National Air and Space, Washington
It’s not all high-tech space wizardry at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington DC, but there are so many spectacular sights demanding instant attention that it’s hard to focus on a single object when entering the front door. For instance, on the left might be a couple of nuclear-capable rockets, one Russian, the other American. Ahead could be a recovered Apollo space capsule. To the right is maybe a sample of rock retrieved from the moon.
There are probably more visitors per year to this museum than any other similar venue in the world.
Overhead everywhere are rare and sometimes very odd-looking aircraft, including a round-the-world single-seat twin-boomed non-stop piston-engined Orbiter and a stick and string Wright Brothers Flyer. To the right could be a big red Breitling Orbiter high tech balloon gondola festooned with bottles and mysterious gadgets.
In addition to the rest of the amazing aircraft and aerospace artefacts, the Sea-Air Operations Gallery is still functioning in the National Air and Space Museum. In Gallery 203, right at one end of the building and up the escalator, is a simulated aircraft carrier hangar, with a Douglas A4-C Skyhawk fighter bomber, a WWII Douglas SBD-6 Dauntless dive bomber, and a Grumman F4-F Wildcat fighter. The gallery also houses a bridge mockup, complete with television screens and loudspeakers that simulate bridge windows overlooking typically noisy carrier deck operations. In another corner is a carrier-style briefing room.
There are also a number of television screens dotted in and around the upper structure, each illustrating an important WWII aircraft carrier battle. There is even a deck landing simulator that awarded an “OK 3 wire” pass on first try by an experienced (but typically modest) ex-deck landing pilot. (Deck landing must be like riding a bike.)
One important feature of the museum is its interactive teaching gallery, How Things Fly. Here are a large number of wind tunnels and other machines that help people understand the principles of flight. Highly skilled and enthusiastic teachers run demonstrations several times a day.
There are seats for about 30 in the display area and these are typically occupied by students of all ages. Brochures amplify the lessons and encourage experiments at home using common household objects.
An IMAX theatre inside the museum runs a number of films, at extra cost, and early bookings are advisable for the more popular shows. Docents are available for personal tours. Major displays include historic aircraft and missiles dating from the earliest days to the latest in space travel. The WWI gallery shows British, German and French, as well as American aircraft.
The Smithsonian is a vast complex of museum-related buildings. The National Air and Space Museum is part of the Smithsonian and is located near the corner of 7th St and Independence Av in downtown Southwest Washington. It is open from 1000 to 1530 in summer months. Check the Web site www.nasm.si.edu for details. Consider access by private car, underground railway or bus. Admission is free to the museum and to the demonstrations. The museum houses attractive souvenir shops and there are shopping-mall-type eating facilities adjacent to the building at the end opposite to the Sea-Air Operations Gallery.
A full day will fly by here for those with keen air and space interests. Other, more genteel, museums are nearby for family members perhaps not quite so thrilled by matters aeronautical.
When next in the Washington, DC, area consider visiting both the Udvar-Hazy Center, next door to Dulles Airport, and the downtown Washington National Air and Space Museum. Admission is free to both venues, but charges accrue for optional extras, such as the Imax theatre, bus transport between the facilities and car parking. Both centres house many important aircraft and spacecraft, including milestone civil aircraft.