Aviation Sights of Virginia

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Although Virginia, as an aviation destination, may seem a shadow of Washington with its world-reknowned National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, half of that magnificent facility actually sits in Virginia itself, and the state’s numerous other, although smaller, sights offer significant aviation focuses, from barnstorming airfields to space capsules.

                The National Air and Space Museum’s second facility, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, is located in Chantilly, Virginia, next to Washington-Dulles International Airport.  Constructed to preserve and display the remaining 80 percent of the aerospace collection too large and too numerous for either the existing structure on the National Mall or the Paul E. Garber Preservation and Restoration Facility in Suitland, Maryland, the modern, hangar-appearing building, named after International Lease and Finance Corporation Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Steven F. Udvar-Hazy in recognition of his $65 million donation, had broken ground on October 25, 2000 when Hazy himself had turned the first shovel.  The project, ultimately costing $311 million for design, site infrastructure, and building, and requiring a 600-strong construction team, had required some three years to complete before the first of several opening ceremonies could be held.

                The first of these, amid the season’s first snowstorm, had taken place on December 3, 2003 and had entailed a special, pre-public “Appreciation Day” held for its sponsors, donors, and National Air and Space Society members.  The event, precluded by a military ceremony of the Star Spangled Banner and a tributary speech by Museum Director General Jack Dailey, had entailed a day-long series of programs and the unveiling of many of the aircraft exhibited.

                The other museum inaugurations, including the “Salute to Military Aviation Veterans,” the “Opening Celebration Gala,” and the “Museum Dedication,” had preceded the actual public opening, held on December 15, 2003, the centennial celebration of the Wright Brothers’ first powered, sustained, and controlled heavier-than-air flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

                Divided into two main areas, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center features a collection of 141 aircraft, 148 large space artifacts, and more than 1,500 smaller items.  The first area, the Boeing Aviation Hangar, measures 986 feet long, 248 feet wide, and 103 feet high, and displays aircraft on three levels, while the second, the James S. McDonnell Hangar, is comparatively 262 feet long, 180 feet wide, and 80 feet high.  The 164-foot-high Donald D. Engen Observation Tower overlooks Dulles International Airport and the 479-seat IMAX Theater completes the experience.

                Exhibits are grouped in 16 broad categories: Vertical Flight, Sport Aviation, Business Aviation, Commercial Aviation, Pre-1920 Aviation, Korea and Vietnam, Cold War Aviation, Modern Military Aviation, Aerobatics, German World War II Aviation, Ultralights, Military Aviation: 1920-1940, Human Spaceflight, Space Science, Applications Satellites, and Rockets and Missiles.

                Early aviation is represented by aircraft such as the Langley Aerodrome A, the Nieuport 28C-1, and the SPAD XVI, while World War II designs include the North American P-51C Mustang and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress “Enola Gay,” which had dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, effectively ending the war.  Naval aviation is represented by aircraft such as the Vought F4U-1D Corsair and the Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat.  Among the pure-jet fighters are the Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star, the McDonnell F-4S Phantom II, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, and the Grumman A-6B Intruder. 

                The museum’s transport category aircraft represent piston, pure-jet, subsonic, and supersonic designs, some of which are very rare, such as the German Focke-Wulfe Fw 190F, a quad-engined, tail-wheel aircraft which had application as an airliner; the German Junkers Ju 52/3m, with its three engines, corrugated metal airframe, and tail wheel; the Boeing B-307 Stratoliner “Flying Cloud,” the world’s first four-engined, pressurized passenger transport; the Lockheed L-1049H Constellation; the Boeing 367-80, the prototype of the Boeing 707; and the supersonic Concorde.

                Supersonic military aviation is represented by the Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird.

                The James S. McDonnell Hangar, whose centerpiece is the Space Shuttle Enterprise, features a rich collection of spacecraft, rockets, and satellites, among them the Gemini VII capsule, the Mariner 10, the Mercury Capsule 15B, a Redstone rocket, and the Mobile Quarantine Unit used after return of the Apollo 11 mission.

                The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, together with the original National Air and Space Museum building on the National Mall, forms an integral part of the world’s largest aerospace museum.

                Not all of Virginia’s aviation sights, however, encompass static displays housed in buildings.   

                The 200-acre Flying Circus Aerodrome, for instance, located in Bealeton, Virginia, and created in 1971, offers 1920s- and 1930s-era biplane air shows every Sunday from May to October reminiscent of the barnstorming days of aviation, billing itself as “the greatest show off earth.”  Its fleet, which is mostly hangared at the nearby Warrenton Airport and flown in on weekends, includes enclosed Piper Cubs and open-cockpit N2S-1 and –3 Stearman, Waco, and Fleet biplanes, and is available for both straight-and-level and acrobatic rides of between 15 and 30 minutes before and after the shows.

                After paying at the entrance booth, cars park on the grass behind the public area, which includes bench-type seats, Fifi’s Air Show Café for light fare, and a tiny, gray barn gift shop.  A few hangars, located across the field and bearing red-and-white checkered roofs with names such as “Curtiss,” can also be visited.

                The annual Air Show Program features many special event days, including antique cars, tractors, motorcycles, model airplanes, and hot air balloons.

                Entrance immediately transports the visitor through a time portal to the barnstorming era.

                A summer flight, aboard a Waco biplane, further returned me to this era.  Unleashing itself over the grass with a full, 1,900-rpm throttle application, the aircraft, propelled by its single, uncowled engine, lifted its tail wheel off of the now blurred carpet of green and surrendered its two, fabric-covered wings into the sky at 70 mph.

                Banking right to a 030-degree heading at 300 feet, it had settled into a 200 foot-per-minute climb in the hot, flawlessly-blue August sky over central Virginia’s rolling green canvas.  Settling into its 600-foot aerial plateau, it cruised over light-green, velvet-appearing fields, bordered by dark green trees, which resembled modern geometric art patterns.  Silver hay silos had triumphantly risen from them.

Commencing a series of figure-eights over rectangles of dry, almost-golden fields, whose plow marks appeared like textural brushstrokes, the biplane assumed a westerly heading toward the soft green ridges of Shenandoah National Park ahead of the blurred propeller, before initiating a much-too-soon, power-reduced sideslip over the ever-enlarging trees toward the field and gently settling on to the grass with its two main wheels.

                The Virginia Aviation Museum, located closer to the eastern seaboard at Richmond International Airport, entices visitors with its outdoor Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and features 36 indoor historic, vintage, and reproduction aircraft, including the Wright Brothers’ kites, gliders, and 1903 Flyer; the Vultee V1-AD once owned by William Randolph Hearst; the Fairchild FC-2W2 Admiral Richard E. Byrd had used to overfly Antarctica; and a collection of piston and pure-jet engines.  A full-size Piper J-3 Cub, which had recently been relocated from Science Museum of Virginia affiliate, permits examination of the four forces of flight, while several simulators and interactive exhibits explore aerodynamics.

                Early aviation, the collection’s principle focus, includes several pristine-condition mono- and biplanes, such as a 1918 Standard E-1 Advanced Trainer, a 1917 SPAD VII fighter, the only known existing Wright Model A-14D Speedwig, a purpose-designed mail-carrying Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing from 1927, a 1927 Travel Air 2000, a 1930 Fleet Model 1 military basic trainer, and a 1918 Curtiss JN-4D Jenny.

                Both piston and pure-jet engines include a Wright J-6 Whirlwind 5, a Curtiss OX-5, a 1914 Le Rhone 9C rotary engine, a Wright R-2600 Cyclone 14, a Pratt and Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major, a Continental A-65, a General Electric J-31, and a Pratt and Whitney J-58.

                Dioramas depict World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen, and Women’s Airforce Service Pilots.  Educational programs, catering to student, scout, and senior citizen groups, include lessons such as “The Wright Math,” “The Wright Path,” “Paper Airplane Workshop,” “Balloons and the Civil War in Virginia,” and “Seniors Discover the World of Aviation.”

                Further south, in Hampton Roads, its outdoor Air Power Park, dedicated in recognition of the contributions made by NASA and Langley Air Force Base to aerial and space development and for their interest in community endeavors, include several unique aircraft designs, inclusive of the Lockheed T-33A T-Bird, an A-7E Corsair II, an XV-6A Kestrel V/STOL, a North American F-86L Sabre, the later-developed North American Rockwell F-100D Super Sabre, a McDonnell F-101F Voodoo, a Northrop F-89J Scorpion, and a Republic Aviation F-105D Thunderchief.  Even rarer, perhaps, is its space-related collection, including an SM-78 Jupiter surface-to-surface intermediate-range ballistic missile, a Western Electric NIM-14 Nike-Hercules two-stage missile, a Jet Propulsion Lab M-2 Corporal Ballistic Missile, a North American Aviation Mercury/Little Joe Booster, and a Mercury Test Capsule.

                The Virginia Air and Space Center, located in downtown Hampton on the waterfront, is a $30 million, 110,000 square foot, nine-story facility which had opened on April 5, 1992 and is characterized by its futuristic, interconnected, dual-building, gull wing roof-resembling architecture.  Its more than 30 historic air- and spacecraft, which represent more than 100 years of flight, are exhibited in the recently completed, $9 million Adventures in Flight Gallery and the Space Gallery, and include such designs as the Apollo 12 Command Module which had made the journey to the Moon, an AirTran DC-9-30, a B-24 Liberator nose section, an F.84 Thunderstreak, an F-4E Phantom II, an N2S-3 Stearman, a Lunar Orbiter, an F-104 Starfighter, an F-106 Delta Dart, a YF-16 Fighting Falcon, and a P-39Q Aircobra.  A new exhibit, “Space Quest: Exploring the Moon, Mars, and Beyond,” had recently been introduced in the Space Gallery.  Extensive, hands-on exhibits, featuring hot air balloons, noise abatement, a Boeing 717 glass cockpit fight simulator, aircraft flight surfaces, propeller efficiency comparatives, and Space Shuttle landing simulators, are complemented by the Riverside IMAX and Curtiss Jenny Century of Flight Theaters.

                The Virginia Air and Space Center depicts a timeline of Virginia aviation achievements.  The first-ever captive balloon ascent from a ship, for example, a Union Army vessel anchored at Hampton Roads, had occurred in 1861, and Eugene Ely had become the first to take off from what had been considered the first aircraft carrier, the USS Birmingham, anchored nearby, in 1910.  The Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, the predecessor of NASA Langley, had been established.  In 1927, the USS Langley, a converted collier, had been commissioned as the US Navy’s first aircraft carrier.  In 1931, NACA Langley had opened the world’s first full-scale wind tunnel capable of testing full-size aircraft at speeds of up to 118 mph.  In 1934, the Newport News Shipyard had constructed the first purpose-built aircraft carrier, the USS Ranger.  The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) had become the National Air and Space Association (NASA) in 1958 and America’s first astronauts, the Mercury Seven, had trained at the NASA Langley Research Center.  The United States’ first transonic wind tunnel had opened at NASA Langley in 1982.

                The museum also serves as both the Visitor Center for the NASA Langley Research Center and Langley Air Force Base.  Four miles north of the museum, the US Army had purchased land in December of 1916 in order to construct, in cooperation with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, an airfield.  The Army had subsequently trained crews and tested aircraft there during World War I.  In 1921, Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell had led bombing trials from Langley to demonstrate the feasibility of air patrol and its effectiveness in destroying battleships.  Major General Frank Andrews later led a combat air command, which became the forerunner of the Army Air Forces of WWII and ultimately evolved into today’s US Air Force.

                Virginia, although initially perceived as a shadow of Washington with its Smithsonian Institution on the National Mall, is a relatively small state which offers a long, multi-faceted aviation journey.

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