By Shelley Widhalm
<bt>After 40 years of being dismantled and in storage, the Enola Gay is ready for display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center, scheduled to open Dec. 15.
On Monday, the museum unveiled the newly reassembled Boeing B-29 Superfortress aircraft used to drop the first atomic bomb in combat on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945. The aircraft is one of 35 B-29s remaining of the 4,000 that were built — one of which remains in condition to fly and three that are under restoration.
“It’s a major artifact in our collection,” said Thomas Alison, chief of the Collections Division for the National Air and Space Museum. “It’s the largest and most technologically advanced aircraft of its time.”
THE ENOLA GAY — outfitted with special engines and propellers and pneumatic bomb-bay doors — has a wingspan of 141 feet and weighs 137,500 pounds, making it too large and heavy to be housed in the flagship National Air and Space Museum Building on the National Mall. The B-29 is one of 200 aircraft and another 135 space artifacts that will be on display at the museum’s companion facility, a 10-story, 760,000-square-foot aviation hangar in Chantilly, which is able to house some of the museum’s largest artifacts.
The hangar — located on a 176.5-acre site south of the main terminal at the Washington Dulles International Airport — will open later this year with an initial collection of 80 artifacts, and within two to four years it will house 80 percent of the museum’s collection that is not on view at the Mall building.
Museum staff, volunteers and interns began restoration work on the Enola Gay in 1984. They restored the aircraft in 52 pieces, removing corrosion from metal surfaces, polishing the outer aluminum and replacing any missing equipment, including radio gear and antenna components. The pieces were brought to the hangar in 12 truckloads from the Paul Garver Center, the museum’s storage and preservation facility in Suitland, Md., and reassembled at the hangar this spring and summer.
“It was a magnificent effort,” said Gen. J.R. “Jack” Dailey, director of the National Air and Space Museum. “Our restoration efforts are designed toward historical accuracy. … We don’t restore aircraft to be able to fly.”
The hangar will be used to display artifacts and exhibits to tell the history of aviation and space flight and to provide information on the science and technology of flight.
THE HISTORY of the Enola Gay begins with the L. Martin Aircraft Factory in Omaha, Neb., which built the aircraft, and the U.S. Army Air Force, which accepted it in June 1945 as one of 15 special-mission B-29s for the secret 509th Composite Group. Col. Paul Tibbets, commander of the 509th Group, flew the aircraft the day the atomic bomb was dropped, naming it in honor of his mother. He dropped the bomb from an altitude of 31,600 feet at 8:16 a.m. local time. Two days later, the United States bombed Nagasaki, and on Aug. 14, President Harry Truman announced Japan’s surrender.
After World War II, the Enola Gay was returned to the United States in July 1946 and donated to the Smithsonian Institution in July 1949. It was stored outdoors at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland from 1953-60, when it was disassembled and taken to the Smithsonian’s storage facility. It now will be displayed on 8-foot stands at the aviation hangar as part of an exhibit on World War II aircraft that will provide an overview of the role of aircraft in the war.
“Every artifact in this collection has a great story with it,” said Dik Daso, curator for the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum.
The Udvar-Hazy Center, which will open in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of flight, is named after Steven F. Udvar-Hazy, who donated $60 million to the project and is the founder and CEO of International Lease Finance Corp. The total project is expected to cost $311 million for design, site infrastructure, construction and move-in and start-up costs. Hensel Phelps Construction Co. of Greeley, Colo., began construction in June 2001, completing work in March 2003, when the first artifacts were moved to the center.
“This is a national collection. It’s the largest and most complete in the world,” Dailey said. “It’s coming out. [There will be] a coming-out party on Dec. 15.”