Editor's note: Although there is no fee for entrance to the Udvar-Hazy Center, there is a $15 parking fee. Visitors may encounter a wait for parking on weekends and holidays. There is also a shuttle that travels from the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall to the Udvar-Hazy Center for $7 per person.
By Scott W. Berg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 12, 2003
Call him the Aircraft Whisperer. Karl Heinzel stands on the floor of the Smithsonian's cavernous new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly and moves slowly and surely around the Caudron G.4, an improbably frail-looking French World War I reconnaissance aircraft. Heinzel points to this spot and that spot on the plane and tells small stories, all about nursing the Caudron back to health. This is one of the plane's twin walnut propellers, the one Heinzel painstakingly constructed to match its authentic partner on the other engine; this is a reel of braided silver radio wire, terminating on one end in a tiny plumb bob and on the other in the radio itself, the craft's lone electronic part; this is one of the long, thin, flexible wings made of nylon, coated with dope (a sort of liquid plastic) and shellac and full of painted-over patch jobs. The fabric, explains Heinzel, is factory original, 86 years old now -- the only remaining original wing covering from all 1,600 of the Caudrons constructed in France for the war effort.
There's not a piece of this airplane, no matter how small, that Heinzel doesn't know. Though I'm standing right next to him and want to gently touch the parts as he is, feel the age of the material and the weight of its history, I don't. There is a rule you follow here at the Udvar-Hazy, partly because it's a rule and partly because you know it in your bones: He can touch the planes. You can't.
But you're going to want to. The National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center -- or "Dulles annex," if you want something shorter and easier to pronounce -- opens on Monday, and it's one gigantic Dr. Seuss illustration of a museum facility. Fat planes, skinny planes, angry planes, pretty planes, planes that fly high and planes that fly low, planes that go fast and planes that go slow, nearly 100 in all, sitting on the floor and dangling from the hangar roof so that visitors can view them in genuine flight poses, banking and diving and cruising and even traveling upside-down.
It's airplane overload, a feast for the eyes spread out in the world's largest and most modern hangar, a new $311 million architectural descendent of old Zeppelin storage facilities with 20 million cubic feet of display space located on the southeastern corner of Dulles International Airport. The wide-open layout represents a very different philosophy than the downtown National Air and Space Museum, 28 miles away, which operates more conventionally with separate "galleries," enormous though some of those galleries are. The point of Udvar-Hazy is to educate and amaze, yes, but it's also to get the 80 percent of the Smithsonian's aviation collection currently hidden from view out where the public can see it. The exhibit design aims for an all-encompassing 3-D experience: Thanks to three levels of pathways, visitors can not only walk up to and beside the flying machines, but also around them and under them and on top of them.
"It is gratifying to see this museum open," Heinzel says. "I guess you could say that it's the culmination and justification of a lot of years of work."
When Heinzel talks, you hear something more than gratification, though. A little bit of giddiness, maybe: Heinzel, 52, has spent the past 29 years of his life assembling and restoring historic aircraft for the Smithsonian, putting machines from all eras of flight back together with just the right mix of experience, technique, book knowledge and imagination. But for a good part of that quarter-century, most of the handiwork of Heinzel and his colleagues at the aircraft restoration division was tucked away at the Paul E. Garber restoration facility in Suitland. Tours of Garber were once available to the public -- but the public, outside of serious airplane aficionados, often didn't seem to know about it.
The idea of the Udvar-Hazy Center officially originated in 1980, when the Smithsonian's Board of Regents proposed a second air and space facility, but as Heinzel says, "It's been in the air for a long time, ever since the beginning." Without a congressional commitment of federal funds beyond an $8 million investment in planning, the project went in search of sizable outside support. The museum finally found its big-ticket patron in 1999, when Steven Udvar-Hazy, president and CEO of International Lease Finance Corp., a highly successful commercial aircraft company, pledged $60 million to the project, giving the museum its name and a suddenly foreseeable future.
So the future is finally now, sort of. The Caudron and other lesser-known pieces of history share Udvar-Hazy with their more famous relatives, such icons of flight as the Enola Gay bomber, the SR-71 Blackbird, the Concorde and the Space Shuttle Enterprise, but the current craft on display, 80 in all, still represent less than half of the eventual count, as additional planes and artifacts will continue to move in over the next several months and years. The Smithsonian also awaits another $92 million to fund an on-site restoration and preservation center, which will allow Heinzel and other restorers to do their work in public and in the presence of their already-completed projects, instead of remaining tucked away on the other side of the Beltway in Suitland.
Ken Robert stands behind Udvar-Hazy's waist-high chrome barriers and watches Heinzel talk about the Caudron. Robert is paying close attention as Heinzel goes through the history of the plane's restoration and occasionally chips in a question or fact of his own. It's a study in studiousness and an interesting example of the kind of family feeling that exists in the Smithsonian's air and space crowd.
Robert's relationship with the artifacts at Udvar-Hazy is no less intimate than Heinzel's, but it is very different. Robert, 61, is a self-described "airplane nut, a buff," but one who knows a lot more than you and I do about airplanes and has been willing to share that knowledge for the past 27 years as a volunteer docent at all three of the Smithsonian's museums: the downtown flagship, the Garber restoration center and now here at Udvar-Hazy. Robert, who sat on the committee responsible for setting out 20 weeks of training for new docents at Udvar-Hazy, is also part of a traditional Smithsonian mentoring program that has paired a small group of experienced tour guides, such as Robert, with four or five recent volunteers each.
Robert calls Heinzel and the other restorers "magicians," and when the time comes for him to pick out an aircraft with particular personal meaning, he chooses the Focke-Wulf 190 F-8, a World War II-era single-engine German warplane. It's a bittersweet artifact for Robert, who looks at the Focke-Wulf and sees the face of his close friend and fellow plastic modeler, restorer Mike Lyons, who was to the Focke-Wulf what Heinzel is to the Caudron. Lyons, who died of cancer in the mid '80s shortly after restoring the plane to its original configuration, was also the catalyst that brought Robert to the Smithsonian in the first place.
"Mike was the one who called me in 1975 and said, 'Hey, they're looking for volunteers at the new air and space museum,' " Robert explains. "I think the thing I remember most about Mike was the way he uncovered the history of [the Focke-Wulf]. He spent three months at Garber sanding off layers and layers of German paint, and that's how he found the markings that told him the plane had flown in Hungary in 1944. He used to call me on the phone and say, 'Guess what I found, you won't believe what I found.' "
Standing in the middle of Udvar-Hazy with Robert, watching all of the last-second touches put on the display cases and lighting and the aircraft, is a rare treat. Ask Robert where to find any of the 80 planes on display, and he tells you exactly where to go, whether you need to go up or down, where you'll find the best view. Ask him about the strange look of the plane next to the Focke-Wulf and Robert doesn't miss a beat: "The Arado 234 B-2 Blitz," he says, the world's first operational jet bomber, a plane that saw limited service for the Germans toward the end of World War II. As I marvel at the glass nose, where the bombardier (who was also pilot and navigator) sat perched precariously out in the sky, as it seems, Robert deflects my attention to the periscope above. It's only a small black tube poking out of the top of the plane, but it's Robert's way of explaining the craft's operation and place in military history. Looking forward, he explains, the periscope served as a sighting device for glide bombing runs; looking backward, it allowed the pilot to check for pursuing Allied fighters while moving at 500 mph. "And since the Germans were so far ahead of us with jet technology," Robert adds, "we were almost always attacking from behind."
Robert's method of bringing you in for a close look and backing out for the big picture mirrors the zoom-lens quality of the entire place. Visitors will have their choice of several methods of moving through the museum: just browsing, taking a docent-led tour, stopping at the visitors center to produce a "flight plan" of particular artifacts or visiting the virtual tour stations to take in computerized views of selected airplanes, including highly detailed 360-degree images of cockpits and other interior spaces. The facility also includes an IMAX theater, educational spaces and a 164-foot-tall observation tower for watching aircraft activity in the air and on the ground at Dulles.
"It doesn't matter which way you look," Robert says. "You'll always see something in here. It's so much different than the downtown museum. When you're standing up there" -- he points to the spacious entrance hall, which brings visitors in a full story and a half above the floor of the museum -- "you can grab the whole picture at once. Right away, you can get a real good feel for the wowee-zowee factor of the place."
THE NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM STEVEN F. UDVAR-HAZY CENTER -- 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway Pkwy., Chantilly (at the intersection of routes 28 and 50). From Washington, take I-66 West to Route 28 North (exit 53B). Go 5.3 miles to Air and Space Museum Parkway and follow the signs. From the Capital Beltway, take the exit for the Dulles Toll Road West (Route 267). Take Route 28 south (exit 9) and go 3.5 miles to Air and Space Museum Parkway and follow the signs. 202-357-2700. www.nasm.si.edu/udvarhazy. Opening on Monday, Dec. 15. Open daily 10 to 5:30 except Christmas Day. Free. Daily parking is $12. Visitors may be dropped off and picked up at entrance with no charge. Shuttle from downtown Air and Space Museum is $7 per person round-trip, $5 per person round-trip for groups of 10 or more. The schedule has not been finalized, but the museum plans to run shuttles every 11/2 hours between downtown and Udvar-Hazy, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Transportation to and from Dulles International Airport will be arranged.
Scott W. Berg, a regular contributor to The Post, spent the fourth grade dreaming of becoming a fighter pilot. His plane of choice, the McDonnell F-4S Phantom II, is on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center to the right of the main entrance.