Do you remember a time when we were driving our folks crazy and the solution was to take us to the airport? Going to the airport was a favorite pastime in the middle of the 20th century. Going to the airport experienced the same popularity as going to Disneyland or Six Flags, especially if you lived far away from these attractions. At the time, flying was something of a new phenomenon though the Wright Brothers had taken that maiden aeronautical voyage 50 years earlier.
As a nation, we were on our way to the Moon.
Most airports had public observation decks where you could get close to the planes, see people’s faces in the windows, hear an aircraft start up, and get a whiff of hot exhaust fumes to excite the senses. You were at one with aviation without leaving the ground. Anytime we went to the airport was exciting to me even if it was to pick up my dad from an overseas trip.
My aunt took the three of us, my mom, and our cousins out to Baltimore’s Friendship International Airport (Now Baltimore/Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport or “BWI”) to spend a day on the observation deck watching planes and living the thrill of aviation. Baltimore’s observation deck was smack in the middle of the main terminal above C Pier (now C concourse).
Today – it is long gone.
Prior to the Jet Age at Friendship Airport, there were classic pistonliners—Douglas DC-4s, DC-6s, the more advanced DC-7, the Lockheed Constellation and Super Connie, Convairs and Martins, and the Boeing Stratocruiser. There were also the older tail dragger DC-3s and Boeing 247s for the shorter runs. When it was time to fly, those big radial piston engines would fire and sputter with a whole lot of drama, then, begin to act like they could actually get a plane off the ground.
When jets arrived at the cusp of the 1960s, it was a whole new dimension in flying. They made a tremendous amount of noise and delivered thick clouds of black smoke. They could be heard for miles around. While jets became a huge environmental issue not to mention unacceptable noise for airport neighbors, I loved the excitement of jets. Ironically, I never flew on those classic radial pistonliners. My first plane ride was on a United Air Lines Boeing 720 to the old Kansas City Municipal Airport to see relatives on the way to Hawaii in 1961.
There was such an aura of excitement about flying in those days. The roar of raw low bypass turbofan engines instead of the howling low-octane hairdryers we have today. Jet travel back in the day was aviation on the edge. Boeing 707s, Douglas DC-8s, and the Convair 880/990 jets just didn’t have enough power. There was just not quite enough thrust to get all that china and silverware “pie-in-the-sky” stuff off the ground. That made a takeoff with maximum fuel load from Baltimore to San Francisco a white-knuckle experience. Well into the takeoff roll, we began to wonder if the darned thing would fly.
Those early jet age Boeing 707 “water wagons” left a trail of black soot in the air long after they were gone. They were nicknamed “water wagons” due to their water/ethanol injected Pratt & Whitney turbojets, which needed help making thrust. Water to cool the intake charge. Ethanol to aid combustion. If you were in the back of a 707 in those days, the exhaust roar was deafening. It was unsettling to a first-time flyer. My mother saw glowing hot embers coming from the jet exhausts and poked my father in the ribs—“What’s wrong with the engines?” She just didn’t understand and hung on tight.
Where I grew up just outside of Washington, D.C. we had three airports—Friendship at Baltimore, Washington National on the Potomac (I am an old school born and raised Washingtonian, I refuse to call it “Reagan” National) and the new Dulles International Airport out in rural Virginia. National and Friendship had the best observation decks and viewing locations, which brought planes up close and personal. It was an exciting time to be alive.
Washington National Airport’s vast panoramic observation deck put you nose-to-nose with Eastern’s classic Electras, DC-9s and 727s. They’d push and you’d hear the air starters go to work spinning Pratt & Whitney’s vintage JT8D turbofan engines. They’d whirl on the starter—ignition on, then fuel, followed by the concussive light-up of a vintage fan jet. For a guy like me, it was thrilling.
It was a huge rush to hear them and they made an incredible amount of noise. To me, it was a symphony—so moving. A friend of mine said it was like hearing a baby cry when they’d spool those old Pratts off idle power to get the plane moving. The raw sound of jet power. Two miles away down the runway at National, you could hear those Pratts clear their throats and begin their roll down the 6,800 foot runway. At times on a hot day with a full load, 727s and DC-9s struggled to get off the ground and passed right over you if you were sitting in the parking lot on Gravelly Point.
Futuristic Dulles Airport, designed by Architect Eero Saarinen, was state of the art at the time where you had the main terminal—in fact the only terminal—where mobile lounges gathered passengers and hauled them out to the aircraft parked a half mile from the terminal. Mobile lounges were great idea in theory, and terrible from a standpoint of logistics and maintenance. In time, planners would find it was easier to add concourses to Dulles and ditch the mobile lounges.
Airports today have lost that romantic demeanor they had 60 years ago. As high jackings increased in the late 1960s, security was stepped up to screen passengers and well wishers. In time, observation decks were considered a security risk and a nuance to airport management and the FAA. Baltimore’s fabulous observation deck was closed in late 1976 when “The New BWI” was announced. In due course, Washington National and Dulles followed suit. The best you could hope for was a road or a dirt lot near the airport. The events of September 11, 2001 made it even tougher to watch planes. You can’t get near an airport without being asked to move on by airport security.
I’ve got to hand it to the British. They’ve never let the threat of terrorism foil their passion for airport viewing. They amass in great numbers at airports all over Britain and watch planes with the same passion they watch trains. Because the Brits have the best intelligence in the world along with security cameras all over the place to watch the action, citizens have the freedom to keep a great pastime going. The same cannot be said here in the United States. We are willing to sacrifice freedom for the illusion of security, which cannot be guaranteed in any society.
I long for the good old days of observation decks, noise, and smoke when the Jet Age was unfolding and the future was ours to have and to hold. Cool classic videos on YouTube just can’t capture the thrill of airport ramps in the 1960s and 1970s.