DC’s Best-Kept Secrets for Airplane-Loving Kiddos (and Parents)

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Sure, the Air and Space Museum is one of DC’s most popular sites for tourists and locals alike. Its downtown location—and its sister site in Virginia—are wonderful places to see and even touch airplanes of all types, and if you read this blog, you’ve probably already taken your kids to one or more. But did you know that the DMV has two other fabulous sites for airplane-loving kiddos (and adults)? The first airport in the world and the longest-running airshow in the United States are both a short drive from home. And both are super kid-friendly ways to learn about the history of flight!

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First, a bit of aviation history:

You probably know that the Wright brothers made the first powered flight in 1903, but what happened next? The U.S. government became interested in planes, and the Wright brothers won the first-ever tender for aircraft. Suddenly, they needed a place to land planes and train other pilots. So in 1909, the U.S. established the College Park Airport— and it’s still open today (see below). There, they trained pilots and tested new types of aircraft that were used in World War I.

Fast forward to after the war, and the U.S. had a variety of airplane models and many trained pilots who were looking to enjoy flying, promote air travel, and make a living in the process. Thus, the flying circuses were born—groups of pilots around the country who put on “barnstorming shows” doing tricks in the air and basically showing the public how flying worked. Pilots in these shows during the 1920s and ’30s included Charles Lindbergh, Katherine Stinson and Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman and first Native American to hold a pilot license. And the tradition lives on in Bealeton, VA., with the Flying Circus Airshow, the longest-running airshow in the country.

Here is our family’s experience with each:

Learning to Fly at The College Park Aviation Museum

If you are used to the Air and Space Museum, you’ll enjoy the fact that the College Park Aviation Museum is smaller, less crowded, and more hands-on for kids. If you’re a history buff, you’ll enjoy the up-close view of the Wright B flyer, one of the earliest planes, and the first military aircraft. Wright B flyers were built on the grounds and the airport was also home to the first airmail flight. The museum is full of aircrafts, models, and exhibits; it’s also very hands-on. Kids can sit in an airplane cockpit and a helicopter cockpit. They can visit the “flight school” and practice on a flight simulator game. The museum holds educational events for all ages, on topics from the basics of flight, to women in flight, or the history of air mail.airplane

Watching in Wonder at The Flying Circus Airshow

Fair warning: Bealeton is a bit of a drive from D.C. The trip clocks in at just over an hour, but it’s worth it!

The Flying Circus Aerodrome & Airshow runs every Sunday all summer (into October). We arrived about an hour before the show was scheduled to start. That was enough time to find a place to sit and buy lunch at the concession stand. Seating consists of rows of benches along the field. It’s also a great place to bring a picnic, but we hadn’t thought that far ahead. We walked around and admired the planes while we waited. Then, around 2 p.m. the show started up. The show includes some old-fashioned humor and a little slapstick, (loosely) based on WWI, to weave a story into a variety of aerobatic stunts. It also keeps the audience entertained (and giggling) in those gaps while a plane is starting up or setting up. airplane

The stunts are amazing: Loops and wing-walkers give you a sense of what it might have been like to take flight in a cloth-covered flying machine, and maybe need to parachute out. During our visit we saw a modern stunt plane as well, showing off some of the most agile flying in the world; the kids loved it. After the show, we got to walk around the planes, and even sit in the cockpits of a few. If you are really into planes you can pay for a ride in an open-cockpit biplane!

Our kids had a blast at both of these sites. Have you visited either? Let us know what you thought in the comments below.

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Katherine lived on four different continents before settling in Washington, D.C., to raise her family. She works at a global think tank during the day and raises twin boys the rest of the time. When she isn't working on a spreadsheet for work, she loves walking in the forest with her family, which invariably involves stomping in puddles and climbing on logs. Though she is less of a world traveler these days, she continues to seek out adventures, from exploring D.C.'s museums and playgrounds to taking road trips to national parks. When it's time to unwind, she can be found snuggling with her husband on the couch. Likes: adventures, sleeping past 7 a.m., being surrounded by forests, the sound of her boys laughing, and locally made ice cream. Dislikes: whining, the patriarchy, and people who judge parents.

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