Planes, spies and history

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Last year I visited the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. It is part of the Smithsonian but I found it more fun than the Air and Space Museum on the National Mall.

As we entered the main room, the SR-71 Blackbird was the first thing we saw. The Blackbird played an important role during the Cold War. It was top-secret, stealthy, and the world’s fasted jet-propelled aircraft. On its last flight in 1990, it flew from Los Angeles to Washington DC in one hour and fours minutes averaging 2,214 miles per hour. It was a beauty.

SR-71 Blackbird Air Force Photo
SR-71 Blackbird Air Force Photo

Its predecessor was the Lockheed U-2 designed for the CIA. The U-2 was thought to be too slow to be effective. Gary Powers was in a U-2 when he was shot down by the Soviets in 1960.

Just to the right of the Blackbird was a small case that included some Matroishka dolls Mr. Powers purchased during his stay in the Soviet Union. He ejected his seat and survived but did not have time to set the self-destruct on the airplane. While living in Moscow, I visited the Central Armed Forces Museum several times. My son loved to climb on the tanks outside the entrance. The wreckage of Gary Powers’ plane could be found in one corner of the building along with his seat and parachute.

The missile that shot him down was a S-75 Dvina. We saw one of those, just down the hall at the Udvar-Hazy.

The Udvar-Hazy had one room dedicated to space travel and at its center was the Space Shuttle Discovery. It was big. Along side it were the capsules early astronauts used to orbited the Earth. They were tiny compared to the Shuttle.

We were there on a Sunday afternoon and guides were giving tours throughout the museum. We could join them at will. I learned that Frank Borman and James Lovell spent 14 days in one of those small capsules to prove man could live with weightlessness for that long. They were brave men.


Back in the main room, one area was dominated by the Concorde. It looked like a graceful bird. One thing that struck me was how tiny the windows were. There were terminals placed around the museum where we could look inside the cockpits of different aircraft. The Concorde’s was one of the most impressive with buttons and switches on the sides and ceiling, all over the place.

Many airplanes were from World War II, including the Enola Gay (pictured at top) which carried the bomb that ended the war. It hung suspended in air and a pedestrian bridge passed right next to it allowing people get close. There was a glass shield in front of it since it has been known to be controversial and a group of protestors managed to throw things at it in 2004.

We were winding down our trip and I sat down to rest. Along came another tour and it so happened I was sitting in front of a Japanese Aichi M6A1 Seiran (Clear Sky Storm). This plane was built to operate as a bomber exclusively from a submarine. The idea was to place these on submarines and travel to the United States. When they were within striking distance the planes would take off. They never saw combat but it was a smart idea.

The last stop for us was the observation tower.  We could watch the planes land at Dulles airport and listen to the traffic controllers live. They didn’t make much sense to me but it was fun feeling a part of it all.