After a leisurely start to the day, we set off on an expedition to the Udvar-Hazy Center at Chantilly – an extension of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum housed in two old aircraft hangars. The incredible space afforded by the nature of the buildings means that it can house some of the most significant aeroplanes in American history – in world history in some instances.
The kids were handed Scavenger Hunt sheets that instructed them to find about eight aeroplanes across the collection which all had a name or nickname associated with an animal. That was a good means of pulling them through the space to see various highlights. Our oldest son accompanied his grandparents to undertake a more thorough tour with a bit more science and engineering focus while Mr Pict and I took the other three children around. Our 8 year old can be very difficult to engage in even arts and humanities subjects at times but trying to engage him in science and technology was pretty much mission impossible. I think there were two things in the entire Museum that he showed a particular interest in. I am intrigued to discover, in the weeks and months to come, how much information he actually managed to absorb from osmosis or subliminal learning.
The boys liked the Blackbird because it features in the movie ‘X Men: First Class’. In the film, one of the mutants designs it and it can transport the whole team. It was interesting for them to note, therefore, how miniscule the cockpit actually was, especially in proportion to the scale of the rest of the plane. They also enjoyed seeing various aircraft from Nazi Germany which they knew from the Indiana Jones movies.
The space section was probably the most successful in terms of holding the kids’ attention. I am not massively interested in space travel and exploration but even I was excited to see the space shuttle Discovery up close and my husband – who is very much into astronomy and outer space – was absolutely thrilled. I have been to Cape Canaveral before so the scale was something I was familiar with but for some reason I felt I could see the detail more on this shuttle – or maybe I was just a bit more interested this time. I noted the smoothness of the design and even of the component parts. The same area also housed various space modules and re-entry pods and glass cases full of astronaut artefacts including some vomit-inducing foods inside squeezy tubes and some underpants for collecting urine. Somewhat incongruously but excitingly for me, there was also a model of the mother ship from ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ on which the model makers had hidden various real world items such as a submarine, sharks, a VW minibus, a graveyard and R2D2 – which our 8 year old found right away.
I had seen part of the Enola Gay in the regular Air and Space Museum back in 1995 but it really was quite something to see the entire thing reassembled. I had not appreciated how large it was before seeing it in its entirety. It’s impact, of course, is not so much what it is in itself but the role it played in the Second World War and consequently in the history of the modern world and in the history of ethics. Apparently our 11 year old took part in quite an in-depth discussion with his grandparents about the efficacy and ethics of the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan.
We saw aircraft on every scale – from tiny little things even I, at my height, could be hard pressed to fit into to Concorde – and of every colour – from plain varnished wood to dazzlingly shiny chrome – and from every era – from pioneering aircraft to modern engineering. We also saw items linked to specific pilots, such as Amelia Earhart’s jumpsuit and a whole series of glass cases filled with souvenir trinkets and toys celebrating Charles Lindbergh.