Air and Space Museum Soars

Air and Space Museum Soars

Gen. John R. "Jack" Dailey bursts with enthusiasm when speaking about the National Air and Space Museum Annex under construction in Chantilly.

That's because, not only is he the museum's director, he's also a retired Marine Corps pilot. And he can hardly wait until the museum annex opens to visitors in December 2003.

"For aviators, this is Mecca," said Dailey. "This is the national collection, and it cannot be matched anywhere in the world."

He, along with Lin Ezell, project coordinator for the Smithsonian, and Mark Stanley, project manager for Hensel Phelps Construction, building phase I, conducted a tour of the grounds, last Thursday, April 11. They discussed work completed so far and what remains to be done.

Being built off Route 50 west, the $311 million annex is on a 176.5-acre site on the south side of Dulles International Airport. Main access will be via Barnsfield Road — a new, full-cloverleaf interchange to be constructed from Route 28, just south of Dulles' gate 4.

Groundbreaking for the 760,000-square-foot annex was in October 2000, and site preparation began last June. It will be called the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, after the wealthy California businessman who pledged $65 million toward its construction.

It will display the historically significant aircraft that are currently too large to house and share with the viewing public. As it is, 10 percent of the Smithsonian's collection is on loan around the world, another 10 percent is in the museum in Washington, D.C. — and 80 percent is in storage.

The 200 aircraft on display in the new facility will include a B-29 bomber, the "Enola Gay," the Hawker Hurricane, an F-4 Phantom jet, the B-17 "Swoose," a Lockheed Lightning, a Grumman Hellcat, Skylab modules, the space shuttle "Enterprise," a B-25 fighter planes, a C-130 Hercules and the SR-71 Blackbird Super Constellation. The "Enola Gay" will be the first to arrive; it will come in pieces in early 2003 and be reassembled.

Meanwhile, construction is moving right along. Hensel Phelps of Chantilly won the $125 million contract to build the museum’s 421,590-square-foot first phase. It consists of the aviation hangar, plus a space hangar with 117 space artifacts, the Claude Moore Education Center, large-screen IMAX theater, food court, museum stores, visitor-orientation area and observation tower.

When finished, the 10-story aviation hangar will be 300 yards long — the length of three football fields, 240 feet wide and will reach an outside height of 126 feet. Free of columns, it will feature three viewing levels; aircraft will sit on the floor of the main hangar deck and will hang on two other levels.

A four-story walkway will give visitors the sensation of soaring among the aircraft on display. Said Dailey: "The walkway will go up 40 feet so you can be adjacent to the aircraft, no matter how high they're hanging." Interactive devices, videos and 20 flight simulators will further enhance the experience.

Some 90 feet was added to the building plans at one end of the hangar. It was needed, said Dailey, because "we know where each airplane is going, and we realized that we couldn't fit them all in here." The aircraft will be suspended inside the hangar from steel trusses, or arches, with each truss capable of supporting 20,000 pounds — equivalent to two WWII fighter planes.

Calling the 293,700-square-foot hangar "a pretty awesome piece of work," Stanley said 14 of its 21 total arches are now in place. "We're about 62 percent complete with the erection of the hangar, and 40 percent complete with the project," he added. "We're meeting our milestone schedules."

The hangar should be totally covered this summer, with doors installed in the fall. The first artifacts should arrive in February 2003. "It's a magnificent facility," said Dailey. "This will be the largest air and space facility in the world."

The tallest structure on the site will be the Engen observation tower, named after Donald Engen, the museum's former director. He headed the annex's fund-raising until his tragic death in 1999 at age 75, when the glider he was flying in Nevada crashed.

Also planned is an air-traffic control layout. And the education center, below the second-floor entryway, will enable 120 students at a time to study aviation- or technology-related subjects. It will be a classroom/lab complex accessible to 12 million other students via the Internet.

"We'll have incredible outreach to children around the country," said Dailey. "We've found the museum to be an [effective] way of inspiring children to study math and science."

In person, he expects an estimated 3.5 million visitors in the annex's maiden year and an eventual 5-6 million annually. In the meantime, the Smithsonian must continue fund-raising. Although it's raised two-thirds of its construction money so far, $96 million more is still needed — $58 million of it before phase II can begin.

"We've made great progress," said Dailey. "People have been very generous in supporting us. We're in Northern Virginia, but this is America's project. It's going to be an attraction that will rival anything in the country. We'll bring great things to the community out here."