Winged History (Virginia)

  • Local Projects
  • 2003

As they glide into Washington’s Dulles Airport, air travelers pass an enormous hangar complex. Beneath its gently curved roof lies one of the world’s greatest collections of aviation treasures. The man who built that complex is a Hungarian immigrant to the U.S. named Steven Udvar-Hazy. In 1973 he co-founded a company that purchases aircraft and leases them to commercial carriers. His firm eventually owned 1,000 planes and counted most of the world’s major airlines among its customers.

As Udvar-Hazy was growing his business, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum had a growth problem of its own. Its facility on Washington’s National Mall could not accommodate its fast-expanding collection. Udvar-Hazy stepped forward with a $65 million gift to build a museum annex adjacent to Dulles Airport, where aircraft joining the collection, even very large specimens, could simply be flown in and taxied over to the exhibition space, saving millions of dollars that would otherwise have to be spent on disassembling, trucking, and reassembling large display craft. The largest construction project in Smithsonian history, the Udvar-Hazy Center is also the only Smithsonian facility to be constructed entirely with private funds.

Opened in 2003, the Udvar-Hazy Center quickly became the most visited museum in Virginia, hosting more than a million guests every year. It is home to hundreds of important artifacts, including the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; space shuttle Discovery; a Gemini capsule; a Concorde; an SR-71 Blackbird; the prototype for the first commercially successful jetliner, the Boeing 707; a Dassault Falcon that was FedEx’s first jet; and the GlobalFlyer, the first craft to circumnavigate the world nonstop without refueling. Multimedia offerings and a tower from which visitors can observe movements at Dulles and learn about air traffic control complement the collection. Says Udvar-Hazy: “I know this museum will impart to millions of children the same love for aviation that I have.”