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Nat'l Air and Space Museum Soars

$311 million museum opens Monday, Dec. 15

Until now, most of the brightest stars in the Smithsonian's galaxy of historically significant aircraft were kept in storage — too large to fit inside the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

But beginning Monday, Dec. 15, they'll shine in all their glory for public viewing in the new, $311 million Air and Space Museum Annex in Chantilly. To reach it, take the new Air and Space Museum Parkway exit off Route 28.

Called the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, after the wealthy California businessman and aviation aficionado who contributed $65 million toward its construction, it'll be open from 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Admission is free, but daily parking costs $12/vehicle; yearly passes for unlimited parking are $50.

MONDAY'S OPENING date commemorates the 100th anniversary of the first powered flights by the Wright Brothers. And on Saturday, Dec. 20, the annex will hold a Family Day, including curator talks, kite-flying demonstrations and special storytime activities for children.

The facility sits on 176.5 acres on the south side of Dulles International Airport. Gen. John R. "Jack" Dailey, a retired Marine Corps pilot and the annex's director, expects some 3.5 million visitors, the first year, and an eventual 5-6 million annually. "And when you get there, you're world-class," he said. "The Louvre gets 4 1/2-5 million."

Groundbreaking for the 760,000-square-foot annex was in October 2000, with construction of the 523,000-square-foot phase one beginning in June 2001. Completed this March, it includes the 10-story aviation hangar, the space hangar, the observation tower, large-format IMAX theater, classrooms, museum shop and food court.

And the spectacular, 293,707-square-foot aviation hangar is as jaw-dropping as the aircraft on display in it. Outside, it soars to a height of 126 feet. Inside, it's 240 feet wide and 300 yards long — the length of three football fields.

Some 81 aircraft are already in place, with others to follow until more than 200 historic planes are under one roof. The heaviest aircraft sit on the floor, with lighter ones hanging from steel trusses on two other levels. Altogether, the annex has 40 million cubic feet of display space for its aircraft and 135 large, space artifacts.

A four-story walkway that rises 40 feet gives visitors the sensation of soaring among the aircraft on display. As a result, visitors are adjacent to the planes, no matter how high they're suspended. Further adding to the realism, the aircraft were hung in the positions they assumed during typical flight maneuvers. Interactive devices, videos and 20 flight simulators further enhance the experience.

There's also 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.

AMERICA'S FIRST space shuttle, Enterprise, is visible in the space hangar. But it won't be accessible to the public until 2004 because it needs to be refurbished. During the interim, though, visitors will be able to enjoy some 60 other large, space artifacts in the aviation hangar.

A Piper J-3 Cub had the distinction of being the first plane to take up residency in the new annex. It was later joined by France's Concorde, the world's only supersonic passenger jetliner, which regularly cruised at 1,350 mph — more than twice the speed of sound.

Following was a fleet of other standout aircraft, including: The Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, the "Enola Gay;" the Hawker Hurricane; North American Mustang Excalibur III; a Sparrow 2 Missile; Curtiss P-40E Warhawk; Lockheed Lightning; Grumman Hellcat; McDonnell F-4 Phantom jet; the Spacelab module; a B-25 fighter plane; Caudron G.4; North American Sabre; and the SR-71 Blackbird Super Constellation.

In addition, visitors may also see a variety of aviation artifacts in display cases. These include aerial cameras, aircraft machine guns, astronaut equipment, Lt. Gen. James H. Doolittle's uniform, Charles A. Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart memorabilia and items pertaining to women in military-aviation history. -

Phase two of the annex will consist of a restoration hangar, archives, conservation lab, collections-processing facilities and a study-collections storage unit. However, it still needs $90 million to do so, so it's not yet known when this portion will be started.