Reflections on the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center as It Turns 20

The National Air and Space Museum director reflects on the Udvar-Hazy Center’s two-decade history.

Multiple aircraft are on exhibit, including five suspended from the ceiling. Displayed on the floor is the Lockheed SR-71, viewed from the rear--the exhaust nozzles of the powerful jet engines in full view.
The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center’s Boeing Aviation Hangar has the roominess to display large aircraft, including the magnificent Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird (foreground). Smithsonian / Jim Preston

One of the best things about working at the National Air and Space Museum is strolling through the exhibition galleries before our two buildings open to the public (our location in Washington, D.C., and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia). It’s not that I don’t cherish being in our buildings when they’re full of visitors (that is, after all, what the museum business is all about), but the quiet and stillness of the pre-opening hours give me the space to appreciate more deeply our artifacts and to reflect upon the human stories behind them.

On the days when I’m working at the Udvar-Hazy Center, and I’m not in too much of a rush to get to my office, I’ll sometimes walk over to the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and spend a few minutes looking at this revolutionary aircraft. I’ve been in the aviation business a long time, but the SR-71 still mesmerizes me. It’s surely one of the fastest-looking aircraft ever built, but for me the power of the Blackbird is that someone dared to dream of a jet-powered aircraft that could fly past Mach 3 at an altitude of 85,000 feet. That someone is Kelly Johnson, who started out as an aeronautical engineer and would go on to oversee the design of many of Lockheed’s most innovative aircraft. I never had the privilege of meeting Johnson, but I feel confident in saying the man was a visionary.

Washington Post reporter Lori Aratani interviewed aviation entrepreneur Steve Udvar-Hazy at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center 20th Anniversary Celebration on December 2, 2023. Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Someone else capable of envisioning—and shaping—the future is Steven F. Udvar-Hazy, for whom our museum in Chantilly is named. The Udvar-Hazy Center first opened on December 15, 2003, and as we prepare to celebrate its 20th anniversary, I’d like to share Steve’s story. As a child in his native Hungary, he was fascinated by aviation and spent time building model airplanes (some of which are part of our collection).

After the Soviet occupation of Hungary, Steve and his family came to the United States in 1958, a move that would lay the foundation for his entrepreneurial aspirations in the aviation industry.

You might think a commercial airline would own its fleet of aircraft, but many airlines in the U.S. lease their airplanes—that’s due largely to Steve, who had the foresight to understand that leasing was a better business model than owning. Steve is the founder of two aircraft leasing companies, and his success in creating the industry enabled him to donate $60 million to the Museum in 2000. Without his generosity, there would be no Udvar-Hazy Center.

I’m sometimes asked if I favor one museum over the other, and I always say that the National Mall building and the Udvar-Hazy Center complement each other. At the Mall location, the artifacts are displayed within a more detailed framework of storytelling and historic narrative. At the Udvar-Hazy Center, the expansiveness of the buildings gives us the ability to display the larger artifacts; in addition to the SR-71, for example, there’s also the B-29 Enola Gay and a Concorde.

Aviation has often been an expression of freedom, and for anyone who dares to dream of following in the footsteps of such visionaries as Kelly Johnson and Steven F. Udvar-Hazy, our museum in Chantilly is proof of what can happen when dreams turn to reality.

Christopher U. Browne is the John and Adrienne Mars Director of the National Air and Space Museum.