It was a cold, drizzly day in November 1962 when President John F. Kennedy led the opening of Dulles International Airport.
An Air Force pipe band played a graceful program of four songs. The president hailed a new age in air travel. Dulles was billed as an airport for the jet age at a time when most fliers traveled by prop and turboprop planes.
This month, that band was back together again — part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the airport. At least four of the men who performed on that overcast day five decades ago played again at a gala dinner and later for passengers and visitors to Dulles. They were a bit slower and a bit grayer but still sharp.
“The band sounded pretty good,” said John Bosworth, 73, who played at the opening as a young staff sergeant.
Sandy Jones, 74, a piper, marveled at the changes that have taken place in the years since he had last been at Dulles.
“It was out there in the middle of nowhere,” Jones recalled. “There was nothing out there. I was so surprised — it’s just incredible the amount of building that’s happened.”
Dulles has grown up.
That first year, 52,846 people made their way through the gates of the airport. The first flight to arrive at Dulles, on Nov. 19, 1962, was an Eastern Airlines plane from Newark. This year, more than 23 million passengers will pass through its terminals, according to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees Dulles’s operations.
James A. Wilding was a young engineer and recent Catholic University graduate when he was hired on to the airport project.
From the outset, those involved with the project were determined to do things differently, Wilding recalled. They hired an internationally renowned architect, Finnish American Eero Saarinen. The result was a main terminal that some have likened to a bird, its soaring roofline mimicking a bird in flight. The airport, Wilding added, was not only important in an aviation sense but also because of its design and aesthetic.
“It was astonishing,” said Wilding, who later became the first president of the airports authority. “There was this beautiful countryside made up of 230 or 240 different ownerships — dairy farms, a lot of wooded and open fields — and turned into an airport.”
But back then, some considered the 10,000-acre site too remote. At the time, the region’s population was concentrated in the District, Arlington County and Alexandria. Fairfax County had a population of a little over 275,000. Today, more than 1.1 million live in the county.
“It was a white elephant for many years,” said Georgia Graves, president of Bridgman Communications and a member of the Committee for Dulles, a business group that advocates for the airport. “In fact, it was an incredible investment. The sheer fact the airport has the ability to grow just shows the effort and planning that went into it.”
And with the construction of Metro’s Silver Line underway, the Dulles Corridor is expected to grow even more. One example: A $750 million complex that will include apartments, offices, a hotel and an underground parking garage is under construction near one of the new Silver Line stops. The first phase of the $5.6 billion rail line is expected to be completed in August. Airports authority officials expect to award a contract next year to begin construction of Phase 2 of the 23.1-mile rail line.
“It will help with the congestion, bring more services to the area and help workers,” Graves said. “There’s so much planned growth along the rail station, it’s just going to be phenomenal.”
For Chris Browne, airport manager for Dulles and an airports authority vice president, Dulles’s story is just beginning.
“When you tell someone they’re 50, even an airport — my God — that sounds old,” Browne said. “But when I think of Dulles even at 50, I think of Dulles as being more of an adolescent. The airport, though conceived and built more than 50 years ago, is still only half its potential size and strength.”
Once Dulles is built out, Browne said, the airport could accommodate as many as 40 million passengers. That capacity to grow, he said, distinguishes it from other major American airports such as Los Angeles International or Kennedy International in New York.
Browne said he got a kick out seeing the members of the pipe band stroll through the terminal last week. Many members had also played for Dulles’s 40th anniversary — but even in the intervening 10 years, a lot had changed.