BWI's observation gallery set for takeoff New exhibit features reconstructed 737, great runway views

June 19, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

There's a new airplane at Baltimore/Washington International Airport that's always on time and never overbooked.

Now accepting passengers between Piers B and C, it doesn't cost a cent and takes you anywhere you want to go.

This unusual aircraft, actually a reconstructed Boeing 737, is one of the featured attractions inside the two-story Observation Gallery that has been built as part of a $30 million overhaul of Maryland's busiest airport, which handles more than a million passengers a month.

Though the gallery won't be dedicated until Saturday -- the airport's 45th anniversary -- administrators removed the construction barriers earlier this month to give travelers a sneak preview. It has been mobbed ever since.

"People absolutely love it," said Raymond Heverling, staff architect for the Maryland Aviation Administration, which commissioned the gallery. "Even though it hasn't received a lot of promotion yet, they seem to find it and enjoy it. It's fun to see their reactions."

Vernon Thompson, a Pittsburgh-based businessman who travels to Maryland frequently, said he found it fascinating.

"I've been to airports all over the world, but I've never seen anything like this," he said. "I'm planning to come back and bring my grandchildren."

Enclosed by a 147-foot-long "skywindow" that provides sweeping views of the airfield, the $6.3 million gallery is part waiting room, part cafe and part aviation museum.

Its centerpiece is a series of cut-up airplane parts that have been erected around the gallery like works of sculpture: the nose cone and cockpit, a 47-foot-long wing, the tail, and a 7-foot-deep section of the fuselage. They have been joined by landing gear from a Boeing 707, complete with three-foot-tall tires.

On display with these artifacts are interactive exhibits about aviation, including a flight simulator that gives amateur pilots a chance to practice landing a plane at BWI, and touch-screen video monitors that show travelers the flight paths they'll take, the weather conditions in the cities to which they're traveling and other air travel information.

The gallery also contains a snack counter and bar, cafe seats and benches that face the airfield, and a gift shop run by the Smithsonian Institution -- its first inside an airport.

Designed by Greiner Inc. of Timonium and Cambridge Seven Associates of Cambridge, Mass., the gallery takes visitors as close as they can get to the runway without buying a ticket. It allows passengers to see parts of a jetliner that usually are seen only by airline crews -- and some views that even the flight crews may have not seen before.

At the center of the curving window wall, a four-channel audio panel enables visitors to listen to actual conversations between pilots and air traffic controllers at BWI. "Flip charts" are mounted at waist level to help spectators identify the various pieces of equipment out on the airfield and understand what they do.

Closer to the aircraft

"It's an effort to bring people closer to the aircraft so they can see the activity on the airfield," said Jim Cloud, Greiner's vice president in charge of architecture. "You get a bird's-eye view of everything that's going on at the airport -- the cleaning crew, the tTC baggage handlers. As far as I know, this is the first of its kind in the nation. It's spectacular at night."

The gallery was built off the upper-level service corridor in place of the old south lounge between Piers B and C. That's the only vantage point at the airport from which three of the four runways can be seen at once, other than from the control tower.

The primary observation area is one level above the old airport lounge -- providing better views than before of the airfield below. It's as tall as it could be without blocking views from the control tower above. In fact, Mr. Cloud said, the 30-degree slope of the glass ceiling was dictated by the sightlines needed for the air traffic controllers.

For many travelers, the first sign of the gallery is the sight of one of the dismantled airplane parts.

The nose cone and landing gear of the dissected plane have been suspended over the public walkway, with the tires just a few feet above people's heads. From a distance, it looks as if a plane is about to touch down inside the terminal. Simulated runway striping and actual landing lights add to the illusion.

Visible through the hallway ceiling, the nose cone is a teaser of sorts for the gallery above. Some passers-by seem oblivious to it; others do a double take. As they move closer, they can see that it's not a plane in flight at all, and that the cockpit has been severed from the rest of the aircraft. If they want to see more, they can take stairs or a glass-enclosed elevator up to the main level, where they'll find the skywindow and the rest of the artifacts.

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