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Science & Space

New air and space annex lifts off

From Larry Shaughnessy

The shuttle Enterprise, which NASA used for test flights, never flew in space.
The shuttle Enterprise, which NASA used for test flights, never flew in space.

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Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

HERNDON, Virginia (CNN) -- One of the most popular museums in the world is expanding, as the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum opens a new hangar to showcase more legends from the sky, including a test craft that paved the way for the space shuttle and the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb.

The new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which officially opens to the public Monday, is on the grounds of Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia, about 30 miles west of the main museum in Washington, D.C.

But as thousands of guests, including many active and retired military pilots, found out during a sneak preview Thursday, going those few extra miles is more than worth it.

Vice President Dick Cheney, who dedicated the extension, called it "a monument to the many great achievements in flight."

"I've been looking forward to coming here for a tour," Cheney told the crowd. "I'm extremely impressed by what I saw this morning."

Like Cheney, many of the veterans praised the museum and said it brought back memories of their time in the cockpit.

"I could probably jump in it and I'd probably know where everything is because it's just like riding a bicycle." said Col. Bob Shawn, standing in front of a P-38 Lightning similar to the planes he flew when he first joined the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.

Enola Gay returns

The man who piloted perhaps the most famous plane in the exhibit was on hand to see the aircraft that made him famous. Retired Air Force Gen. Paul Tibbets flew the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb, on Hiroshima, Japan.

The plane, which had been dismantled in the early 1960s, is fully refurbished and on display at the center.

"When I came in here and saw this thing, the symbols, looking the way it looked," Tibbets said, "I wanted to get right in there and taxi it out."

The exhibit of the Enola Gay stirred some controversy in October when the museum was petitioned to present information with the display on the number of victims associated with the Hiroshima bombing. That request was rejected.

The museum is a sister facility to the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington. That museum, which touts itself as the most-visited museum in the world, will continue to display many historic aviation artifacts, including the Wright Brothers' 1903 flyer, which they used to launch the age of powered flight, and the Spirit of St. Louis, which Charles Lindbergh flew in the first nonstop solo transatlantic flight.

But the majority of the Smithsonian's collection of aviation-related artifacts will be displayed at the new Udvar-Hazy Center, which will eventually grow to cover more than 760,000 square feet and include 200 planes and spacecraft.

Fastest jet ever

Aside from the Enola Gay, the annex already has 80 large artifacts on display, including a supersonic Concorde passenger jet, the first space shuttle and an SR-71 spy plane, the fastest jet aircraft ever built.

A view of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird from ground level.
A view of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird from ground level.

Richard "Butch" Sheffield, a retired Air Force colonel, was one of the first pilots to fly the SR-71 Blackbird. He was taken aback when he first walked into the museum and saw the plane on display.

"I thought it was awesome. I came in on the upper deck there and I looked down on it and there were a bunch of spectators standing around and they were just going 'ooh' and 'aah.' It's a very dramatic looking airplane."

Peter Kacerguis is a retired Army colonel who flew UH-1 Huey helicopters during his three tours of duty in Vietnam. He said that seeing a Huey on display brought back many memories, like the unique sound the "slicks" made.

"We call it the bell hop, the bell wop, and when you put a little pitch in the blade, it just started grabbing you, whump whump whump, whump. It was beautiful."

Admission to the museum will be free, but parking at the new facility costs $12.

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