IMAX film enhances experience of visit to National Air and Spac

January 06, 2006|by LISA PREJEAN

Like most boys his age, my 10-year-old son can't seem to resist books about airplanes. Whether a book is based on historical fact, how to make paper airplanes or a fictional story about a pilot, his eyes tend to be drawn to the text.

His airplane creations can be found throughout our house - some of them resting in nosedive positions behind the furniture. I think they multiply at night. How else could he make so many in all those colors and styles?

In light of his fascination with planes, what better way to spend a day of his Christmas break than at an airplane museum?

Here in Western Maryland we're really fortunate to be so close to Washington, D.C., and the Smithsonian Institution. While my family has been to the National Air and Space Museum site on the National Mall, we had yet to travel to Northern Virginia for a visit to the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.


The center, which opened in December 2003, will eventually house more than 200 aircraft and 100 space artifacts. This site is unique because large aircraft - ones too big to be displayed on the Mall - are exhibited in a hangar-like atmosphere.

The location in Chantilly, Va., is ideal because it is near Washington Dulles International Airport. The Donald D. Engen Observation Tower offers views of the airport runways where planes can be seen taking off and landing.

When we first arrived at the center, we decided to view one of the films offered at the on-site IMAX theater. "Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag" set the tone for the day. The film follows an American F-15 Eagle pilot as he trains with some of the world's best pilots. It shows how the intensive training program named Operation Red Flag attempts to prepare pilots for combat situations.

The unique angles and vivid cinematography make the audience feel as if they are going through Red Flag with the pilots. It is an exhilarating show and a good reminder of the sacrifices and risks the members of our military make each day to ensure our safety.

My thoughts were still on the film as we entered the aviation hangar where aircraft are displayed on three levels in a building that is 10 stories high. There are pathways on the floor where visitors can see aircraft at close range. At other levels, skywalks bring visitors close to aircraft that are suspended from the ceiling.

The planes are grouped by themes based on their function, such as business aviation, commercial aviation or sport aviation, and also by chronology, including Pre-1920 aviation, World War II aviation and Cold War aviation, to name a few.

I was especially intrigued by the World War II section. It was fascinating to see the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay in person. You might remember from history class that the Enola Gay was the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb in World War II. The plane is restored and reassembled for the first time in more than 40 years. It is the only plane along the skywalks that has glass-paneled barriers in front of it. I assumed that the panels were there because the display of the plane could be considered controversial. That was confirmed after I asked a few questions at the information desk. Some people feel that exhibiting the plane glorifies nuclear war.

My children had a lot of questions about the plane and the war. I simply told them that the plane is a historical artifact and an important reminder of the atrocities of war.

They quickly moved on to see airplanes from other eras. My son also was anxious to take a ride in a flight simulator, which proved to be one of the highlights of his trip.

It was a truly enjoyable, educational day, and the trip was certainly worthwhile.

If you go ...

5:30 p.m. daily except Dec. 25.

Cost: Admission is free. Parking is $12. There are additional fees for the IMAX films and simulator rides. There is a museum store and a McDonald's restaurant at the center.

Information: Call 1-202-633-1000, or go to

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page.

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