All very impressive, but after more than a decade of operation, the center's staff decided that the exhibits were too limited and too static to appeal to a public that is increasingly accustomed to doing stuff, not just seeing stuff, at the institution.
So the museum launched a fundraising campaign, and this year it went interactive.
A new movie theater was built to resemble the inside of a 1920s airplane hangar. At the back is a mock plane on which movie viewers can wing-walk while they watch.
The other exhibits -- flight simulators, models and a set of hands-on projects that re-create the Wright brothers' experiments -- are very high-tech, even for a museum that celebrates innovation. A scale model of the USS Ronald Reagan can be "scanned" by a movable plasma screen that shows the inner workings of the aircraft carrier while video pop-ups tell stories of life on the seas.
Perhaps most impressive is the DC-9, a complete -- and completely accessible -- jetliner that spans nearly the width of the building. Though the dials and levers in the cockpit of the donated plane look exactly like what they are (outdated technology), the simulator built into the first-class section just behind the cockpit is pure 21st-century digital.
Katie Evans, 14, of Virginia Beach, is seated at the controls of the simulator, capably steering her virtual jet through the sky. Throughout the first-class section, all the passenger windows have plasma screens programmed to mimic her flight. If she crashes, so do her passengers.
"Why don't you turn the plane around and try to land it?" asks Megan Clark, a museum spokeswoman watching Katie's "flight."
"Nah. The last time I tried that, I crashed," she says.
"So you'll just fly around until the plane runs out of fuel?" asks Clark.
"That," says Katie, "is what parachutes are for."