The next time you have a long layover and are looking for things to do near the Washington Dulles Airport (IAD), you should visit the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center which is located just off one of the runways of the airport.
Many people know the original Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum which is located on the National Mall inside Washington D.C. It houses some of the most important aircraft and spacecraft in American history like the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk Flyer. But not every significant item in the museum collection would fit in that building so in 2003 the museum opened up the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center where it houses some of the larger items in its collection like the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, and the Enola Gay as well as many other fascinating craft. The center is composed of two large hangars.
2022 Covid-19 protocols
The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center has reopened with some additional protocols:
- We no longer require timed-entry passes.
- As of March 11, 2022 masks are not required to visit Smithsonian museums or the National Zoo.
- On-site volunteers have returned to the Welcome Center
- Tours are currently available for groups of ten or more with advance reservations. Visitors in smaller parties and walk-ups can still interact with our docents. We have set up “spotlight” stations in six locations where visitors can chat with our docents, both in person and online.
- Visitors are not required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination to visit.
- The Airbus IMAX Theater has reopened and is currently operating Wednesday – Sunday. During museum hours it plays films that relate to the collection. Hollywood films have also returned, offering after-hours screenings. Tickets and schedules are available at si.edu/theaters/airbus.
- Discovery Station educational programming is offered by the Museum’s Explainers. Additional educational programs are available for student groups of ten or more, with advance reservations.
- Shake Shack’s opening date has been pushed to “sometime” in 2022.
When my wife and I visited recently we took a two and a half-hour free walking tour from one of the docents, Tom, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the museum’s collection. I would highly highly recommend you do the same. If you don’t have the time or inclination to take a tour the museum does have a wonderful mobile-ready website with highlights and free wi-fi so you can enjoy all the videos on the website. Our tour covered some of these museum highlights:
Space Shuttle Discovery
Discovery saw more service than any other orbiter in the NASA fleet. It was in space on 39 missions for a total of 365 days in space. Rather than refurbish it the Smithsonian asked it to be left looking as it did after its last mission. The nation of Canada also donated the robotic arm that Discovery used in its last 13 missions.
Enola Gay – Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber
This is the bomber, named for the pilot’s mother, that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. B-29 bombers like the Enola Gay had already destroyed many cities in Japan before the fateful day that the A-bomb was dropped. Our docent Tim made sure we knew that the single deadliest day in the strategic air campaign was not even Hiroshima, but the firebombing of Tokyo.
Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird
The SR-71 was the spy plane that replaced the famous U2. The U2 was made to fly above the range of Soviet anti-aircraft missiles… until it famously didn’t. The SR-71 was, so far as we know, the fastest jet ever and arguably one of the first stealth planes. By the time you saw it on your radar, it was too late to shoot it down. It kept the U.S. informed on activities in the USSR until the advent of spy satellites when its $85K cost per flight rendered it obsolete.
Boeing 307 Stratoliner
The Boeing 307 Stratoliner was the first commercial airplane that had a pressurized cabin. Thank this design for the ability to fly above the weather for a much more comfortable ride when you fly. This is the last intact Boeing 307 Stratoliner, although the 307 that Howard Hughes bought has been turned into a houseboat near Ft Lauderdale Florida.
Boeing 367-80 (Dash 80)
It might look like a conventional jet but this was the plane that Boeing bet the company on that again changed the face of air travel. It was invented as a jet-powered tanker for the Airforce… after they told Boeing they didn’t want one. But it was also designed so that the design could become the first jet-powered airliner.
See my photos of the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center for some of the other aircraft we saw including the Fowler Flyer which is the first jet that flew non-stop from the Pacific to the Atlantic… in Panama, one of the first flying wings, a Japanese submarine aircraft carrier plane, the plane of the first woman to fly solo around the world Jerrie Mock, and an Air France Concorde supersonic jet. The center is a must-see for aviation fans.
- Admission to the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is free, although parking costs $15. Cars that are dropping off will need to pay but can get a refund as they leave.
- The facility is about 5 miles from the main terminal of Dulles airport, so using something like Uber might be the best way to visit it during a layover.
- You can travel from the Udvar-Hazy Center to and from the National Mall location via public transportation.
- Private tours of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center are also available.
- The Udvar-Hazy Center is open from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm.
For more ideas about what to do in Washington D.C. listen to National Parks in and near Washington D.C. – Amateur Traveler Episode 665.