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Air and Space Museum Taking Flight

Work is humming at the National Air and Space Museum Annex in Chantilly, and director Gen. John R. "Jack" Dailey said Wednesday that construction is 75 percent complete.

Opening it up for a media tour, he said future visitors to its 10-story aviation hangar will first see the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird — the fastest, highest-flying, operational jet-powered aircraft ever built. (It can fly at Mach 3+, or more than three times the speed of sound).

"Looking over it, you'll see the nose of the space shuttle Enterprise," Dailey told his guests. "Then you'll see another 200 aircraft displayed in this hangar on three levels."

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

Groundbreaking for the 760,000-square-foot annex was in October 2000, with the first phase of construction beginning in June 2001. The 523,000-square-foot phase one includes the aviation hangar, space hangar, observation tower, large-format IMAX theater, classrooms, museum shop and food court.

To illustrate the size of just that portion, Dailey said, "This area would house the Titanic, if it were available — or 90 Goodyear blimps, in the hangar behind me." He expects some 3.5 million visitors in the annex's maiden year and an eventual 5-6 million annually.

"Virginia has funded an express bus service from our downtown location and back," he said. "And the Virginia Department of Tourism is working with groups to have them stay in this area and commute downtown."

Phase two will consist of a restoration hangar, archives, conservation lab, collections-processing facilities and a study-collections storage unit. This phase's construction is dependent on fund-raising, but phase one is scheduled to open Dec. 15, 2003 — to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first powered flight.

The whole facility is called the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, after the wealthy California businessman who contributed $65 million toward its construction. It will feature the historically significant aircraft that are too large to display in the Washington, D.C., museum. Some 10 percent of the Smithsonian's collection is on loan around the world, another 10 percent is in the downtown museum — and the 80 percent now in storage will find a new home here.

The Chantilly site will have 40 million cubic feet of display space — plenty for its 200 aircraft and 135 large, space-artifacts. These aviation landmarks will include a B-29 bomber, the Hawker Hurricane, an F-4 Phantom jet, the B-17 "Swoose," a Lockheed P-38J Lightning, Skylab modules, a B-25 fighter planes and a C-130 Hercules. The "Enola Gay" will be first to arrive.

When finished, the 250,000-square-foot 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. The heaviest aircraft will sit on the floor, with lighter ones hanging from steel trusses on two other levels.

A four-story walkway will give visitors the sensation of soaring among the aircraft on display. The walkway will rise 40 feet so visitors 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.

Hensel Phelps Construction of Chantilly is building the annex, and Executive Vice-President Bob Daniels is in awe of the whole, amazing creation. "Every time I see this, it takes my breath away," he said. "My dad, Raymond Daniels, flew B-24s in World War II, so seeing this come to fruition is very special to me. The artifacts and aircraft displayed here will symbolize what people did then to protect our way of life today; they were the real heroes."

Overall, he said the project is on or ahead of schedule, and he expects to turn over the main exhibition hall to the Smithsonian on March 14, 2003 so it may start moving in and assembling the aircraft.

Workmen are currently closing in the ends of the hangar so heat may be pumped inside by the end of the year. They're also pouring the hangar's 13-inch-thick concrete floor. The main-exhibit hangar is 75-percent complete, and the space hangar is 25-percent complete. "This is a unique project," said Daniels. "The only hangars I've seen with more contiguous hangar space are the dirigible hangars at Moffitt Field [in Sunnyvale, Calif.]."

About 80 subcontractors and major material-vendors and nearly 1,500 craftsmen are working on the annex. "About 1 1/2 million man hours are needed to complete it, and we've got about 800,000 so far," said Daniels. "We're proud of our safety [record] and that we're building a high-quality facility on time and under budget. [The Smithsonian] appreciates the hard work and dedication of all our laborers and craftsmen who have devoted the last two years of their lives to this project."