Inside the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

From biplanes to spacecraft, here's a look at some of the most important aircraft from a century of flight.

Geoffrey Morrison
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
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Technically, the Udvar-Hazy Center is an annex to the legendary Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. But this is not just a place for overflow exhibits. It's an incredible, huge museum in its own right, housing some of the most wonderful air and spacecraft in history. Join me for a look around.

For more about this museum, and the historic planes within, check out: Soar to the skies and beyond at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center.

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In flight

It's always a good sign when a museum takes advantage of three dimensions. Here is a hanging Vought F4U Corsair.

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The majority of the collection is housed in one enormous long hangar.

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Studies showed NASA's Oblique Wing Research Aircraft had potential for impressive performance at high speed. A larger, piloted version was built as well.

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Not a PBY

Though at first glance this is a PBY Catalina, it's actually a Sikorsky JRS-1. This example survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. Later that day these unarmed aircraft were sent to search for the Japanese fleet.

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Historic blue

This F/A-18C Hornet flew combat missions in both Iraq wars and in Afghanistan. It then flew with the Navy's Blue Angels flight demonstration squad. 

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The huge F-14 Tomcat has a timeless beauty. This specific F-14 was one of the two US aircraft involved in an air battle with Libyan MiG-23s over the Mediterranean Sea in 1989.

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First X

This is the first X-35, later modified to test the STOVL, or short take-off and vertical landing fan engine.

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Up and (quickly) away

This aircraft was also the first ever to achieve a short take off, fly at supersonic speed, then land vertically, all in the same flight.  

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Last Crusader

This Vought RF-8 Crusader was the last operational F-8 in the US Navy. It was in service from 1959 until 1987 and has more flight hours (7,475 to be exact, including 200 in combat) than any other F-8.

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The museum's F-4 Phantom II logged more than 5,000 hours of flight time during its 15 years of service, including 1,300 carrier landings on both the USS Independence and the USS Saratoga.

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Fast fish

Over 6,000 MiG-21 Fishbeds were built. Many are still in service with air forces around the world. This example's history is a bit of a mystery. Before the museum it was on display at nearby Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, DC.

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Clear Sky Storm

This is the only remaining Aichi M6A Seiran, or "Clear Sky Storm." It's a Japanese floatplane designed for transport and launch from a submarine, ostensibly to attack the US mainland during WWII. 

The YouTube channel Mustard has an excellent video about submarine aircraft carriers.

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The first of three incredibly rare German aircraft at the museum is the Dornier Do 335 "Arrow", a twin-engine heavy fighter. It was Germany's fastest propeller aircraft of World War II, with a top speed of 474 mph. Only 37 were made before the war ended.

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First jet bomber

This is the only surviving Arado Ar 234, the world's first operational jet bomber. It was largely used for reconnaissance. 

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The large aircraft in the middle is the only fully restored Heinkel He 219 Uhu night fighter. It was extremely advanced for its time, with radar, ejection seats and more. Fewer than 300 were made.

At the bottom is a Focke-Wulf Fw 190, which was shipped to the US after the war for study, and preserved at the museum since the late 1940s. 

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This Junkers Ju 52 was built in Spain in 1951 and donated to this museum by Lufthansa.

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Not a toy. Seriously.

The SA-2A Sky Baby, hand-built by Ray Stits at his home in California. It actually flew at air shows in 1952.

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This Lockheed Super Constellation (or "Connie") served with the Air Force and Air National Guard for 22 years. 

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Rocket Komet

The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet was a late-war rocket-powered interceptor. It was extremely fast, at least until its very limited fuel ran out. This example is one of five brought over from Germany after World War II for testing.

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The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird is unmistakable.

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(Highest) speed machine

The huge Pratt & Whitney J58 engines let the SR-71 cruise at Mach 3.2, or more than 2,200 mph.

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The engines were designed to run with afterburners always running. This was actually most efficient at Mach 3 cruise.

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Record setter

This specific SR-71 flew from Los Angeles to New York in 1 hour, 4 minutes, averaging 2,124 mph, a record. There's no word on how many spooked dogs and humans were startled by the sonic boom.

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Black Widow and a Gekko

Up top is the odd (but cool!) looking Northrop P-61C Black Widow. Designed to hunt enemy aircraft at night, this example was used for cold weather and other scientific testing for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA.

At the bottom is the only surviving Nakajima J1N1-S Gekko escort fighter.

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The most famous B-29

B-29s are on display in a handful of museums, but this isn't just any B-29.

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Enola Gay

This is the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. 

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Little Boy

The Little Boy bomb created an explosion equal to 15 kilotons of TNT, and killed between 90,000 and 146,000 people.

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Fat Man

The Enola Gay flew as a weather reconnaissance aircraft for the second bomb drop, nicknamed Fat Man, over Nagasaki on Aug. 9.

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Post war

After the war, the Army Air Force flew the Enola Gay during the top-secret Operation Crossroads atomic test program, though it didn't drop any weapons.

After sitting in various storage facilities for the next four decades, an extensive restoration project began in the mid-1980s. It took nearly 20 years to complete.

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This Lockheed P-38 Lightning was used for a variety of testing and training exercises. It was even flown by America's top WWII flying ace, Richard Bong.

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Dash 80

For an aircraft that revolutionized commercial air travel, the Dash 80, aka the 367-80, is remarkably small. You may know it by the name of its eventual production version, the Boeing 707.

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Proto 707

Even after the 707 entered service, the Dash 80 continued on for over a decade as a testbed for aircraft and engine technologies. This is, inarguably, one of the most important, or at least influential, aircraft in any museum anywhere.

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Foxtrot Alpha

Concorde F-BVFA, aka Foxtrot Alpha, wears its original Air France livery. It was the airline's second Concorde (the first was destroyed in a 2000 crash at Paris), and opened service from Paris to New York, Washington and Rio de Janeiro.

You can't go inside, but CNET had toured Concordes in Seattle, New York, Paris and Bristol, UK. There's also one at the Technik Museum Sinsheim in Germany next to its Russian counterpart, the Tupolev Tu-144.

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In the museum's restoration area they're hard at work on a B-25, an Incom-FreiTek T-70 X-wing fighter (!) and other aircraft.

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The Space Shuttle Discovery orbiter first launched into orbit on Aug. 30, 1984. It flew 39 flights over 27 years, the most of any spacecraft.

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3 of 5

Discovery was the third Shuttle built, not including the atmospheric testbed Enterprise. It also was the first to be retired, being the oldest surviving Shuttle at the time.

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So many photos and videos of the Shuttles are from long distance that it's hard to tell how big they really are. They're indeed enormous, but wouldn't look out of place, size-wise, next to most modern airliners.

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Main engines

The orbiter's main engines were liquid-fueled, drawing liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen from the big orange external tank.

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2 on 7

The Gemini VII capsule carried astronauts Jim Lovell and Frank Borman into orbit in 1965. It's remarkable how small these early spacecraft were. Only 19 years separated this and the Discovery's first flight.

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The Excalibur III is a North American P-51C converted for long-distance racing. Piloted by Charles Blair, it holds several records.

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This is an original Spad XVI. Built in 1918 it was flown by Gen. William Mitchell, who is considered the father of the US Air Force. The B-25 Mitchell, as seen earlier in the restoration room, is named in his honor.

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This is the only surviving Curtiss N-9H floatplane.

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Easily one of the most impressive air museums in the world, the Udvar-Hazy Center is a must-see for any aircraft aficionados. It's next to Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia.

For more about the museum, and our tour, check out: Soar to the skies and beyond at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center.

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