Union Tribune

December 13, 2003

Shrine to U.S. success in air, space lands in Virginia


CHANTILLY, Va. Aviation enthusiasts and space buffs have a new shrine.

Timed to help launch the centennial of the Wright brothers' first flight, the Smithsonian Institution yesterday opened an annex dedicated to the quest to master air and space.

The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, about 25 miles outside Washington, D.C., will house many of the artifacts of civil and military aviation and space history that could not fit into the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall in downtown Washington.

Retired Marine Gen. John R. Daley, director of the Air and Space Museum, said the structure provides "more to see, more to hear and more to learn about the history and the future of flight."

"What began on a windswept beach in North Carolina ... created a future filled with possibilities," Daley said, referring to the Wright brothers' first successful controlled flight on Dec. 17, 1903.

The center houses 81 aircraft, 50 large space artifacts and more than 2,000 other items of aerospace history.

The collection spans the history of aviation from Samuel Langley's flimsy Aerodrome, which failed to master controlled flight just days before the Wright brothers' success, to the space shuttle Enterprise.

Daley said that 119 aircraft are being prepared for display and that the center is looking for more treasures.

No. 1 on his wish list, Daley said, is a B-24 Liberator, which was the most produced bomber in World War II. Many of them were built in San Diego.

Before the $311-million center was opened to the general public, it hosted a salute Tuesday to the military pilots and crews who made history in some of the aircraft enshrined here.

At gathering, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that the center displays both the history of military aviation and its future, referring to a prototype of the F-35, the Joint Strike Fighter, sitting a few yards away.

"Only 100 years, only one century, we've come from the Wright Flyer to this airplane before us," Myers said. "From canvas and hope to stealth and a little magic."

Throughout the day, hundreds of veterans, many in old flight jackets or World War II uniforms, clustered nostalgically near vintage aircraft they have not seen in decades.

One of the largest gatherings was under the nose of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945.

The large, shiny aluminum bomber is one of the new museum's highlights.

The men who flew in or supported the B-29s were quick to defend the decision to use the bomb, which ended the war without the planned invasion of Japan.

Those who criticize the bombing "forget that ending the war quickly saved probably a million Americans and maybe a million Japanese," said former air photographer Robert Hilton, 83, of Dallas, as fellow veterans of the 40th Bomb Group nodded in agreement.