One of the first things I noticed approaching the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center was the helicopters circling overhead. I was running a few minutes behind, and hoping that I wouldn’t miss the first fly-by of the space shuttle Discovery mounted on the back of a modified NASA Boeing 747. After sitting in traffic for a few minutes, the car inched toward the highway exit for the Air & Space museum, which sits adjacent to Dulles International Airport (IAD) in Virginia. As far as Washington, D.C.-area traffic goes, I was making slow but steady progress on Route 28 until hitting the roadblock at the off-ramp to the Udvar-Hazy Center.
Following the lead of fellow enthusiasts, I parked my car on the shoulder of Route 28 and headed for the museum on foot. While walking up the exit ramp, it appeared—the shuttle/747 combo emerged from over the embankment, in an almost movie-like scene. After being frozen for a split second, stunned, I reached for one of three cameras (always have backups) and snapped quick photos.
After the shuttle faded into the distance, I continued walking up the embankment to find a large crowd gathered along the side of the exit ramp with a great view of the Dulles Airport runway, as well as another police roadblock (that’s as far as I could advance).
I positioned myself immediately to catch a photo of the shuttle landing—a good strategy since the crowd steadily thickened as nearly an hour went by while the shuttle toured the D.C. region.
As much as the shuttle itself was a draw, the communal nature of people gathering to watch a historic event is something that stuck out to me. Overheard comments included, “It was worth missing school for this, huh?” and “I wish [so-and-so] was here to see this,” as well as, “The shuttle looks dirty,” and the classic, “That was awesome!” One person brought takeout food. Another took a cab straight from the airport, luggage and all. People all around the region stood on the rooftops of office buildings, hoping to catch a glimpse of the unique sighting.
Newsgathering and police helicopters grew in number as the shuttle started to make its way back from D.C. After numerous false warnings that involved the raising of hundreds of cameras, tablets and smartphones, the shuttle returned to Dulles for a second pass. This time I was ready, snapping away as Discovery and its military escort flew the missed approach.
It made a wide circle, during which “aeronautical planespotter type standing on top of a roadway barrier post with binoculars” provided position updates. The raising of tablets signaled the final approach, as the Discovery/747 combo flew over the crowd one last time and touched down to loud cheers and lots of clicking sounds from cameras. After the smoke cleared from the runway, several vehicles approached the shuttle and police began moving the crowd out. As I glanced at the aircraft pair for the last time while walking away, loudspeakers blared in the background: “Please return to your vehicles.” In other words, show’s over, folks.
The whole event lasted an hour, but offered an up-close view at a significant moment in aviation history.
Visit Aviation Today for more photos of the Discovery space shuttle landing.