A Century’s Roar and Buzz

Thanks to an immigrant’s generosity, the Steven Udvar-Hazy Center opens its massive doors to the public

Udvar-Hazy Center
Wikimedia Commons

Steven Udvar-Hazy did not actually leave the ground when he first felt the release of flight. The year was 1953, he was 7 years old, and his parents had taken him to a military air show in their native Hungary, then occupied by the Soviets. Forty-six years later, Udvar-Hazy recalled the day: as planes rose from the earth and left behind the harsh circumstances of occupation, the boy realized "that an airplane rising into the sky is the hope, the only way to reach into a bigger world, a world representing his future." Udvar-Hazy and his family came as refugees to the United States in 1958, and here he found his bigger world. He started his first company in 1966, while attending UCLA, and in 1973 he co-founded the International Lease Finance Corporation, which grew to be the world's leading lessor of commercial aircraft.

In October 1999, Steven Udvar-Hazy said that it was time to give back to America a portion of the wealth aviation had bestowed on him. In an act of appropriately soaring generosity, he donated $60 million to the Smithsonian (and later increased the amount to $65 million) toward the costs of a mammoth new complex near Dulles Airport in Virginia, where the Institution will display airplanes and spacecraft too big and too numerous for the already vast capacity of the Air and Space Museum on the Mall. Udvar-Hazy said of the gift, which at the time was the largest ever made to the Smithsonian: "It properly mirrors my love for aviation." More than that, it mirrors his great love for the country where the unpredictable flight plan of a boy's life had set him safely down.

On December 15, two days shy of the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first successful flight in a powered heavier-than-air machine, the StevenF.Udvar-HazyCenter, a spectacular companion facility to the Air and SpaceMuseum, will open to the public. (The various components of the new museum will cost some $311 million in all. To complete the project, we still need to raise $92 million in private funds.) The largest single structure of the center is the aviation hangar, a steel-ribbed architectural wonder, with a breathtaking expanse of unobstructed interior space. How big is the hangar? Well, there are the sober measurements: 986 feet long, 248 feet wide and 103 feet high at the apex of its curved roof. And there are the whimsical measurements: the interior volume of the building is roughly equivalent to the volume of 40 Goodyear blimps.

We'll be installing more than 200 aircraft in the aviation hangar in the next several years, and we'll install some 135 artifacts in the space hangar adjacent to it. What's already in place is thrilling enough. As you enter the aviation hangar, you're brought face to face with the imposing SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, and the space shuttle Enterprise looms in the distance behind it. The history of aviation does precisely what it should in this expanse: it takes wing. Dozens of craft grace the area, some on the floor, others suspended from monumental steel trusses, in positions that reflect their characteristic attitudes in use—the wings of a P-40 Warhawk angled for attack, a Jungmeister turned upside down in a virtuoso roll. Here are the Dash 80, prototype of the 707, the jet that would transform commercial air travel, and a Concorde.

The Dash 80 is angled toward the nearby B-29 Enola Gay, which, after years of restoration work, looks as it did the day of its mission to Hiroshima. In the juxtaposition of the two aircraft, two eras meet, each with a legacy of momentous consequence. No engine in the great room makes a sound, and yet it's impossible not to hear a whole century's worth of roar and buzz and whine. Impossible, too, not to keep the imagination from taking a turn at the controls—as it did for Steven Udvar-Hazy—and ruling no destination out of reach.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.