John R. Alison was strafing Japanese bombers over China in World II when an enemy fighter pilot sighted him and shot the rudder of his little Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter plane. Alison spent harrowing minutes trying to shake him.
The Japanese pilot fired again and again, while Alison screamed for friends to come and help. At last, a Chinese pilot swooped behind the enemy and shot him out of the sky. Alison steered his flaming and injured P-40 to a crash landing at a friendly airstrip and walked away.
"That was a good airplane," said Alison, now 90.
On March 25, Alison watched intently as workers at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum carefully pulled a P-40 -- like the one he flew -- out of a tractor-trailer and set it down inside a massive hanger at the museum's new branch at Dulles airport.
He was joined by longtime friend Donald S. Lopez, deputy director of the museum. Lopez flew 96 missions in P-40s during World War II, including one in which he collided with a Japanese Oscar fighter. Though more than two feet of his plane's wing was ripped off, Lopez finished his mission, and the P-40 brought him home.
"Rather than saying I shot him down, I always said I 'winged' him," Lopez said. "That plane never gave me a bit of trouble."
The P-40 is one of more than 200 aircraft being relocated by the Smithsonian to its new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles, designed to be the companion facility to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington and display the 80 percent of the museum's collection not housed at the location on the Mall or on loan to other facilities.
The new museum is to open Dec. 15, and the 10-story hanger that will house aircraft is mostly complete. An adjoining structure for space exhibits, including the shuttle Enterprise, is under construction. Smithsonian officials started moving airplanes from their storage center in Suitland to the new facility last week.
The Udvar-Hazy center will also be home to a Concorde supersonic jet and a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest, highest-flying operational jet ever built. Pieces of the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber from which the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, have been unloaded on the museum floor, but officials said it would take 12 truckloads to move the entire hulking bomber, which has not been fully assembled since 1961.
Visitors will also be able to watch airplanes take off and land at Dulles from an observation platform designed to look like an airport control tower.
"This will be a popular destination," Lopez said. "I think people might just stay out here and go to town from here, rather than the other way around."
In case they don't, the Smithsonian will offer shuttles from the Mall to the Dulles facility.
The P-40 unloaded last week has never been flown in combat but was used to train pilots in Canada during the war. Nevertheless, Smithsonian restoration officials have painted shark teeth on its nose out of deference to Lopez. The teeth are the symbols of the 23rd Fighter Group, with which Lopez and Alison flew during the war.
The group, known as the Flying Tigers, still exists in the Air Force, and its members are flying their A-10 jets in missions over Iraq.
Lopez and Alison said they scan news coverage from Iraq, looking for A-10s painted with the distinctive teeth.
Alison said the technology in the jets, which are used to hunt and disable tanks, is vastly different than that of the planes he flew during World War II. "I could have used those satellites sometimes," he said. But he said he has met men who fly with the squadron, and Flying Tigers never change.
"The equipment is different, but the esprit de corps, the moral of the men, it's the same," he said. "When I see them, I can almost see myself when I was young."