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From a Hobby to a Legacy: SKS Flight Museum Opens in Panama

Greek-Venezuelan entrepreneur and aviation enthusiast Stephen Koulouthros built a world-class collection of 3,500 airplane models and is now opening the SKS Flight Museum in Panama

by Enrique Perrella

May 3, 2023

Photo: Courtesy of the SKS Flight Museum.

Greek Venezuelan entrepreneur and aviation enthusiast Stephen Koulouthros has devoted his life to collecting airplane models. Also a private pilot, he built his passion for these small-scale replicas into a world-class collection now opening to the public as the SKS Flight Museum in Panama. 

As a university student pursuing calculus and advanced engineering, Koulouthros used his free time to visit the hangars of his country’s former national carrier, VIASA. There, through an internship, he was granted access to maintenance rooms and even the jump seat of planes as big as the DC-10 on journeys to Europe.

Koulouthros started his collection when his mother brought him two British Airways models—a Boeing 737-200 and 747—painted in the airline’s iconic Negus livery, followed by a 747 in Olympic Airways colors, respectively gifted by his uncle. “He used to be president of the airline,” Koulouthros told Business Traveler during an exclusive pre-opening visit to his museum. “Since then, I knew that collecting planes would be an important part of my life, and here we are today, 3,500 models later.”

Photo: Courtesy of the SKS Flight Museum / Efrain Alvarez

As an avid traveler, Koulouthros has been on some of the world’s most memorable trips, including Singapore Airlines’ longest flight to New York. He has visited 103 countries.

“I always booked round-the-world tickets,” he says. “On every trip, I hunted for that model I knew I was missing. My collection grew bigger, and my ambition never ceased.”

In 2003, as Koulouthros was cataloging his boxed airplane models, the idea of opening a museum came to light. “I had to do something with them. I had so many, all in pristine condition—it would have been a shame to keep them stored.” His commitment grew after chatting with other world-class model collectors, most of whom had their planes either stored or displayed in “ghastly conditions.” It pushed him to do the exact opposite—exhibit them in the best possible way.

Photo: Courtesy of the SKS Flight Museum / Efrain Alvarez

That’s when Koulouthros devised plans to create a museum in his basement in Caracas, Venezuela. But due to the growing security and financial instability in the country, he moved to Panama City with his wife and kids, putting his museum dream on hold while seeking shelter in a country that welcomed him “with open arms.”

“I brought my family and my dreams of opening a museum to Panama,” he says. “We designed a building shaped like an airplane wing with plenty of space for all my planes. We hired a construction company and secured our funds in a Panamanian bank. But then the construction company folded, and we lost everything.”

At the time, he felt the efforts behind his 45-year collecting spree had been futile. “I pitched donating my collection to Panama City’s airport, but the idea never materialized.”

With his collection still stuck in Caracas, Koulouthros gave it one last shot. After meeting with Roger Jarman, owner of Atlantic Models in Florida, he agreed to purchase several more airplane models, noses and tails. But the most critical item he was after was a gigantic one-third-scale model of an Embraer E190—“the crown and centerpiece of my collection.” 

Photo: Courtesy of the SKS Flight Museum / Efrain Alvarez

The model was intended for the Brazilian low-cost carrier Azul. David Neeleman, the airline’s founder (along with JetBlue and Breeze Airways), was the mastermind behind creating these large-scale models, ordering three from Atlantic for his three airlines. But thanks to Jarman, the last plane landed in Koulouthros’ basement. “After such an effort, I had to add a personal kick to it,” he says. “I needed it to be mine.”

Photo: Courtesy of the SKS Flight Museum / Efrain Alvarez

In addition to being a model collector, Koulouthros is a big fan of modern art. Having known Carlos Cruz-Diez—Venezuela’s most renowned artist—he asked Cruz-Diez to paint the plane with one of his famous vertical stripe kinetic patterns. 

“I have painted boats, trains, buildings, museums, but I have never painted an airplane,” Cruz-Diez told Koulouthros. “I want to paint your plane with one of my designs.”

Sadly, Cruz-Diez passed away at age 95 in Paris in 2019 and didn’t see his first plane artwork finished. However, his heirs, equally enthusiastic about the project, granted Koulouthros a perpetual license to use the artwork. “I was fortunate to get this permission,” he says. “And now the centerpiece of my collection is painted with Cruz-Diez’s 2016 Cromointerferencia en Avion design on its tail.” Finally, after three years of construction, the “big move” of planes from Caracas to Panama City began. 

Photo: Cromointerferencia en Avión, Panamá, 2016. Carlos Cruz-Diez / Bridgeman Images, 2016-2023. Courtesy of the SKS Flight Museum / Efrain Alvarez

Now open to the public, the 4,300-square-foot basement boasts a collection of 3,500 models showcased in an industrial setting with gray cement walls and superb lighting, impeccably presented by aircraft type. Welcoming guests is a column wrapped with glass shelves that display the collector’s most precious pieces. 

“All the VIASA planes are important to me,” Koulouthros says. “But the Olympic Airways planes take me back to my childhood. They’re the beginning of everything.”

Photo: Courtesy of the SKS Flight Museum / Efrain Alvarez

Even though this project was arduous and expensive, Koulouthros says he will not seek to monetize it. “All I care is to have my legacy displayed for generations to come. I want my son to understand my passion and values and carry on this beautiful project that we as a family embarked on long ago.”

The SKS Flight Museum will open for guided visits this fall. Koulouthros is organizing a debut event with the presence of aviation personalities from across the industry.