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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

The plane parts have been reassembled in roughly the same configuration as when the plane was whole. In their fragmented state, they underscore the fragility of the airliners that carry thousands of passengers every day, but also the precision with which they are constructed.

Most popular displays

One of the most popular displays is the nose, which contains an intact cockpit. Visitors are able to sit in the pilot's seats, scan the instrument panel and hold the steering "yokes."

Another attention-grabber is the fuselage, complete with two sets of passenger seats and a luggage compartment below. The tail section, including the vertical stabilizer and rudder, has been painted in colors and shapes reminiscent of the Maryland state flag.

"I never realized how thin the shell of an airplane is," said Veronica Jeffries, of Atlanta, Ga. "There's not much between you and the sky."

Mary Addams, a Pennsylvanian waiting for a flight from Tennessee, said she was amazed by the compactness of the cockpit. "The pilots must get more cramped than the passengers."

The Boeing 737 that contributed most of the pieces was first flown in 1968 and retired in 1992 after logging 22,750 flight hours. The Baltimore Orioles chartered it one year to travel to and from games.

The salvaged components were restored to "airworthy" condition by Alphin Aircraft, a Hagerstown-based company that repairs damaged aircraft.

Another artifact that will be added within the next several months is an aircraft engine donated by Northwest Airlines. It is being restored by students at Rice Aviation, a school for aircraft mechanics located at Martin State Airport.

Child's area

Hadley Exhibits of Buffalo constructed the interactive displays, which were designed by Cambridge Seven. Kinsley Construction of York, Pa., was the general contractor.

One level below the main observation gallery, the airport has created a children's play area, with kid-size versions of a plane, an aircraft "tug," a luggage cart and a fuel truck. There's also a colorful mural depicting a whimsical view of the world by children's book illustrator and painter Peter Sis.

After Saturday's 10 a.m. dedication ceremony, the gallery will be open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., with no admission charge. The aviation administration also will provide guided tours to school groups and other organizations that request them in advance.

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