Home Airport Spotting Guide 10 Plane Spotting Highlights in Washington DC

10 Plane Spotting Highlights in Washington DC

by Matt Falcus

The US capital city is home to some of the country’s best aviation highlights and any Avgeek visiting there will have plenty to keep them occupied.

From some of the world’s most important historic aircraft to museums, civil and military airports.

Here are our top ten plane spotting highlights in Washington DC:


1. The Wright Flyer

wright flyer

The original 1903 Wright Flyer on display in Washington.

Regardless of what aspect of aviation interests you, the Wright Flyer is the one aircraft that should attract us all, simply because of its importance.

That this unique aircraft – the first to fly under its own power – still exists is incredible. That you get to walk up close to it and all around it is even better.

Now on display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum on The Mall in central Washington, this is the aircraft in which Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved powered flight for the first time, at Kill Devil Hills in December 1903.

After languishing in storage for many years, it is now the prize display in this amazing museum (more on that below) and there for all to marvel at. If you’re into aviation and aircraft, this is what made it possible.


2. Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum

Elaborating a little on the first highlight, above, is the National Air & Space Museum itself.

This important collection right at the heart of Washington is in amongst many other nationally important museums on different subjects. It displays some of the most important aircraft ever to have flown, including the Wright Flyer mentioned above, and also others like the Spirit of St Louis, the Apollo 11 Moon landing module, and Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1 which broke the sound barrier for the first time.

The museum actually occupies two different sites. More on the other site later.

The site on The Mall is open daily except Christmas Day, and is free. It has hundreds of aircraft on display and a gift shop.


3. Gravelly Point Park & Reagan Airport

One of the best plane spotting locations in America is located in Washington DC.

Just north of the main runway at Washington Reagan National airport, this is a public park operated by the National Parks Service and is popular with plane spotters.

Aircraft approaching runway 19 pass right overhead just before touchdown, and you get a good view of aircraft making the curved river approach to the runway.

Aircraft departing runway 1 also pass close overhead as they depart.

Aside from this, you have views of movements on the other runways when in use, as well as aircraft parked at the gates at the nearest terminal concourses.

To get to Gravelly Point, take the George Washington Memorial Pkwy north from the terminal and follow signs. It has parking.


4. Boeing 707 Prototype

707 prototype at the Udvar-Hazy Museum in Washington DC.

Located at the Steven Udvar-Hazy location of the National Air & Space Museum, just outside Dulles Airport, is the Boeing 367-80. This is the prototype of what would become the Boeing 707 – America’s answer to the jet age, and arguably one of its most successful and important airliners.

The aircraft first flew in 1954 and famously performed a barrel roll over Seattle whilst demonstrating its capabilities.

After years of storage, the aircraft was ferried to Washington and put on display here among its peers.

For fans of airliners and air travel, this is an important aircraft to see and should be on your bucket list.


5. Udvar-Hazy Center

Boeing 307 Stratoliner at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Washington Dulles.

Elaborating more about the location mentioned above, this museum is the second location of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington.

Located just outside Dulles Airport in Fairfax, VA, it is a much larger center and holds some of its largest exibits.

Alongside the Boeing 707 prototype mentioned above, it’s also home to important aircraft like an Air France Concorde, a Pan American Boeing 307, SR-71 Blackbird, the Space Shuttle Discovery, and the Boeing B-29 “Enola Gay” which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

There are hundreds more important aircraft, from the earliest days of flying, through World Wars, Vietnam, civil and space development. It’s quite a special place to wander around and consider the history of aviation in front of you.

Open daily except Christmas Day, with free entry. Parking available (for a fee).


6. Washington Dulles Airport

Dulles Airport

United at Dulles

Dulles is one of the main airports in the eastern USA, with a well-developed network of carriers and worldwide routes. It is a hub for United Airlines and United Express and is served by all major mainline and low-cost carriers, plus airlines from around the world. Being the primary gateway to the nation’s capital gives the airport importance, but it has always fallen slightly short of airports in New York in terms of passenger numbers.

The airport is famous for its iconic main terminal building, as well as the automatic people movers which still deliver passengers to some aircraft.

Dulles has three parallel north-south runways and an additional east-west runway. All movements are handled through a main terminal, with two long remote concourses of parking gates for aircraft, and a smaller commuter concourse nearer the main building. Cargo facilities are to the north of the terminal, alongside runway 01C/19C.

Enthusiasts are advised to visit the on-site Udvar-Hazy Museum and its wonderful collection of aircraft.

You can, however, also enjoy views from the multi-storey car parks outside the terminal.


7. Leesburg Executive Airport

Leesburg Executive Airport (JYO) with runway 35 in sight /DSC_1449

Leesburg is a busy general aviation airport for the Washington DC area, around 12 miles north-west of Dulles Airport. It handles light aircraft and corporate jets, with a couple of hundred based aircraft.

You can log aircraft through the fence outside the main admin building. There’s also a park and ride car park off Sycolin Rd at the southern end of the airfield with views across the threshold of runway 35.


8. National Museum of the Marine Corps

National Museum of the Marine Corps

Another important museum for aviation fans in the Washington area.

Follow the history of the Marines through exhibits covering all aspects of their life and history through different conflicts. Includes various aircraft exhibits.

Open daily (except Christmas Day), admission free.


9. Baltimore Washington Airport

Thomas A Dixon aircraft observation area

Although it is some 30 miles from Washington DC, this is still considered one of the main airports serving the city and is worth a visit if you have time.

BWI Airport (as it is commonly known) has become a busy hub for Southwest Airlines, its principal carrier, with all other mainline and low-cost carriers present. International flights are provided by Air Canada Express, British Airways and others.

The large, five-concourse terminal area sits between the airport’s three runways. To the north of the terminal, partially visible from the access roads, is the cargo area. It is dominated by FedEx Express/Feeder, UPS Airlines and Amazon Air.

Unusually for a US airport, BWI has a dedicated viewing park and observation deck. The observation deck is within the terminal between concourses B and C. It is not airside, so anyone can go there. This spot is best for logging aircraft, but photography is possible through glass.

Another spots is the dedicated Thomas A. Dixon, Jr. Aircraft Observation Area on the south side of the airport, close to the threshold of runway 33L. It is reached by taking Aviation Blvd around the perimeter from the terminal, and then Dorsey Road which acts as the southern perimeter road. The spot is good for photography throughout the day when arrivals are on 33L (as they mostly are). It has plenty of parking space and is free.


10. Joint Base Andrews


Also known as Andrews Air Force Base, we couldn’t talk about Washington and not mention this site.

Home to the aircraft used as Air Force One, as well as the other presidential transport aircraft, it is located at Camp Springs in Maryland, a short distance east of central Washington.

Due to the nature of the operations at this airport, anyone stopping to watch or photograph aircraft are likely to be interrogated very quickly. Sadly there are very few opportunities, but you can find areas a mile or two north or south of the airfield where aircraft on approach can be seen.


Airports Spotting Guides USA

Our guidebook to plane spotting in America is available now in its 2nd edition.

Airport Spotting Guides USA takes you on a state-by-state tour of the country, including Alaska and Hawaii, covering where to spot at all of the main airports and airfields in each.

It also tells you about the best aviation museums and plane spotting hotels in each state.

Order your copy here





You may also like

Leave a Comment