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Aviation: Discovering the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Institute holds one of the world's most impressive aircraft collections. Tyler McDowell visits Washington DC and nearby Virginia to find out what it offers the aviation enthusiast.

The Smithsonian Institution was established with funds provided by James Smithson (1765–1829), a British scientist who left his estate to the United States in order to create in Washington and "under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge."

Today the Smithsonian Institution is a complex comprising 19 museums, galleries and the National Zoological Park, as well as research facilities. The Smithsonian has eleven museums and galleries on the National Mall as well as six elsewhere in the city including the National Zoo, and two more in New York. It also has more than 200 affiliates in nearly every state, plus Puerto Rico and Panama. The Smithsonian Institution Travelling Exhibition Service (SITES) organises more than 40 exhibitions of art, history and science that circulate around the country. The Institutes’ research facilities include Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Smithsonian Environmental Research Centre, Museum Conservation Institute, Smithsonian Libraries, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Marine Station at Fort Pierce, Florida.

Nearly 30 million people visited the Smithsonian facilities in 2017. Admission to all is free and they are open seven days a week, year round except Christmas Day. It is estimated that the organisation holds nearly 155m objects, works of art and specimens, of which almost 146m are scientific specimens at the National Museum of Natural History.

Aviation History

But it is the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) on the Washington Mall (Independence Avenue and 6th Street in the city centre) and its annex, the Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia that attract most attention from aviation enthusiasts. The two sites together showcase the largest collection of aviation and space artefacts in the world

The facility in Virginia opened in December 2013 and provides enough space for the Smithsonian to display the thousands of aviation and space artefacts that cannot be exhibited on the National Mall.

Concorde nestles among other historic aircraft in Virginia.

It also houses larger artifacts such as the Boeing 707 prototype, a Concorde, a Space Shuttle, and Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay that dropped an atomic bomb during World War Two. It also has a replica control tower that offers views over the adjacent Washington Dulles International Airport. It also has a unique collection of experimental German aircraft that were captured by allied forces at the end of World War Two, as well as one-offs developed by NASA.

Meanwhile, the building on the Mall includes the Milestones of Flight gallery, in which there are aircraft such as a DC-3, a Boeing 247 and the Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis in which Charles Lindbergh made the first solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. The NASM's collection also includes a Lunar Excursion Model (LEM) and an impressive collection of other space artifacts including original studio models from the TV series Star Trek.

The Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center is just a ten minute bus ride from the terminal at Dulles, and offers an excellent opportunity for airliner passengers to view the history of aviation if they have a lengthy connection airport. For those who are staying longer in the city, a trip downtown to visit not only the NASM but also Washington's other historic landmarks is highly recommended.

Text © Tyler McDowell; photos © Smithsonian Institute and Tyler McDowell

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