Rare birds

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An aviation treasure trove awaits visitors to the Udvar-Hazy Center in Washington, but the best is yet to come with more artifacts en route

Under its vaulted, white-arched roof, the US National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center does not look half empty - or half full, depending on your viewpoint - but it is. The more than 1.7 million people who visited the museum in its first year would find it hard to believe that the centre is only half way to its goal of displaying 200 aircraft and a similar number of large space artifacts.

From floor to ceiling, the cavernous hangar-style building seems chock-full of aircraft, aeroengines, spacecraft, missiles and other historically significant aerospace artifacts. But when the centre opened on 15 December last year, two days before the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first powered flight only 82 aircraft were on display. Another 21, many from the museum's vertical flight collection, are now being moved in, taking the centre beyond the halfway mark.

Not that visitors should feel cheated, as the aircraft on display are among the most interesting in the museum's collection and many have been hidden from view for years in the Garber restoration facility on the other side of Washington DC. But for true aerospace archaeologists, and even mere aviation enthusiasts, the best is yet to come. With aircraft displayed on three levels - one on the ground and two suspended from the ceiling - there is still plenty of room at Udvar-Hazy for the forgotten treasures of the dusty and dim Alladin's cave that is Garber.

Most think of the National Air and Space Museum as the building in downtown Washington that houses such priceless aviation artifacts as the Wright 1903 Flyer, Lindberg's Spirit of St Louis, the Bell X-1 and the Apollo 11 command module. But the museum on the mall only houses 10% of the institute's collection. Most of the rest was in storage at Garber, a facility few know about and even fewer visit. The goal of the $311 million Udar-Hazy Center project was to allow the public display of another 80% of the collection, with the remainder on loan to other museums.

It has not been an entirely easy task. With the centennial of flight as the deadline for opening, construction was begun before all the money had been raised and only after Stephen Udvar-Hazy, founder and chief executive of International Lease Finance, had pledged $65 million to the project. Even that was not enough, and the centre opened without the planned restoration facility - now part of a second construction phase that will begin only once the final $80 million has been raised.

Spectacular setting

Few who have visited the museum in its first year could argue that the museum made the wrong decision. The artifacts and their setting are spectacular. Centre stage on entering the museum is the Mach 3-plus Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, still viewed by many as the pinnacle of aircraft design in the first century of flight. But more unusual treasures await the visitor.

There is the painstakingly restored Aichi M6AI Serian, the sole example of this float-equipped bomber designed for launch from Japanese submarines and one of the best-kept secrets of the Second World War. From the same period is the last surviving Arado Ar 234B-2 Blitz, the first operational jet bomber, also returned to pristine condition by the museum's restorers.

A sweep through 360¡ reveals the pace of commercial aircraft development over the last century, from the corrugated-skin Junkers Ju52/3m of 1931 to the Aerospatiale/BAC Concorde supersonic transport of 1969, taking in the gleaming-aluminium 1938 Boeing 307 Stratoliner - the first pressurised airliner and more work of art than aircraft - and the orange-and-brown 1954 Boeing 367-80, prototype for both the 707 and the KC-135.

Off the main building is the McDonnell space hangar, housing one of the centre's most prized exhibits, the Space Shuttle Enterprise. The only orbiter on display anywhere, Enterprise was built by Rockwell for approach and landing tests in 1977 and not designed to leave the atmosphere. The vehicle looks more like a mock-up than a real Shuttle, but regular visits to the museum by NASA to "borrow" components - including leading-edge panels tested during the Columbia accident investigation - are testament to its authenticity.

The Udvar-Hazy Center's first year has not been without incident. On the first public day after its opening, a protester hurled a container of paint at Enola Gay, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atom bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945. The glass jar bounced off the fuselage, leaving a still-visible dent in the metal, and shattered on the pristine floor.

Controversial display

Enola Gay has been embroiled in controversy since before the fuselage only was first displayed in the museum on The Mall in 1995. This may ease, the centre hopes, as more detailed historical information is added to the displays.

Few of the aircraft and artifacts to be added to the museum over coming years are likely to cause as much controversy, but they are likely to attract the attention of aviation enthusiasts and historians. Anyone who has visited the Garber facility will know what has remained concealed for years in its cramped and dingy hangars. These rare birds are now being processed through the facility's restoration shops as fast as resources allow.

Full restorations, like the immaculate Hawker Hurricane Mk IIc already on show at Udvar-Hazy, are not on the cards for now. Instead, resources are devoted to removing aircraft from storage, reassembling and cleaning them for display in essentially "as is" condition. Restoration work will resume once the second phase of the Udar-Hazy centre is complete. "We are in a transition phase," says the museum. Once complete, visitors will be be able to watch restoration work under way.

Tricky positioning

With a new batch of aircraft ready for display, the task of positioning them is getting tricker. Staff are getting more expert at the task, but there are still challenges. The centre is open from 10:00 to 17:30 each day, so aircraft must be moved at night. With many aircraft suspended from the ceiling, winds around the Washington Dulles airport site make it risky to open the large doors at both ends of the hangar.

The museum expects the 200th aircraft to arrive in 2006-7. Much of the timing is paced by the availability of resources, including sponsorship for the transfer from Garber to Udvar-Hazy. One of the aircraft making that journey early next year will be the sole surviving Dornier Do335A-1 Pfeil. This Second World War German fighter/bomber is expected to attract attention because of its rarity and unusual "push-pull" configuration. Display of the Do335 is sponsored by AvCraft Aviation, which acquired the German manufacturing operations of Fairchild Dornier in 2003.

Like other rarities in the museum's collection, the Do335 was among more than 400 German, Italian and Japanese aircraft dispatched to the USA, UK and other allied nations for testing and evaluation at the end of the Second World War. This exodus included seven Do335s, two of which were in a batch of 40 German aircraft shipped to the USA in July 1945 on the HMS Reaper.

The US Army Air Force's example was stored at Freeman Field until it was scrapped in 1946. The US Navy's example - works number 240102 - which had been used by the Luftwaffe for development trials and was complete, was allocated to the Tactical Test Division at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. In 1961, aircraft "102" was donated to the National Air and Space Museum and in the 1970s a deal was stuck between the Smithsonian and Dornier to restore this sole surviving Do335.

In 1975, "102" returned to its place of birth at Oberpfaffenhofen in Germany for restoration by Dornier staff and volunteers, some of whom had worked for the manufacturer during the war. The restored aircraft was displayed at the Deutsche Museum until the late 1980s when it was returned to the National Air and Space Museum and put into storage at Garber. Now it will take its place at Udvar-Hazy in a German aircraft collection alongside the sleek Arado Ar234 jet bomber, the powerful Focke-Wulf Fw190 fighter, the potent Heinkel He219 night fighter and the innovative Focke-Angelis Fa330 rotor-kite. And there are more to come.

Always a gamble, the Udvar-Hazy Center is being judged a success. Attendance in the first year was lower than the 3 million hoped for, and substantially less than the 9 million the downtown museum attracts annually, but was in line with realistic expectations, the museum says.

Worth the journey

The centre is about 50km (30 miles) outside Washington, adjacent to Dulles airport, and while admission is free, parking costs $12, as does a shuttle from the downtown museum. Despite these potential disincentives, the crowds still come. It is hoped new exhibits will keep them coming.

Anyone with $80 million to donate should consider contacting the National Air and Space Museum. The reward would be the completion of the dream to place the world's greatest collection of aircraft and space artifacts on public display in an environment that celebrates the accomplishments of aeronautics and spaceflight.

GRAHAM WARWICK / WASHINGTON DC

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY GIUSEPPE PICARELLA IN LONDON