The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is a gigantic display of aeronautics and aerospace from over 100 years of flight. You can experience beautifully restored airplanes from every era of flight, learn about the way planes have changed throughout the years, and how they assisted in all of the wars America has been a part of for the last century. The center itself is a part of the Smithsonian Air and Space museum, housing all of the exhibitions that don’t fit in the original museum on the mall in Washington DC. Its two huge hangars are located in Chantilly, Virginia just south of Dulles International Airport. It has its own restoration wing in addition to 20 exhibitions, learning labs, and an Imax theater.
The Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar is the perfect place to visit for the aeronautic buff. They are constantly restoring, reconstructing, repairing, and preserving important pieces of aerospace history. The queue for aircraft waiting to be restored is long and full of history, and museum-goers can watch the magic happen in action.
The first major artifact that was restored in the hangar was the Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver, a World War II aircraft that was the same type flown by the former museum director during his time in the war. This aircraft was a carrier-based bomber that flew for the Navy from 1943 to 1945. The SB2C was designed to replace the Douglas SBD Dauntless, as it was larger in size and able to carry more arms, as well as an internal bomb. It first saw its naval debut on 11 November 1943, attacking the Japanese port of Rabaul on the island of New Britain. It was met with complaints from pilots due to its bulky size, lack of range, and lack of power.
Variants started to be produced with new engines and propellers, fixing a majority of the issues that pilots suffered from. The Helldivers flew alongside Hellcats and Corsairs, which were better defended than the Helldivers, but these planes had the benefit of a more specific target range due to a steeper angle, and a second pilot for more eyes in the game. Since air-to-ground rockets followed in construction almost immediately after the production of the SB2C, the Helldiver was the last dive bomber in production. The remainder of the produced planes were sold and flew for France, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Thailand up until 1954. Now you can see one of those very last dive bombers perfectly reconstructed in the Restoration Hangar at the Smithsonian.
The next big upcoming project for the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar is the Martin B-26B-25-MA Marauder Flak-Bait. The nose of this medium bomber has been on display at the World War II Gallery in the Smithsonian on the Mall in Washington DC since 1976, but the museum now plans to reassemble and preserve the entire aircraft to put it on display within the center. Its reconstruction began in 2014, and it is still on display and being worked on inside the hangar. This plane holds special importance as it holds the record with the United States Army Air Forces for the highest number of bombing missions during World War II.
It had a total of 207 missions, including 5 decoy missions, over France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. It was piloted by Lt. James J. Farrell of the 449th Bombardment Squadron, 322nd Bomb Group. Lt. Farrell gave the plane its unusual name by combining their word for German anti-aircraft artillery, “flak” with “Flea Bait,” the name of his brother’s dog. Flak-Bait lived up to its name, accumulating over 1000 holes over the course of its service that had to be patched up, even returning twice with a broken engine and once with an engine on fire. Because of its significance, Flak-Bait was saved from destruction after the war and sent back to the states. It was officially transferred to the Smithsonian in 1960. The restoration process for Flak-Bait won’t be easy, due to the lack of any kind of treatment since the war. You can see the preservation in progress in the Restoration Hangar.
Stepping back in time slightly, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center also holds a unique collection of 1920s and 1930s military aircrafts, many of which are sole survivors of their time period. The Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk on display in the Interwar Military Exhibit is one such plane. The Sparrowhawks were biplane fighters also known as parasite fighters. They were tiny planes launched in 1931 that were designed to hang below a larger aircraft, and because of this they often didn’t have landing gear attached. The plains would take off and reattach to a “skyhook,” which was a large trapeze mounted on the bottom of the carrier plane.
For takeoff, the carrier would lower the trapeze so the Sparrowhawk could disengage and fall away, utilizing its small size for reconnaissance missions. To return to the carrier plane, the trapeze would be lowered and the Sparrowhawk would fly beneath to hook on to the crossbar. It was a tricky maneuver that often warranted multiple attempts but pilots thought it was easier than landing on a constantly-moving aircraft carrier deck. Because the hooking strategy was so effective, the Sparrowhawks would have their landing gear removed and replaced with an additional fuel tank for more lengthy reconnaissance. The Sparrowhawk was plagued with poor radio equipment and poor visibility and was taken out of commission in 1937. The sole surviving biplane was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1939. Most others are interred with the Macon, one of the two airships that carried them in the 1930s. That airship went down in 1935, but the wreck was not discovered until 1990. You can see the sole surviving Sparrowhawk in the Interwar Military Exhibit at the wearing the markings of the USS Macon.
Airplane technology expanded significantly moving into World War II, and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center has two exhibitions dedicated to both US and German aviation during the war. One of the planes on display is the Stinson L-5 Sentinel, also known as the “Flying Jeep.” It was a versatile and important aircraft during the war, used by every branch of the military and manufactured in bulk. It was produced as just a slightly modified civilian plane from 1942-1945 as a lightweight liaison aircraft. 3,590 of these planes were produced in just those three years, making it almost the most widely used lightweight aircraft during the war, falling only second to the Piper L-4 Cub. The L-5 worked as a courier, communicator, and was used to spot artillery and evacuate casualties.
Later it was modified to also carry 250 lbs worth of cargo or evacuate wounded soldiers as a sort of air ambulance. It was a morale boosting aircraft, used largely to deliver necessities to the front line and then return wounded soldiers to hospitals in the rear field. It was also used by high-ranking officials to transport themselves quickly and efficiently over short distances. The L-5s were used during the Battle of Okinawa using a unique landing system called the Brodie landing system. These lightweight airplanes used a wire hung between booms to take off and land rather than a traditional landing strip. One of these Brodie system planes is the one on display now at the Smithsonian.
Switching gears from the more common planes to a one-of-a-kind bomber, one of the other planes on display in the WWII exhibit of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is the Boeing B-29 Superfortress “Enola Gay.” On 9 May 1945, the plane was personally selected off the assembly line by Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., who was the commander of the 509th Composite Group. It was under the command of Captain Robert A. Lewis for a month during training missions in Guam before moving to Tinian at the end of July 1945. The plane was then begrudgingly passed back to Tibbets, who named the plane after his mother, Enola Gay Tibbets. The name was painted on the nose on 5 August, just one day before the plane’s most famous flight. The Enola Gay carried and dropped “Little Boy,” the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima at 8:15 Hiroshima time on the morning of 6 August 1945, returning safely to base at 2:58 that afternoon.
Tibbets received the Distinguished Service Cross immediately after disembarking from the Enola Gay. The Enola Gay also accompanied the mission of the bombing of Nagasaki on 9 August, though it did not carry the bomb. The plane was chosen to be preserved in July of 1946 and was transferred to the Smithsonian. It was stored in Tuscon, Illinois, Texas, and Maryland, at a variety of storage facilities for more than 10 years, including outdoors at Andrews Air Force Base, where it was vandalized by souvenir hunters. It was dismantled and stored in a Smithsonian storage facility starting in 1961. In 1980 there was a petition from veterans of the 509th Composite Group to display the aircraft, and in 1984 restoration began. The fuselage was put on display in the Smithsonian from 1995-1998, amidst much controversy. Restoration continued on the rest of the plane, however, and was finally completed on 10 April 2003. The Enola Gay has since been on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
The Smithsonian also has an exhibition for the German aircraft that flew the skies during World War II. One such plane is the Arado Ar 234 Blitz. This aircraft type was the first operational jet bomber that the world had ever seen. It was used more for reconnaissance, but was nearly untouchable as a bomber when it was used as such. The 234 was overshadowed by the Messerschmitt Me 262 and during production of the 234 jet engines, the 262 took priority and claimed what little engines were being churned out. So even though production of the 234 started in 1940 the 234 didn’t fly until July of 1943. After another round of revisions and new versions, the 234 saw its first combat mission on 2 August 1944.
The jets only flew for a few months, and the one on display in the Smithsonian was surrendered to the British in Norway near the end of the war. This particular aircraft was assigned the number FE-1010 after being reassembled and flown for testing. In 1949 it was transferred to the Smithsonian and awaited restoration until 1984. It was a lengthy restoration, only completed in 1989, having to be completely repainted with the typical markings of a German bomber. It was displayed in the Smithsonian on the Mall starting in 1993, and can now be seen in the Dulles center. It is the last surviving Arado Ar 234.
Moving along to the Korean War, the Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center has on display the North American F-86 Sabre, also known as the Sabrejet. It was the US’s first swept wing fighter, intended to counter the similar soviet aircraft, the MiG-15. The F-86 first entered the Air Force in 1949, becoming part of the 94th Fighter Squadron. Three more squadrons were rushed to Korea in December of 1950 as the Soviet MiG-15 swept wing plane outperformed every straight-winged jet. The F-86 was undergunned and mostly underpowered in comparison, but the pilots were experienced WWII veterans, while their opponents, the North Koreans and the Chinese, largely lacked experience.
The US pilots could outmaneuver most of these pilots, but the MiG-15s that were secretly manned by experienced Soviet pilots proved to be a more difficult adversary. Most of the combat that the F-86 saw was in the Yalu River area, and at near-sonic speeds the F-86’s max speed at more than Mach 1 was a significant advantage over the MiG-15’s cap at Mach 0.92. The US Air Force’s training was rigorous and aggressive, but effective, at the end of the Korean War F-86 pilots had shot down 792 MiGs, while having only lost 78 of their own. After the war the planes were sent elsewhere, to Taiwan from 1954 to 1956 to fight in the Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1958, and to Pakistan in 1954 to fight in the Indo-Pakistani Wars in 1965 and 1971. The fighter on display in the Smithsonian was assigned to the 4th Fighter Interceptor Group and flew in Korea from the Kimo Air Base. However, many of these Sabres still survive and can be seen both around the country and around the world. Many are in museums although 2 are still airworthy and can be found in Heritage air collections in Oklahoma and Washington.
The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II is one of the aircrafts on display in the Vietnam War exhibition. This plane was designed by McDonnell Aircraft for the US Navy in the 1950s, though it entered into service in 1960. The Phantom was designed to fill a need within the US Navy- an attack fighter. The plane is a large fighter with an impressive initial climb rate and a top speed of just over Mach 2.2. Though it was originally developed specifically for the Navy, the highly adaptable plane was quickly adopted by the US Marines and the US Air Force and became a principal fighter for all during the Vietnam War. The aircraft was designed to hold two passengers, and was usually outfitted with air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, and a variety of other weapons. Its agility and thrust allowed the Phantom to become the last US fighter plane to attain Ace status. At the start of the Vietnam War, the US Navy had 13 squadrons with the Phantom, and over the course of the war the Navy’s F-4 squadrons participated in 84 tours. The US Air Force, however, quickly became the largest user of the Phantom design.
They began to be used for the Air Force in 1964, with 16 squadrons on permanent deployment and 17 squadrons on temporary assignment. The plane also made its way to the international market and was scooped up by many countries including England, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Australia, Israel, Japan, Greece, Turkey, and Germany. McDonnell Aircraft produced the F-4s up until 1979 and had manufactured 5195 of them during that time. The aircraft on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center joined service in 1970 and remained in service until 1988, when it became part of the Smithsonian collection. It had logged a total of 5,075 flight hours and 6,804 landings.
Jumping from mass-manufactured fighters to rare reconnaissance aircraft, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird is unparalleled in nearly every way. It was developed to replace the relatively slow Lockheed U-2 to deliver more accurate assessments of the Soviet Union’s military deployments without being vulnerable to interceptors or surface-to-air missiles. Lockheed Aircraft Corporation overcame many obstacles in creating this incredible aircraft, including designing turbine engines powerful enough to travel at Mach 3.2 speeds and fly above 60,000 feet. Flying in those conditions is dangerous for the machinery, so a complex system was developed to reduce flameouts.
It was crucial that the SR-71 have a low radar profile, so designers tweaked the smape to reflect very little radar energy and applied special paint to absorb that energy. The paint also helped to radiate the heat from the air friction of flying at extreme speeds and the dark color helped to camouflage against the night sky. This was the first application of stealth technology. After rigorous testing, Lockheed built 32 SR-71s, the first of which flew on 22 December 1964. When the Air Force acquired the planes they earned their nickname of Blackbird for their dark color. The planes were widely flown, acquiring a total of more than 53,000 flight hours during their service time from 1966 to 1990. The largest problem was that the extreme conditions required an extended turnaround time after each mission, sometimes taking up to 19 days for a full repair before the aircraft were able to take on the next mission. At the time of their retirement, one SR-71, manned by Lt. Col. Ed Yeilding and his RSO Lt. Col. Joseph Vida, set a record of the fastest flight from Los Angeles to Washington DC of 1 hour, 4 minutes, and 20 seconds, with a speed of 2124 mph. The aircraft was handed over to the Smithsonian at the conclusion of that flight.
The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is a must for any history or aviation buff. There are thousands of aircrafts and parts on display from every era of flight. You can watch the restoration process in action as teams work tirelessly to restore one-great aircrafts to their former glory.