In Our Own Backyard
Ten, Nine, Eight . . . Blast Off!
At the Udvar-Hazy Center
By Justine Ickes
No school today?
Kids getting antsy?
Need to get out, stretch your legs and learn something, too?
Then head to the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly to marvel at aviation history and space exploration.
Like its counterpart, the National Air & Space Museum on the National Mall, the Udvar-Hazy (pronounced OOD-var HAH-zee) boasts an impressive collection. What makes this museum particularly attractive for families is the fact that the artifacts are displayed in open hangars. Kids can walk around, under and even inside some of the 161 aircraft, 160 large artifacts and 3,000 smaller objects on display.
Although free docent-led tours are offered throughout the day, we opted for a self-guided tour. Thanks to the museum’s online list of the artifacts on display, its downloadable self-guided tour brochure, the kid-friendly resource “How Things Fly” and suggestions from Jennifer McIntosh, Discovery Station program coordinator, we knew just what to see and do. Families who have limited time might want to make a beeline to the Concorde, the SR-71 and the Space Shuttle Enterprise. But with the whole day free and no belongings to lug around—we’d stashed ours in the free lockers located near the bathrooms—we had time to explore.
Our first stop? The164-foot high Donald D. Engen Observation Tower for a 360-degree bird’s-eye view of the surrounding area. Here you can watch planes land and take off from nearby Washington Dulles International Airport, see an air traffic control workstation and equipment, learn about the basic features of an airport, and listen to transmissions from real cockpits. The tower has two levels of exhibits and is only accessible by elevator. Since lines can be long, we suggest visiting this attraction at the start of your visit. Strollers are not permitted on the elevator, but there’s a parking area where you can leave your stroller while you’re in the tower.
Next up? An imaginary flight in the Cessna 150 parked on the ground floor. This is a must-do activity for kids and a great photo-op for parents! A helpful docent explained how the controls worked. The Cessna’s not always open, so check with the visitor services desk when you first arrive at the museum so your young pilots don’t miss their flight.
Next, we ventured into the Boeing Aviation Hangar. Measuring the length of three football fields, it has aircraft displayed on three levels. From the stroller-friendly, elevated walkway, you can ogle the aircraft suspended from 10-story-high trusses. With so much to see, kids might not know where to look first. McIntosh shares some tips for keeping them focused. “There are several popular artifacts that always entrance kids; for example, the symbols and logos painted on many aircraft. Challenge your kids to find the airplane with the shark face. Why is the shark there?”
“As you walk,” says McIntosh, “talk to your children about what they see. For example, what do they know about the Wright brothers and their historic flight? Have them walk around the SR-71. Can they guess how many people can fit in it?” Kids can develop their abstract thinking and math skills by using the scale of the hangar and the objects in it as a visual yardstick. My sons had fun guessing where the Wright brothers’ first 120-foot flight would’ve landed had they flown inside the museum.
Tech-savvy kids will get a kick out of the computers scattered throughout the museum. QuickTime virtual reality makes it possible to take a 360-degree virtual tour of the cockpits of different aircraft. Said Ayden, age 6, “The computer was my favorite. Actually, no. The simulator was the best!”
Ah, yes, the simulators. For $7 to $8 per person, you can take a trip on one of three interactive flight or ride simulators. Children must be at least 48 inches tall to experience the thrill of climbing, diving and rolling in an F-4 Phantom II jet fighter. Younger kids can ride some of the attractions if accompanied by an adult. Beware, this isn’t for the faint of heart, so steer clear if thrill rides aren’t your thing.
Our final destination? The 53,067 square-foot James S. McDonnell Space Hangar, which houses armament missiles, rockets, probes, spacesuits and other equipment used for space exploration. My inquisitive 5-year-old was intrigued by the experiments on display, many of which were proposed by middle-school children and then carried out onboard by NASA scientists. We also had fun answering the questions in the free activity booklet, “Explore the Space Hangar,” and were thrilled to get an official museum seal at the visitor services desk.
But the aeronautical fun didn’t stop once we’d landed back home. At McIntosh’s suggestion we had foot races to reinforce what we’d learned about the Wright brothers flights. “Take a stop watch and measure out the distances: Flight # 1—12 seconds/120 feet, Flight # 2—12 seconds/175 feet; etc. Then see if you can beat those times.”
So, for a fun and educational family outing, check out the Udvar-Hazy Center. Roger that. Over and out!
Things to Know Before You Visit
Location: The Udvar-Hazy Center is at 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly
Handicap and Stroller Accessible: There are wide walkways throughout the two exhibit hangars and an elevator to the Observation Tower.
Hours: 10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. daily. (Closed December 25.)
Cost: Free admission; $15 parking per vehicle; $65 annual pass available
Airbus IMAX Theater: Prices range from $6.50 to $9 for IMAX shows to $10 for feature films. Call 1-877-932-IMAX or visit nasm.si.edu/visit/theaters/uhc.
Food: There is a McDonald’s in the food court next to the museum store.
2011 Family Days at the National Mall Building and the Udvar-Hazy Center
Check out these free events! Events are subject to change, so check the Museum’s online calendar at nasm.si.edu/events/calendar.cfm before heading out.
African American Pioneers in Aviation. Saturday, February 5, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Free admission. Parking $15. Saturday, February 12, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. National Mall Building. Free admission.
Hands-on activities, storytime, book signings and meet-and-greet with local Tuskegee Airmen, the famed African-American World War II pilots, who fought discrimination at home and abroad.
Women in Aviation and Space. Saturday, March 12, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Free admission. Parking $15
Presentations about the contributions of women to aviation, science and aerospace, and hands-on science activities developed and presented by local Girl Scout troops.
Kites of Asia. Saturday, March 19, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. National Mall Building. Free admission.
Indoor kite-flying demonstrations and discussions with kite experts.
Justine Ickes is a contributing writer for Washington Parent and mom to two aspiring pilots.