Sunday, August 5, 2018

Air and Space

Whenever the five roommates go to Gettysburg (I did an approximate trip count in my mind's Texas Instruments calculator: This year's outing to the battlefield was somewhere close to my 40th visit in the past 35 years, and I have to tell you, the Yankees win every single time), we also try to make room for a side excursion.

This year, we took the time to spend several hours at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center – otherwise known as the companion site to the National Air and Space Museum – located next to Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Va. It's just a little more than an hour away from Gettysburg.

The Enola Gay is a featured attraction.
One member of our group had never been to the museum before, so that made it a no-brainer to go there this year. For me, it was my third visit, and each time I've gone, it's been a wonderment.

The first thing that strikes you is just how humongous this place is. It has to be in order to display hundreds (maybe thousands) of rare aircraft, including some of the largest the world has ever seen. Some of those very big vehicles include the space shuttle Discovery, the Concorde and the Enola Gay. They are all resting comfortably in the same building, under the same roof.

That's a big wow.

There are, in fact, several featured aircraft: Everyone, it seems, wants to see the Enola Gay, which dropped the world's first atomic bomb that helped bring World War II to an end. The space shuttle is also a huge (literally) attraction. But the plane that fascinates me the most is the sleek SR-71 Blackbird strategic reconnaissance plane that practically sits in the museum's front door.

The SR-71 spy plane is looking for you...
This plane was designed to be the next step beyond the U-2. What amazes me is that development began by the Skunk Works in the 1960s – yes, the 1960s – and features technology that is still said to be classified to this day.

Like just how fast is it? A total of 32 of these things were built, and none were ever shot down because they could outrun the missiles fired at them. The plane was designed for Mach 3 speed – three times the speed of sound – which puts it somewhere in the 2,000 mph range. But there is speculation it could go even faster.

The Blackbirds were supposedly decommissioned in the 1990s, replaced by spy satellites that were much more fuel efficient and didn't put human lives at risk. But I've read where some folks think at least a few of these planes still are doing Skunk Work work for the deep state. Hmm.

The technology behind the space shuttle is also mind boggling, but the most compelling moment for me was seeing the scorched heat resistant tiles that decorated the vehicle.

You can see clearly the scorched tiles on the nose of the shuttle.
And seeing those tiles made me realize that we were/are capable of putting men in space. It left me wondering why we aren't doing more of this stuff. I mean, how are we going to become the Star Trek generation if exploration sits idle?

The history of flight unfolds in this building almost from the very beginning. I say almost, because the original Wright Flyer remains hanging in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum at the Mall in Washington DC. So is The Spirit of St. Louis. I find it interesting that two of the most iconic aircraft in history are not located with their cousins in Chantilly. I don't know the reason for that. I guess the museum on the Mall can't give away all of its good stuff.

I have a special fascination for World War II aircraft, and there's a bunch of familiar mixed in with the rare. There's a P-38 Lightning, a P-40 Flying Tiger, an F4U Corsair, and F6F Hellcat, a P-47 Thunderbolt, along with a Hawker Hurricane, a German FW-190 and several Japanese planes. Not on display are ME-109s, B-17s or B-24s. I'm guessing they're somewhere on site, in storage or restoration, waiting for their turn in the rotation. Or a bigger building.

There's never enough time to see all of the things you want to see in a place like this, and that's a dilemma for future side trips.

I was hoping we could go to the Tastykake Bakery next year.

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