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.
Today, only a few vestiges of that original structure are visible to the public in some out-of-the way areas of Terminal C. But behind the gleaming modern architecture of the 1970s-era terminal, the capacious but underused International Pier and the glitzy new Southwest terminal, the bones of old Friendship are still there.
In the years after its dedication, Friendship played a part in some aviation milestones. In 1957, it was the destination of a record-breaking transcontinental flight by the first Boeing 707 jetliner. When the Douglas DC-8 received federal certification in 1958, the ceremony was held at Friendship.
For all its cutting-edge features in 1950, Friendship did not remain a paragon of modernity for long. Though passenger growth remained strong through the 1960s, Friendship would be eclipsed by more advanced facilities soon after it opened. Once jets began commercial operations in 1957-1958, Bentley said, "you had the airports all over the country mushrooming."
In Chicago, the giant O'Hare International Airport opened and soon became the world's busiest. Dulles International Airport, carved out of Virginia horse country at what initially seemed an excessive distance from Washington, opened in 1962 and gradually absorbed most of the capital region's international flights. By the 1970s, Friendship appeared dowdy and antiquated, while Baltimore had undergone an economic decline that left it without the resources to undertake a full-fledged modernization.
"The city was in no position to maintain it," Bentley recalled
In the early 1970s, with passenger traffic beginning to sag, the state of Maryland paid the city $36 million to take over the airport. The state renamed it Baltimore-Washington International in 1973 in an effort to fully capitalize on its location between the capital and Maryland's largest city. In the 1970s, Gov. Marvin Mandel's administration embarked on a six-year rebuilding program at a cost of $70 million. In 1979, the state completed its new glass, steel and tile passenger terminal designed by Baltimore architects Warren Peterson and Charles Brickbauer.
A new round of modernization would begin in 2001, with the launch of a $1.8 billion expansion that would include a long-term hub for Southwest Airlines, which began flying out of BWI in 1993 and is now the airport's biggest customer.
Wiedefeld, who is serving his second tour as chief executive of what is now Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, said that with the improvements in landing and takeoff instruments, the relative rarity of fog is less of a selling point than BWI's strategic location, transit connections and ease of getting in and getting out. Unlike many major airports, it requires no train rides or shuttle connections to get from one end to another.
Partly for that reason, Wiedefeld said, BWI was able to withstand the recession and post positive growth for 2009. Of the 40 airports that were able to grow, he said, only four were outside Pacific Asia and Brazil — with San Francisco as the only other growing airport in the United States.
If BWI has had a weakness, it has been in the international arena. Except for its daily British Airways flight to London's Heathrow Airport, which is subsidized by the state, the airport has little to offer but charters in the way of trans-Atlantic travel. It has, however, recently expanded its offerings in the Americas with AirTran flights to Jamaica and the Bahamas.
Wiedefeld said BWI has succeeded by adapting to the changing needs of the airlines it serves — for instance the shrinking need for ticket counters as more passengers use preprinted tickets. "You have to be extremely flexible, and you have to be willing to accept that things are changing," he said.
In spite of the many changes over the years, Wiedefeld said, BWI has retained some of the feel of the original airport –- with less "tenseness" than some of its rivals.
"We did not lose sight of the personal connection the people feel you have compared with other airports," he said. "It's still Friendship Airport in a lot of people's minds."
On that dedication day 60 years ago, after the speeches were over, Truman boarded the Independence —- also known as the "Flying White House" —- and left Friendship for Missouri on the last day of the nation's midcentury interlude of peacetime.
That night, he would learn that North Korea had crossed the 38th parallel, starting the Korean War.