Observation gallery and exhibits make excitement soar at BWI Just Plane Wonderful


July 02, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

The idea of acquiring an airplane, cutting it into pieces and then displaying the fragments inside an airport might strike some as an odd way to attract air travelers.

In the wrong hands, it could have been a disaster by reminding passengers of an actual air disaster -- just as they were about to board their flights.

But as executed by the Maryland Aviation Administration, the $6.3 million observation gallery at Baltimore/Washington International Airport is the hit of the summer: an engaging blend of education and entertainment that can be experienced without an air-sickness bag.

Instead of playing on passengers' worst fears, this one-of-a-kind exhibit helps dispel them by demonstrating the precision with which today's airliners are built. Supplementing the salvaged plane parts are interactive exhibits that capture the sights and sounds of commercial aviation, from blinking runway lights to live conversations from the control tower.

Now open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and free of charge, the observation gallery recalls the early days when BWI was known as Friendship Airport, when people crowded onto its outdoor observation deck to watch airplanes take off and land for the sheer novelty of it. What makes the new attraction such a success is that, like the old viewing deck, it takes the seemingly mundane act of waiting for a plane and turns it into an event.

Located between Piers B and C, the two-level observation gallery is the largest single component of a $30 million overhaul ,, of BWI's main terminal, the fastest-growing large airport in the United States during 1994.

It's also part of an international trend in which airports are adding amenities that enhance the experience for travelers, who typically spend an hour inside an airport every time they fly.

Over the years, many local travelers have asked when the airport was going to bring back the popular observation deck, which opened with the airport in 1950 and was shut down by the Federal Aviation Administration in the mid-1970s as a way to prevent hijackings.

In 1979, the airport unveiled two lounges that offered views of the airfield behind tinted glass windows. But those low-ceilinged rooms, though memorable for their snakelike sofas in a variety of colors, could never capture the sensation of standing on the open-air platform as planes came within 100 feet.

As part of a cosmetic upgrade for the airport that was initiated by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the state aviation administration set out to create a lounge that would give travelers a more pleasant place to wait for flights without having to join an exclusive airline club.

Even though the FAA still prohibits open-air viewing platforms as a security precaution, administrators also wanted to create a space that would capture some of the same excitement and immediacy, through high-tech exhibits that give a sense of the activities on the airfield.

"We wanted to create a setting reminiscent of the old observation deck," said Ted Mathison, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration. "As in the old days, people will come to watch airplanes take off and land, but their experience will be enriched by the educational elements, computerized interactive displays, [a] Smithsonian museum shop and more. We believe BWI's observation gallery is unlike any other in the world."

The job of designing the space fell to Greiner Inc. of Timonium and Cambridge Seven Associates of Cambridge, Mass. They came up with the idea of building a multitiered lounge with a curving glass "skywindow" that offers sweeping views of three of the airfield's four runways. It's main level was set one floor above the terminal's upper concourse for the best possible views.

To make the gallery educational as well as entertaining, they proposed that the 16,477-square-foot space double as an interactive aviation museum. That's when they hit on the idea of displaying airplane parts like pieces of sculpture -- a nose and cockpit, a 47-foot-long wing, the tail fin, and a 7-foot-deep section of the fuselage. They even found an "organ donor" with a strong connection to Baltimore, a Boeing 737 leased by the Orioles during the 1991 season.

The idea won the enthusiastic backing of Mr. Schaefer and his transportation secretary, James Lighthizer. Though completed during the tenure of Gov. Parris Glendening and transportation secretary David Winstead, it is vintage Schaefer in its audacity and pop appeal.

Touch down?

For most travelers, the first sign of the gallery comes when they glimpse one of the dismantled airplane parts.

The nose of the plane looms ominously over the public corridor, its 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.

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