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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Some travelers will walk right past this protrusion, seemingly oblivious to it or in too much of a hurry to stop. Others do a double take. Have they somehow wandered out on the runway? Is the plane about to crash?

Moving closer, they can see that the nose has been severed from the rest of the plane and made into a marquee of sorts for the gallery above. The initial sense of surprise and ambiguity is one of the most effective parts of the exhibit and a key to making people want to see more.

If their curiosity has been piqued, travelers can take stairs or a glass-enclosed elevator up one flight to the main observation level. At the top, they'll find the skywindow and the rest of the 737 artifacts, reassembled in roughly the same configuration they were in before the plane was dissected. There is also landing gear from a Boeing 707.

Off to one side are the interactive exhibits, including a flight simulator and touch-screen video monitors that show travelers the flight paths they'll take and the weather conditions where they're going.

A snack bar and gift shop are on the opposite side, while the center contains seats and benches facing the airfield. One level below the main observation gallery, the airport has created a toddlers' play area, with kid-size versions of a plane, an aircraft "tug," a luggage cart and a fuel truck, and a colorful mural by illustrator Peter Sis.

Ideal setting

As designed by Greiner -- with James Cloud as principal-in-charge, Michael Hopkins as project architect, Craig Friedman as staff architect and Cliff Everett as project designer -- the glass and steel shell provides an ideal setting for both the sculptural objects on display and the moving objects out on the airfield.

Colors within the space are muted -- aluminums, grays, blacks -- so the exhibits stand out. Materials are consistent with the industrial aesthetic of the airliners themselves. The designers paid close attention to details, from the exposed workings of the glass elevator to the decorative bolt-heads on the bar, which swoops like the wing of a plane.

Cambridge Seven -- with John Stebbins and Richard Tuve as principals-in-charge, and Steve Imrich, Nick Forbess and Christopher Farley rounding out the project team -- was responsible for the exhibits within the shell. The firm is well known for its design work on a series of public aquariums, including Baltimore's, and other museums around the country. Its space at the airport succeeds largely because the designers treated it in many ways like an aquarium exhibit. The 147-foot-long skywindow is like the giant window of an aquarium tank, except that instead of seeing fish swimming on the other side of the glass, people see planes soaring through the air.

Some of the information-conveying techniques that Cambridge Seven perfected in its aquariums have been applied to the airport gallery as well. Stationed by the windows, for example, is a series of flip charts -- small books that show drawings of the various objects that people see through the window. In aquariums, these books point out the different creatures found in a particular tank. At the airport, viewers can look at the books and learn about the various vehicles and other equipment they see moving out the window.

There's also an audio panel that allows visitors to listen in on conversations between pilots and the air control tower -- not unlike the way listening devices in aquariums permit visitors to hear the sounds of marine mammals in captivity. Whether in an aquarium or an airport, these devices draw people into an exhibit by getting them to use their senses to understand what's happening on the other side of the glass.

Just as impressive is the way the designers displayed the plane parts to promote respect for the machines and reassurance about those who build and maintain them. After it was restored off-premises, each component was installed within the space like the beautiful work of industrial design it is. The designers even created logos for them that are reminiscent of the colors and shapes on the Maryland state flag.

Displaying an entire plane wouldn't have had the same effect because it would have been too familiar. But by taking what's right out the window and presenting it in a new way, the designers guaranteed it would receive maximum attention.

For many, air travel has become old hat, Mr. Stebbins explained. "Our objective was to take the ordinary and recast it so people say, 'Hey, I didn't realize this.' "

Hadley Exhibits of Buffalo built the interactive displays. Kinsley Construction of York, Pa., was the general contractor. The plane parts were restored by Alphin Aircraft of Hagerstown to underscore how well they were made, Mr. Stebbins added. "There aren't any jagged edges that give connotations of an accident."

Sound investment

No matter how well the gallery turned out, some taxpayers are sure to question the $6.3 million expenditure. But state officials were justified to invest what they did, for several reasons.

First, the gallery represents an amenity that travelers have wanted for some time, a quiet spot with unmatched views of the airfield. Second, it gives the airport a feature that could attract national attention. It's the kind of place that aviation buffs, in particular, will go out of their way to see. Third, it will pay for itself by drawing more people to nearby retailers, who must share their revenues with the state. Fees from the gift-shop operator and other merchants are expected to help pay for the costs of construction and maintenance.

One of the best reasons for building the gallery is its educational value. "Our country needs to find ways to get more kids to take an interest in science and math," argues Mr. Winstead, the state transportation secretary. "Aerospace and aviation are two areas that capture kids' imaginations. This is a chance to stimulate them at an early age."

Education is hardly the primary mission of the aviation administration, but it's not a bad byproduct. By virtue of its creative design, BWI's newest flight of fancy should help keep young imaginations active for years. That's a laudable goal for any airport, as it prepares to take off into the 21st century.

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