A Little History about IAD and it’s not the dullest

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Washington Dulles International Airport- three curious facts

Only airport designed by FAA

Long list of conventional facts about IAD


History is a major source of interest and when the subject is Washington, DC’s past, the attention is magnified. Thus, this article about Washington Dulles International Airport:

list three things that you (probably) don’t know about it. We already posted twice about the airport, so you won’t be learning about Concorde or the airport’s inauguration in 1962. The airport has been serving the Washington region for 50 years now, so it won’t be difficult to find three random facts, but it will be challenging to pick the best ones.

1. The consecutive airshow accidents of 1972

In the early summer of 1972, Dulles Airport was playing host to a large transportation exposition called Transpo ’72, a celebration of the airport’s 10th anniversary.

This was a nine-day event sponsored by the Department of Transportation and attended by over one million visitors from around the world. According to the Wall Street Journal, it was the “biggest show the government has put on since World War II.”

On the third day of the event, May 29th, 1972, the pilot of a Kite Rider hang glider was killed in a crash. On June 3rd, during the afternoon sport plane pylon race, the propeller of a trailing aircraft clipped the right wing of the leading airplane, immediately tearing it from the fuselage. The leading plane plunged to the ground, killing the 29-year-old pilot, Hugh Alexander of Louisville, GA.

Thunderbirds F-4 Phantom (airport-data.com)

On the final day of the event, June 4th, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds were performing when Joe Howard’s F-4 Phantom II lost power during a vertical maneuver. The plane stalled and plummeted to the ground. Howard safely ejected from the aircraft, but while his parachute floated to the ground, the wind carried him over the massive fireball wreck of his jet. The intense heat from the flames melted his parachute and he dropped the final 200 feet, sustaining fatal injuries. This final tragedy was the first accident in the Thunderbirds’ history, and to make it even more tragic, he left behind his wife and a one-day old son.

Three fatal accidents within a few days of each other. That’s horrible.

2. The current location of Dulles was the second choice

Every time I drive out to Dulles, I’m reminded of a funny thing a friend said once said to me. He was driving me to the airport a number of years ago and about halfway down the Dulles Toll Road, he blurted out, “where the hell did they build this airport?”

I agree. That thing is far away, but what many people don’t know is that the current location was not where it was supposed to be built. Construction was initially ready to go on the new airport in Burke, Virginia.

Air travel was growing rapidly after World War II, and outpacing the capacity of National Airport. Congress passed the Washington Airport Act of 1950 to back a second airport for the region. Throughout the 1950s, land was acquired around a site in Burke, ready for the new airport. The neighbors of the new site were against the location and organized against it and the D.C. suburbs were expanding at a rate much faster than anticipated. The Burke site was not going to work.

A number of alternate sites were considered, including the current Andrews Air Force base and Baltimore’s Friendship International Airport (i.e. BWI). In 1958, President Eisenhower selected the current site, which was the former community of Willard (i.e., as in the same Willard family that owned the famous hotel near the White House).

The presidential decision was unilateral and there were no public hearings. Condemnation letters were sent to all Willard area landowners. They were unable to successfully form an organized opposition and ended up deeding almost 10,000 acres to the government for $500 per acre.

Four years later, in November 1962, John F. Kennedy dedicated the new airport, and it was christened Dulles International Airport. Below are some clips from that day.

3. Connection to the Unabomber

Unabomber sketch (Wikipedia)

On November 15th, 1979, American Airlines Flight 444 was inbound to Dulles from Chicago when a package in a mailbag ignited, filling the plane with smoke. The Boeing 727 was forced to make an emergency landing at Dulles.

There were no fatalities, but 12 passengers were treated for smoke inhalation. Investigations following the incident concluded that the bomb did not explode due to a faulty timing mechanism, and had it been successful, the airplane would have been obliterated.

The FBI became involved because the attempted bombing of an airliner is a federal offense. They started to piece together various bombings across the country and gave this new case the code-name UNABOM, short for “UNiversity and Airline BOMber,” which the media seized upon, dubbing the assailant the “Unabomber.”

He remained on the run (or rather, in hiding) in the Montana wilderness for a little over 16 years, but without the unsuccessful attempted bombing of Flight 444, making this a federal case, things could have been very different.

Having whetted your historian’s whistle, here’s more from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority:


Airport Name:  Washington Dulles International Airport, named after John Foster Dulles, who was Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953-1959.

Airport Opening Date:  Dedicated November 17, 1962 (copy of the program)

Official Airport Designator: IAD

Location: Dulles, Virginia

Terminal: Designed by architect Eero Saarinen.  Total cost of original Terminal: $108.3 million.


Built on 10,000 acres situated in Loudoun and Fairfax Counties in Virginia, approximately 26 miles from downtown Washington, D.C. In 1999, an additional 1,000 acres were acquired. In 2005, an additional 830 acres were acquired.
Current land area: 11,830 acres (approximately 5,000 acres are used for aircraft operations)

Airport Facilities

Dulles Airport has 139 airline gates.

  • Concourse A: 35 commuter gates + 12 mainline gates
  • Concourse B: 28 mainline gates
  • Concourse C: 22 mainline gates
  • Concourse D: 22 mainline gates
  • Concourse Z: 4 mainline gates
  • Hard Stand Aircraft Locations: 16


The Terminal was originally built as a compact two-level structure 600 feet long and 200 feet wide, from the design of world renowned architect Eero Saarinen.

The October 1, 1996, expansion of the Terminal was a prominent milestone in the Capital Development Program. The Terminal was expanded from 600 feet in length and 500,000 square feet to 1,240 feet in length with a total of 1.1 million square feet all in accordance with Eero Saarinen’s original design.

International Arrivals Building

The International Arrivals Building opened in 1991, and provides Federal Customs and Border Protection, Agriculture and Immigration Service. In 1998, the federal government opened a secured facility in Concourse C for international passengers connecting to domestic flights on United Airlines.


Concourse C/D was completed in 1985 to serve as an interim facility and will eventually be replaced by a permanent facility. The concourse is 550,000 square feet and has 47 airline gates.

Regional Concourse A opened on May 2, 1999 with more than 110,000 square feet to serve 36 regional aircraft positions.

Concourse B opened on February 1, 1998 and was expanded in 2003 to 27 gates and 540,000 square feet. A 15-gate extension at the West End of the concourse opened January 15, 2008.  This increased the length of the 42-gate concourse to 2,810 feet and the area to 800,000 square feet.

The Z Gates opened on August 1, 2005 as a new part of the Terminal. This is a permanent 20,800-square-foot facility built with 5 airline gates, currently deployed in a 4-gate configuration.

Passenger Conveyance

The AeroTrain system opened to passengers on January 26, 2010. Read more about the construction of this system.

The airport also maintains a fleet of 19 Mobile Lounges and 30 Plane Mates, which offer a unique service transporting passengers between the Terminal and Concourses A and D.

The Mobile Lounge was designed by the Chrysler Corporation in association with the Budd Company. It is a 54-foot long, 16-foot wide, 17 1/2-foot high vehicle, weighing 76,500 pounds. A Mobile Lounge can carry 102 passengers- 71 of them seated- directly from the Terminal to the aircraft on the ramp. When the Airport opened in 1962, passengers had to walk only 200 feet once they entered the Terminal until they were seated in the Mobile Lounge for the short trip directly to their aircraft, a unique service offered only at Dulles.

The Plane Mates are 15 feet high, 15 feet wide, 54 feet long and weigh 79,300 pounds. Similar to Mobile Lounges, Plane Mates were designed so that passengers could board directly from the Plane Mate onto the aircraft, avoiding walking on the airfield.

In 2004, a new passenger walkway opened between the Terminal and Concourse B. This 1,000-foot walkway has moving sidewalks in both directions, allowing passengers an alternative route to access airline gates at Concourse B.


There are four runways at Dulles

  • 1L/19R 9,400 feet long and began service November 20, 2008.
  • 1C/19C 11,500 feet long and began service when Dulles opened in 1962.
  • 1R/19L 11,500 feet long and began service when Dulles opened in 1962.
  • 12/30 10,500 feet long and began service when Dulles opened in 1962.

A fifth runway, which will run parallel to runway 12/30, has not been scheduled for construction yet.


Public parking is available for more than 24,000 vehicles. There are three parking options available in the lot in front of the Terminal Building; Valet, Hourly, and Daily. Also, passengers may choose from two garages or economy parking lots. The following forms of payment are accepted: cash, American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

Roadway Network

There are 198 lane miles of roads on the airport property.

The 16-mile Dulles Airport Access Road provides two dedicated lanes in each direction and a direct connection to Interstate Route I-66 and the Capital Beltway.


There are seven cargo buildings on the airport property with a total of over 540,000 square feet of operational space.


The array of shopping and dining opportunities offered at Washington Dulles includes nearly 100 privately-owned and operated food and retail shops located throughout the airport. Many nationally and internationally recognized brands operate at Dulles. Concourse B is the centerpiece of the retail program, featuring 13,000 square feet of retail space. In all, the retail and restaurant program occupies more than 50,000 square feet at the airport.  An airport-wide Redevelopment Program began in 2013 to address the changing needs of the traveling public.

View the Shopping and Dining Guide.

General Aviation

Signature Flight Support and Jet Aviation serve as the Fixed Base Operators for the general aviation community.

Signature has a 67,000 square foot facility on the east side of the Airport.

Jet Aviation has an 84,000 square foot facility north of the Terminal on the west side of the Airport property.

Operations and Statistics

View the latest reports and chart of Dulles passenger and operations statistics.

Air Service

View maps showing destinations served from Washington Dulles International Airport.

View a list of airlines serving Washington Dulles International Airport.

View a list of air cargo carriers at Washington Dulles International Airport.

Construction Program

A multi-billion dollar construction program began in 2000 to meet future passenger demand.  Major projects included two new parking garages, a fourth runway, a new concourse, a new Air Traffic Control tower, pedestrian walkways and an airport train system. This project was called the Dulles Development program, or D2. More information can be found at the D2 program website.

Economic Impact

View our 2012 Regional Economic Impact study

Washington Dulles International Airport

Visit to the National Air and Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center


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4 Comments on "A Little History about IAD and it’s not the dullest"

  1. Maybe another little known fact… when was Dulles de-Federalized?!

    • Edward S Faggen | August 2, 2019 at 4:12 pm | Reply

      Thanks for the rundown on IAD.
      Interesting about the air shows. I was there for the Saturday show, but did not see the crash. Some years later MWAA vigorously and successfully resisted efforts by aviation interests to stage another major airshow at Dulles. Too much disruption. It was no small effort to convince the DOT that it was not a good idea, but eventually they agreed.
      Dulles, like most large airports, I expect, has a very interesting history. I am proud to have been involved with much of its history from 1970s to 2008. For example, I was on the team that acquired all of that land subsequent to the original 1958-59 acquisition. Yes, we paid a little, ok, a lot, more than $500 an acre. Well worth it.
      To answer Jeff Lehman, the airport, along with DCA, was “de-Federalized” on June 7, 1987, when the federal lease to the MWAA took effect. That has worked out very well.

  2. Sandy Murdock | August 2, 2019 at 4:18 pm | Reply

    Defederalize is a term capable of interpretation. For example, if my memory is correct (BIG ASSUMPTION these days), the underlying land is still owned by the federal government. Correct, Ed?

    • Edward S Faggen | August 3, 2019 at 7:40 am | Reply

      Correct, Sandy. The airports are still owned by the DOT and leased to MWAA. Original lease was 50 years. It was extended for 30 more when Mineta (I think) was Secretary. The Feds get a few million a year from MWAA according to a formula set in the lease. It is adjusted annually and I am not sure what it is today. Theoretically the land will revert to the DOT when the lease ends, including the after acquired property, if MWAA still has it. I say theoretically because I doubt that ever happens. The lease will be extended to permit MWAA to issue long term bonds, among other things.

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