Sixty years ago today, President Harry S. Truman crossed the Potomac and boarded a propeller-driven military DC-6, the 1950 version of Air Force One, and took a short flight to dedicate a new airport carved out of Anne Arundel County farmland.
The landing spot, which Truman hailed as "the creation of men who look ahead and have faith in the future," was called Friendship International Airport — a name it would retain for 23 years before becoming Baltimore- Washington International.
Today, the airport is the nation's 23rd busiest, serving about 21 million passengers a year, and a mainstay of the regional economy. An important base for low-cost carriers, BWI is estimated to support about 22,000 jobs as it handles more than a quarter-million takeoffs and landings a year. It was one of only two large U.S. airports to grow in 2009.
One who remembers the dedication day and Truman's speech is Helen Delich Bentley, the former Maryland congresswoman who was covering the event as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. Bentley, for whom the port of Baltimore is now named, said people in that day — long before the era of discount carriers — saw the new airport as a civic asset but not necessarily as an amenity they would use.
"None of us really thought of us flying out as we would today," Bentley said. "In those days, people still were not traveling very much and very far."
But in this age of $29 discount flights, BWI has an established image as an airport for the masses.
"We are the low-cost-carrier airport," said BWI Chief Executive Paul Wiedefeld, pointing to the strong growth of such carriers as Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways.
The opening of the 3,200-acre Friendship ushered Baltimore into the airliner age. It replaced a 360-acre municipal airport known as Harbor Field located on the site of what is now the Dundalk Marine Terminal. Built on dredged fill from the harbor that promptly began settling, Harbor Field's runways were too short and bumpy and its approach too hazardous to accommodate the generation of commercial airliners that emerged after World War II.
The new airport, then four times the size of New York's LaGuardia Field, was promoted in the dedication program (49 cents a copy) as "the most modern air terminal facility in the world!" It boasted a "first-class restaurant and cocktail lounge," sleeping facilities and showers for the weary traveler, barber and beauty shops and what was then — at nine stories — the tallest control tower in the United States.
At a time when people dressed in their Sunday best when flying and nobody worried about security checkpoints, the opening of a new airport was a momentous occasion. All stops were pulled out for the dedication, with aircraft displays, military bands and an appearance by the Miss Maryland Contest Girls.
"I remember it was a very hot day," said Bentley, 87. "Everybody was excited because Truman was there."
The president used his dedication address to give some of his trademark "hell" to critics of a robust federal role in financing projects such as Friendship.
"Nothing is quite so misleading as the oft-repeated charge that the federal government today, by its various aid programs, is weakening or destroying state and local government," he told a gathering that included Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. and Gov. William Preston Lane. "This is simply political oratory — I may say false political oratory."
Bentley said she thought the president was "great" that day. "I've always been an admirer of Truman, and I still am," she said.
The Friendship project got its start at the height of the war in 1943, when Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin appointed a committee to study the idea of building a new airport. The panel surveyed available sites near Baltimore and recommended a large tract surrounding Friendship Church in northern Anne Arundel County, about five miles southwest of the city.
The site lay between Baltimore and Washington, which at the time was served only by National Airport, on a parcel estimated at about one-fifth the size of what would eventually become Friendship. In addition to proximity to two major cities, the location had other advantages that prompted D'Alesandro to call it "the finest location on the entire Eastern Seaboard."
"It is on a plateau high above sea level, freeing it from the dangers of fog and from obstructions that menace many older airports," the mayor wrote in his introduction to the dedication program. He boasted that with the recent completion of "the new super-highway" — now known as the Baltimore-Washington Parkway — between the two cities, Baltimore would be only 15 minutes away and Washington 35.
In 1945, the city created the Baltimore Aviation Commission to oversee construction of the airport. Its cost would eventually run to $15 million — about $136 million in current dollars.