this hangar. Objects and artifacts in this collection include satellites, space capsules, astronaut equipment, spacesuits, and rockets and missiles. The centerpiece of this collection is the Space Shuttle Discovery.

The Discovery’s incredible size makes it an impressive item on display in this section of the museum. The Discovery was the third of five Space Shuttle orbiters built. From its first mission in 1984 to its retirement in 2011, Discovery made 39 successful flights into space. When it was retired, Discovery was chosen for inclusion in the National Air and Space Museum because it was felt the orbiter represented the scope of human spaceflight best. During its career, Discovery flew every type of space mission. These missions included carrying the Hubble Telescope into orbit and later servicing it, visiting the Russian Mir space station, carrying satellites into orbit, conducting scientific experiences in space, and delivering components to assemble the International Space Station. Today on display in the museum, the Discovery still captures the imagination of those who see it and pose for a selfie with the famous orbiter in the background.

Another interesting object in the James A. McDonnell Space Hangar is the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) used by NASA to use for astronauts returning from the Moon. The MQF was designed to quarantine the astronauts and prevent the unlikely spread of lunar contagions to other people. About the size of a mobile home, the MQF had a kitchen, bathroom, and sleeping quarters to accommodate five people. The MQF on display was one of four built for NASA for use during the Apollo program and was used by the Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin when they returned from the Moon. Also on temporary display in the museum is the Apollo 11 capsule that the three astronauts used to return to Earth after their historic mission to the Moon.

As I finished walking through the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar, I came across one way the museum staff is interacting with visitors to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in the world of social distancing. Currently, safety precautions put in place by the Smithsonian Institution do not allow for the museum curators to give public tours or talks inside the museum. These educational talks and tours are a highlight of visiting the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

To continue to provide museum visitors access to the vast knowledge of the museum curators, learning stations have been installed throughout the museum featuring webcams and computer monitors. During the museum’s operating hours, museum curators are available for live video chats on these webcams. Visitors can ask questions to the curators about the aircraft in the museum, their history, and their performance characteristics. These live video chat systems have been set up in the museum near the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, the Space Shuttle Discovery, and at the main information desk at the front of the museum.

Before moving on in my journey through the museum, I made a stop at one of the many restrooms in the building. The restroom was clean and fully stocked with paper towels, soap, and hand sanitizer. Signage alerts visitors that the restrooms are being cleaned more frequently as a health precaution. The museum itself was also clean, with no trash or debris on the floor, and all the aircraft and space vehicles on display had been dusted before the reopening.

After visiting the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar, it was time to explore the Boeing Aviation Hangar. This is the largest part of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center and contains the museum’s aircraft and aviation artifact collection. One unique aspect of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is that the Boeing Aviation Hangar features elevated walkways for museum visitors. These elevated walkways allow visitors to have a closer view of the aircraft that hang from the ceiling and also provide unique views of the aircraft on display at floor level.

The Boeing Aviation Hangar contains several unique aircraft famous for being on display in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Some of these aircraft include the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird spy plane that sits in the center of the hangar and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, notable for the role it played in dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima at the end of World War II. Also on display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar is an example of a Concorde that was donated to the museum by Air France, a Junkers JU-52 once operated by the German airline Lufthansa, and the prototype Boeing 707. I have visited the museum several times since its opening in 2003, I now focus on seeing some of the lesser-known aircraft on display when I travel to the museum.

One of my favorite aircraft on display is in the World War I Aviation section of the museum. The Caudron G-4 on display in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is one of the most significant surviving aircraft from World War I. A French-built aircraft, the Caudron G-4 saw widespread use as a reconnaissance aircraft and light bomber and entered service in large numbers beginning in 1916. The G-4 was a primitive aircraft in many respects, using wing-warping to achieve lateral control and having a top speed of under 80 miles an hour. Although some G-4’s were equipped with machine gun armament for defensive use against enemy fighters, many flight crews resorted to carrying handheld weapons instead.

The G-4 was used as a light bomber until 1917 when its slow speed and lack of defensive armament began making it easy prey for German fighter aircraft. The aircraft was eventually relegated to the training role, where the fact it was easy to fly and had excellent handling characteristics made it ideal for training new pilots. Over 1,300 G-4’s were built during World War I. Today, the G-4 on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is one of the few twin-engine aircraft remaining from World War I and is also one of the world’s oldest surviving bombers. The aircraft helps tell the story of early aerial reconnaissance and aviation in World War I to museum visitors.

The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center has a significant collection of aircraft from the Vietnam War as well that I love checking out. These aircraft are located on the lower floor of the Boeing Aviation Hangar. In recent years, the Vietnam War has become a more popular topic of study with aviation enthusiasts as the population who fought in this war ages.

One of the aircraft that is part of this collection is a McDonnell Douglas F-4S Phantom II. The Phantom II is one of the most successful multirole aircraft in modern aviation history. In addition to the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and the U.S. Marine Corps, 12 other nations have used variants of the F-4 in their armed forces. The F-4 proved to be adaptable to many roles during its long service career including air superiority, ground attack, and reconnaissance. The F-4 Phantom II was the only aircraft to be used by both the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration squadrons.

The Phantom II on display in the museum saw action with the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War, flying combat air patrols, and bombing missions during the Linebacker II bombing campaign in 1972.

Also on display in this exhibit is a Soviet-built Mikoyan-Gurevich MIG-21F. Codenamed the “Fishbed” by NATO, the MIG-21 served in over three dozen nations and became the standard Soviet interceptor. Upgrades to the radar, armament, and engines turned the aircraft into a multirole aircraft. The small, fast, and nimble MIG-21 proved an excellent adversary to American pilots over the skies of Vietnam when flown by experienced pilots.

The Vietnam aircraft exhibit also includes a Republic F-105D Thunderchief. The F-105D was designed as an all-weather, supersonic, fighter-bomber capable of carrying a heavy load of conventional or nuclear weapons. Nicknamed the “Thud” by its pilots and maintainers, F-105’s were a key part of the major bombing campaigns of the Vietnam War, flying over 20,000 missions during the conflict. The F-105D on display is restored to the colors and markings it wore while it was stationed in Thailand in 1967.

The last aircraft I wanted to be sure to visit before leaving the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center was the Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler on display in the museum. This aircraft is special to me because I had the unique opportunity to cover its arrival at the museum in 2019. At the time, the U.S. Marine Corps was retiring the EA-6B from service and authorized the last Prowlers in its inventory to be disposed of to aviation museums. The National Air and Space Museum requested one of the EA-6B’s for display and was approved. On the day of its retirement, the EA-6B on display was flown to the museum by a U.S. Marine Corps flight crew. Visitors to the museum that day had the opportunity to see the aircraft perform a flyover of the museum, then land at the nearby Washington Dulles International Airport and taxi over to the museum. Later, the EA-6B was pushed into the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar to begin the demilitarizing process.

The Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler was one of the most unique aircraft in the U.S. inventory. The aircraft, a stretched design of the Grumman A-6 Intruder attack aircraft, was designed for electronic warfare. The primary mission of the EA-6B and its crews was to jam enemy radar systems and gather radio intelligence on those systems and other enemy defense systems. The EA-6B was used by both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps.

EA-6B’s were used for a new role during operations in Afghanistan. The EA-6B was used to counter improvised explosive device operations by jamming remote detonation devices such as cellular phones and garage door openers used by militants. Prowlers were also used in support of coalition airstrike operations in Iraq and Syria against Islamic militants by jamming enemy radar systems and radio signals. After a long and successful service career, the U.S. Navy retired their EA-6B’s in 2015, replacing them with the Boeing EA-18G Growler. The U.S. Marine Corps retired the last of their EA-6B’s in 2019. The EA-6B on display was operated by U.S. Marine Corps Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 2 (VMAQ-2) based at MCAS Cherry Point in North Carolina.

As I wrapped up my visit to the museum late in the afternoon, I went to the kiosk to pay the parking fee and to use the restroom before my long drive home. Around me, many other families were planning to head home for the day as well. A small group of visitors were visiting the gift shop to buy a souvenir for their children, themselves, or friends and family.

I always enjoy visiting the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. The aircraft on display are an incredible collection of civilian and military aircraft. Some of the aircraft on display are the only ones of their type left in the world, others are an important type in a military conflict or a milestone in commercial aviation. Each item in the museum has an important story to tell about the history of aviation or human spaceflight.

This visit to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center was like no other. As we have just emerged from the pandemic and are beginning to get back to a normal life, I had some concerns about visiting the museum safely.

What I found was that the Smithsonian Institution had an effective plan for reopening the museum with well-thought-out and logical safety protocols in place. The facility was clean and the staff on duty knowledgeable and friendly. The visitors in the museum were very respectful of each other in social distancing and wearing face coverings. The best part of the visit was to see people enjoying the museum and the aircraft and space vehicles on display. People were glad to be able to visit the museum and spend a day with friends or family members doing a safe activity.

Hopefully, in the months to come, the Smithsonian Institution can open the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center up to more visitors and open more amenities so visitors can have an even more enjoyable experience. Until that happens, it is at least nice to know people can visit the museum and enjoy the rich aviation and spaceflight history in “America’s Hangar”.

If planning a visit to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center this summer, please visit https://airandspace.si.edu/udvar-hazy-center for the latest information on coronavirus precautions at the museum and to obtain the free timed entry passes for your visit.

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