Enterprise Survives Sneak Attack
A space-age relic comes to rest in a sheltered roost after a relentless assault by winged marauders
By Brad Lemley
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly, Va.
The space shuttle Enterprise
is among the most advanced flying machines ever built, but it was no match for the woodpeckers. “You can see where they’ve pecked all along the tail,” says museum specialist Tony Carp. We are riding in a hydraulic lift some 50 feet above the floor, examining a sprinkling of quarter-size dents in the aft section. They look even worse than the wasps’ nests I just saw in the landing-gear wells.
Two years of sitting outside in the mid-1980s turned the Enterprise into one of the world's most expensive wildlife habitats, but four technicians armed with putty, detergent, and paint are busily undoing the damage. They expect most of the restoration to be done by the end of the summer, at which time the craft will become one of the jewels of the Smithsonian Institution’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, a vast new air-and-space museum next to Washington Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia. The Enterprise was named after the starship in Star Trek in response to a flood of pleading fan letters and never flew in space; it was built in 1976 as a prototype to demonstrate that the orbiter could fly and land like an airplane. It did go aloft 13 times on the back of a 747, and 5 times, pilots disengaged and landed it. Clad in foam-which explains how the woodpeckers managed to ravage it-the shuttle still has as much value as it did when it was first built. “Within days of the Columbia accident, NASA called and said they would be needing our leading-edge panels for foam impact tests,” says curator Valerie Neal.
The Enterprise is just one of many incredible flying machines at the new museum. Opened on December 15, 2003, the center’s adjacent space and aviation hangars are packed with artifacts too big and too numerous to fit into the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum on the mall in Washington, D.C. Stepping inside the 986-foot-long aviation hangar, my first impression is of a gigantic version of a teenage boy’s room. Many of the airplanes hang from massive trusses, much like plastic models suspended from tacks thrust into bedroom ceilings. “We took care to hang them in the attitudes that you would see them flying in,” says Frank McNally, a public affairs specialist who, like everyone else on the staff, is a certified aviation nut. The rakish angle of the 1937 Vought-Sikorsky Kingfisher, a World War II scout plane adept at slow flight, indicates that it’s coming in for landing, while the Pitts Special S-1C that hangs above the entrance is fully inverted, the way that aerobatics champion Betty Skelton often flew it in the late 1940s.
Other historical gems in the aviation hangar include a 1976 Concorde supersonic airliner donated by Air France after its last flight on June 12, 2003; a 1967 Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird reconnaissance jet capable of Mach 3.3; and a 1938 Boeing 307 Stratoliner, the first passenger plane with a pressurized cabin. But the star attraction is the silvery Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Donated to the Smithsonian in the late 1940s, it was taken apart in 1961 and underwent surgical reconstruction beginning in 1984. “The whole restoration took about 300,000 man-hours,” says McNally. “Once, a guy came through it and said, ‘Those aren’t 1945 radio tubes-they were put in in 1947. I have some 1945 tubes in my collection that I'll give you.’ That gives you an idea of the level of detail in this.”
Of course, the Enola Gay is more than a quaint technological artifact; it’s a war machine fraught with historical symbolism. On opening day, a man was arrested after hurling a jar of red paint at the plane, which bounced off the aircraft’s side and smashed on the floor, releasing its contents like spilled blood. The man was among a group of about 75 protesters angered that the Enola Gay’s placard makes no mention of the Japanese casualties caused by the bomb. McNally insists that such a reaction is an anomaly. “Aviation brings out the kid in everyone. You look around, and all you see are big smiles. When people get to the door, they can’t help turning around for one last look.”
I certainly couldn’t. By turns thrilling, inspiring, and sobering, the Udvar-Hazy Center is a fitting tribute to humankind’s ongoing effort to conquer the skies. The woodpeckers’ loss was not in vain.
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