Prepare For Takeoff: Smithsonian Celebrates The Art Of The Airport Tower Photographer Carolyn Russo says these beacons of the landscape serve as "cultural greeters." Her dramatic photographs are on display at the Air and Space museum in Washington, D.C.

Prepare For Takeoff: Smithsonian Celebrates The Art Of The Airport Tower

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Just in time for the holiday travel season, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum here in Washington has an exhibit that focuses on one aspect of flying that for many of us goes under the radar, airport control towers, those landscape beacons where takeoffs and landings are orchestrated. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg says the towers are the stars of some dramatic black-and-white photos at the museum.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Coming in for a landing or taking off, pilots are guided 24/7 by the calm, albeit scratchy, voices of air traffic controllers.



STAMBERG: In the air, you may be whitening your knuckles or enjoying a lavish airline meal. But on the ground, those intense, commanding voices are hard at work in their towers. Travelers rarely think of them. We're looking for strapping passengers who lift our bags or wishing we could turn on our cell phones. Towers, who even sees them? Well, Carolyn Russo does.

CAROLYN RUSSO: When I was sitting next to people on the airplane, you know, you get into a conversation like, what are you doing here? And I'd be like, you know, I'm here to photograph the tower. And they would just look at me like I was, like, nuts. Like, why would you want to do that?

STAMBERG: Russo's dramatic back-and-white photographs turn the towers into abstractions.

RUSSO: To me, they did become art and symbolic objects of beauty.

STAMBERG: Cultural greeters, she calls them, choreographers of the dance of planes and beautiful. A defunct tower at New York's LaGuardia Airport...

RUSSO: The smooth, creamy, concrete vanilla color and the texture and the dark black circles - to me, it looked like Swiss cheese.

STAMBERG: The sleek tower at Abu Dhabi International Airport...

RUSSO: That's right in the middle of the desert. It looks like a big crescent shape, like the flowing robe of the traditional dress. So for me, it looks like a man with his robe gliding across the desert.

STAMBERG: Heathrow's observation deck looks like a gentleman's top hat. In Paris, the Orly tower reminds her of a badminton birdie.

RUSSO: The towers over here with JFK looks like a swan.

STAMBERG: As a Smithsonian photographer and curator, Russo wanted to share what she saw through her camera lens.

RUSSO: A way to capture these gigantic structures and bring them back into the museum.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's follow one flight from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to San Francisco to get a bird's-eye view of how the U.S. air transportation system works.

STAMBERG: A monitor at the Air and Space Museum describes the role of air traffic controllers.

BOB VAN DER LINDEN: People think the towers are air traffic control. They're just the beginning and the end of air traffic control of a trip.

STAMBERG: This is the museum's curator of air transportation, Bob van der Linden.

VAN DER LINDEN: When you take off, you're being under the control of a tower. And then, most of the route you're under the watch of en route controllers who are not in towers. They're in dark buildings watching monitors.

STAMBERG: In the early days of flight, there weren't any towers. There weren't many plans. Men on the ground waved them in with flags or lights. Only a small fraction of the population flew.

VAN DER LINDEN: It was for the wealthy and businessman. And that was about it.

STAMBERG: Bob van der Linden says that changed with airline deregulations in 1978. More people could afford to fly, and they did. And traffic cops in towers were needed to help them fly safely. Nowadays, the traffic is fierce.

VAN DER LINDEN: At any moment around the clock, there are 600,000 people in the air.

STAMBERG: That's roughly the population of Washington, D.C., where you can see the exhibition "Art Of The Airport Tower," at the Air and Space Museum, black-and-white images of the lofty workplaces where men and women guide us to and from the skies.



STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


UNIDENTIFIED AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER: Departing runway 1-2 shortly.

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