National Air and Space, Dulles
Out near Dulles Airport, Virginia, about 40 minutes by car from Washington, DC, is an important new Smithsonian aerospace facility, the huge Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (left).
A shuttle bus ($5 to $7 per person) runs between the National Air and Space Museum in Washington and the Udvar-Hazy.
One of its more interesting exhibits is the specially modified B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, perhaps the world’s most famous aircraft (and most infamous for some). Enola Gay, named after pilot Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr’s mother, was the aircraft that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Three days later, another atomic bomb was dropped by Maj. Charles W. Sweeney from the B-29 Bockscar on Nagasaki.
The Japanese surrendered on 14 August 1945, ending a long and bloody war that had cost hundreds of thousands of lives and untold suffering. It may be strongly argued that it had the potential to cost many hundreds of thousands more, Japanese and American, if the slated invasion of the Japanese home islands had ever been executed.
The US government donated Enola Gay to the Smithsonian in July 1949 but it was by far the largest exhibit in the museum’s inventory at the time and when they came to display it, no room could be found in the downtown Washington building. There was also considerable controversy whether the aircraft should ever be exhibited or preserved at all. The historic B-29 languished in the open at Air Force bases in Texas and Maryland until 1960 when museum staff, noting considerable airframe deterioration, disassembled the aircraft for preservation and storage in the Smithsonian’s nearby Garber Center in Suitland, Maryland.
Massive restoration task
The hard restoration work on the B-29 did not begin until December 1984 when it was found to require 300,000 hours of highly skilled effort. The task evolved into the largest single restoration project ever undertaken by the Smithsonian. Museum staff, volunteers and interns removed decades of corrosion then inhibited the bare metal and polished the aluminium skin to its original brilliance.
B-29 Specifications and early historyThe Boeing B-29 Superfortress had an interesting gestation period, all under the pressures and immediacy of war. The (then) US Army Air Corps issued a specification in February 1940 for a bomber that could carry a 909 kg bombload at a speed of 348 knots a distance of 4,350 nautical miles. (Interestingly, RAN Skyhawks, with buddy-tanker aerial refuelling, could do better than that.)
Boeing, Consolidated, Douglas and Lockheed all responded to the bid, but Boeing won the contract to produce two prototypes and a second contract followed in April 1941 for 250 aircraft. In contrast to contemporary designs, including the British Lancaster that also carried bigger bombloads further and faster, the B-29 crew were housed in three pressurised compartments. However, the B-29 also carried advanced navigation and bomb-aiming radar, together with a fire control system for coupled .5 inch machine guns and 20 mm cannon carried for self defence.
In April 1944, the first B-29 operational squadron landed in India. The results of its first high altitude missions were mediocre but by December 1944, using lower altitude night delivery tactics from the newly-captured Marianas, the B-29s’ incendiary bombs soon destroyed much of Japan’s industrial might.
Late in 1944, a batch of B-29s, codenamed “Silverplate”, were modified to carry either of the two planned operational atomic bombs, “Fat Boy” or “Little Man”. They discarded most of the armour and armament, installed optimised propellers and modified the bomb bay doors. B-29-45-MO, serial number 44-86292, delivered by the Glenn L Martin Aircraft Company on 15 June 1944, was one of these, becoming “Enola Gay”.
NASM exhibited parts of the aircraft, including the forward fuselage, two engines and vertical stabiliser, between 1995 and 1998 in its main Washington display hall. This exhibition attracted no less than four million visitors but it sparked off a heated, highly polarised and ongoing debate. One group claims the Enola Gay glorifies nuclear war and should never be displayed. They said the shameful aircraft should be either left to rot or placed alongside the equally politically insensitive B-29 Bockscar in a remote Air Force Museum. Others insist that, nuclear politics notwithstanding, this aircraft is an important piece of history. It must be preserved at all costs, they assert. They register horror at the museum’s attempts at compromise by watering down text that accompanies the Enola Gay display.
The Udvar-Hazy Center is handy to Dulles Airport and passengers passing through that airport might consider putting aside at least half a day to examine its contents. The building is a large hangar-like structure, 300 yards (274 meters) long and the equivalent of 10 stories high. In addition to Enola Gay, it houses a host of other important and invaluable aircraft, like a British Hawker Hurricane, a German Focke-Wolfe FW 190A-8, a Japanese submarine-borne Aichi Seiran and a rare American Lockheed P-38J Lightning. A total of 200 aircraft, some 80 per cent of NASM’s collection, are destined for the Center, and 80 had been installed when the facility opened last December.
Also on display at the Udvar-Hazy are aircraft such as a French Concorde and even an F-35, well before the latter aircraft even entered squadron service. In a specially dedicated area is the Space Shuttle Enterprise.