Air travelers of a certain age will remember when “romance” and “flight” were constant companions.
Long before TSA bodychecks. And community meetings to protest noise pollution. Before we could skillfully eye 3 ounces. Before shrinking overhead bins and swelling tensions.
A hint of those glory days has returned to a low-key spot adjacent to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
On an unseasonably warm and sunny day, a small group of photographers, plane spotters and plain dreamers pulled up in cars and trucks to a patch of land designated as an official — and public — outdoor aircraft viewing area. Some held the hands of small children. Others carried lawn chairs.
All came to witness the miracle that flight still is.
Cynics might smell a public relations ploy in the effort — a bone thrown by the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) to weary and frustrated fliers. I’d suggest they check their skepticism and pack a lunch instead.
Located on Cargo Road just past the Federal Express shipping facility, the unadorned spot includes two park benches and two picnic tables. Eventually, newly planted trees will offer shade from the vast and open skies above.
The area is accessible from dawn till dusk and is patrolled by airport police.
My own arrival on Cargo Road was largely self-serving. The nostalgic scene took me back to my youth in the Southwest, where we’d park our car (for free) and walk into the airport (no security) and straight up to the observation deck to watch flights soar above the majestic mountains.
No mountains here, but the chance to watch massive, streamlined planes power down a runway, or return to it with a bump and a thundering whoosh, still thrills.
While a barbed-wire fence separates viewers from multiple runways about 100 yards in the distance, many who visited the day I did shared my giddiness at the opportunity to stand down from our exhausting hyper-alert posture.
Really? We get to just hang out here?
Andy Johnson’s love of airplanes began when he attended a junior high school career fair years ago and learned that “pilot” was a profession. Now 34, married and the father of three children, Johnson works at the airport and stopped by to eat his lunch and watch planes take flight before his shift.
Johnson, of Shakopee, has a private pilot’s license and hopes to fly “the big ones” someday. Despite the headaches of modern flight travel, “it still feels like freedom,” he said.
Brian Dean of New Brighton, a retired Northwest Airlines employee, was there, too, huge camera in hand. Dean flew for the first time at age 20, on his way to San Diego for Navy boot camp.
Dean knows his planes. There goes a C-130 — “H model, maybe,” he said. An A319. An Airbus 320.
“It’s still magical,” he said. “This is not like going through TSA, certainly.”
Still, Dean takes issue with the notion that it’s no longer fun to fly. “If you go from here to California with a carload of kids, you’ll be more than happy to buy them something to eat in an airport instead,” he said.
Dean grew up on Minneapolis’ North Side and rarely got to MSP. A few times in the summer, though, he’d drive to spots near the airport, simply to “look up.”
“This is going to be really good for families,” Dean predicted, “to come out and see things.”
MAC chairman Dan Boivin noted at the observation area’s Oct. 17 ribbon-cutting that when MSP opened its doors for commercial air travel in 1920 as Speedway Field, people could stand right at the fence separating them from the runway. After Terminal 1 (Lindbergh) was open to the public in 1962, flight fans were treated to an indoor observation deck.
That freedom ended in 2002, when post-9/11 regulations allowed only airline passengers to access the deck.
What didn’t end was a profound and enduring fascination with flight. Even before the ribbon-cutting, folks had found their way to the site and shared the news on social media.
Wendy Carlisle of Minneapolis was one. She heard about the observation point via Facebook and brought her 5-year-old son, Declan, to see the airplanes he loves.
Nate Wintheiser, 38, and his dad, Gary, 67, both from Mankato, pulled folding chairs out of their trunk and settled in. “I’ve loved watching planes since I was a kid,” said Gary, who remembers when his dad would bring him to the airport for gazing. “You’d just park your car. There were lots of people along the fence. The thrill.”
He instilled that thrill in Nate, who had a flying lesson earlier in the day.
“Planes are amazing,” Nate said.
“Not that many years since the Wright Brothers,” Gary added. “If I could have another life, I’d be a pilot. Or I’d work for free as a flight attendant. That’s how much I love airplanes.”
MSP spokesman Pat Hogan won’t be surprised to hear that. “There used to be such magic and mystery to flying. Now, it’s become a commodity,” he said.
“This spot offers a time to stop and think about how great it is to get these huge planes up into the air.”
Dean, the plane-spotter, suggests an idea that could sweeten that deal. Two words: