First Plane Arrives at Air and Space Museum

First Plane Arrives at Air and Space Museum

It may not be as big as most of the other aircraft that will someday fill the National Air and Space Museum Annex in Chantilly, but the Piper J-3 Cub definitely has bragging rights.

Best known for training American, World War II fighter pilots, it will eventually be joined by some 200 historic aircraft but, on Monday, it became the first one brought into the building.

"For months, we've watched the Udvar-Hazy Center take shape as an architectural marvel, said museum director Gen. John R. "Jack" Dailey. "But now, with artifacts moving in, we can really see how the facility is a state-of-the-art environment for exhibiting and preserving the bulk of our collection — much of which has been hidden away for decades."

The $311 million annex will open to the public, Dec. 15, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first powered flight. Being built off Route 50 west, it's 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 first-phase construction beginning in June 2001. It's nearly completed now, except for work continuing on the space hangar, which will house America's first space shuttle, Enterprise.

The space hangar will be finished by opening day, with the Enterprise installed and visible. However, it will not be accessible to the public until 2004 because it needs to be refurbished. During the interim, though, visitors will be able to enjoy some 50 other large, space artifacts in the aviation hangar.

The 523,000-square-foot phase one includes the 10-story aviation hangar, space hangar, observation tower, large-format IMAX theater, classrooms, museum shop and food court.

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 in Suitland, Md., will find a new home here in Chantilly. Now that the museum took occupancy of the facility from Chantilly contractor Hensel Phelps Construction Co., last Friday, it will receive deliveries of artifacts and other exhibits on a nearly daily basis.

Annex spokesman Peter Golkin said it could take three or four days to move in each of the large aircraft because they must first be dismantled into pieces before they can travel. "The wings have to come off virtually every aircraft because that's the way they were stored — and they're easier to move, that way," he said. "But they go on quickly when you reassemble them."

Some 70 aircraft are expected to greet the public on opening day, with deliveries continuing, next year, until all 200 planes are under one roof. And what a roof it is: The 293,707-square-foot aviation hangar is 300 yards long — the length of three football fields — and 240 feet wide. It soars to 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. Altogether, the annex will have 40 million cubic feet of display space for its aircraft and 135 large, space artifacts.

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

Dailey expects some 3.5 million visitors, the first year, and an eventual 5-6 million annually. The main museum downtown already attracts more than 9 million visitors a year.

Phase two will consist of a restoration hangar, archives, conservation lab, collections-processing facilities and a study-collections storage unit. However, fund-raising will fuel this phase's construction, and it's still $92 million short.