I.M. Pei’s Imprint on the FAA

Originally published on the FAA’s internal website and at Medium
By K. Daniel Glover

When architectural aficionados hear the name I. M. Pei, they may picture some of his best-known works, from the Louvre Pyramid in France to the National Gallery of Art East Building in Washington, D.C. What they may not remember is that as Pei skyrocketed to fame, he also left his imprint on the FAA.

Pei, who died May 16 at age 102, headed the firm that won a 1962 competition to design standard air traffic control towers. Although the agency eventually changed course in how it designs towers, it built several using the Pei firm’s design in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of them are still in use today.

“When we think of the iconic buildings designed by Pei and his firm, we often overlook the firm’s smaller projects,” FAA historian Terry Kraus said. “The simple but graceful air traffic control towers built using the firm’s design combined form with function, creating a modern workspace for FAA employees while at the same time enhancing airport aesthetics.”

Born in China, Ieoh Ming Pei came to the United States in 1935. He came to the FAA project in 1962 during an era of architectural change for both the federal government and the nation’s airports. President John F. Kennedy wanted federal buildings that showed “the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of the American national government,” and Congress wanted the FAA, rather than local communities, to build air traffic control towers.

Within that atmosphere, new FAA Administrator Najeeb Halaby appointed an Art in Aviation Advisors Committee in 1961. Its mission was to advise the Administrator on a program for designing towers that people would identify with the FAA and its safety mission.

“The committee agreed that these towers, while pieces of architecture, were also pieces of machinery and should be designed as a standard unit to be used anywhere,” according to the meeting minutes from Dec. 12, 1961. “This would enable one architect to work with one engineer on one typical design, resulting in economy as well as a well-designed tower structure.”

The committee named three potential architects at that meeting: Pei, Eliot Noyes and Paul Rudolph. A month later, the committee expanded the list to include Walter Gropius, Philip Johnson, Victor Lundy and Harry Weese, and agreed to interview any of them who were interested in the project.

All but Gropius made their pitches to a new Design Advisory Committee on March 15, 1962. They shared their basic design philosophies, and most of them presented photographs or drawings of their past work.

According to the minutes, Weese proposed standard designs that are “simple and flexible — an island set aside by landscaping and site orientation. It must be humanized and technological yet logical and convincing.” Noyes said the designs “should convey a strong and identifiable form — expressing aviation technology but not superficially and not dated by design.” Rudolph rejected the premise of a prototype design, saying instead that a variety of shapes and designs “should be controlled by the new airport architecture.”

Presenting with Eason Leonard, a partner in his firm, Pei told the committee “it was an exciting and challenging project which needed a fresh and creative approach since control towers had not been done well in the past,” according to the minutes.

Read the rest of the article at the FAA’s Medium blog.

The Legacy of ‘Lawnchair Larry

Clockwise from left: Larry Walters in flight, after the flight and his flight plan (Images: Google, KTLA-TV)

Originally published on the FAA’s internal website and at Medium
By K. Daniel Glover

Larry Walters was a truck driver by trade, but history remembers him for the patio chair he drove erratically through the approach airspace to Los Angeles International Airport. Although his risky and illegal stunt turned him into a cult hero, it also cost “Lawnchair Larry” $1,500 in FAA fines and earned him plenty of ridicule. His voyage happened 37 years ago this month.

As recounted in a 1998 New Yorker article, the story began when a young Walters visited Disneyland and saw a lady with a large cluster of balloons. He imagined what it would be like to take flight underneath them. A few years later, Walters saw a weather balloon at a military supply store and concluded that a big bunch of those oversized balloons would be enough to lift him (and a chair) into the air.

He never stopped dreaming about that possibility, but another 20 years passed before Walters acted on the fantasy. While on the road at a Holiday Inn, he sketched a plan on placemats and convinced his long-skeptical girlfriend, Carol Van Deusen, to go along with it. Walters took off from her back yard on July 2, 1982, carried aloft by a batch of balloons that was 150 feet high.

The flight of Inspiration, the name of Walters’ amateur aircraft, didn’t go at all as planned. When the last tether that restrained his chair and 42 helium-filled weather balloons snapped, he soared faster and higher than expected. Rising at 800 feet per minute, he eventually climbed to about 16,500 feet, or nearly three miles high.

Although Walters took a pellet gun in order to pop balloons and stop his ascent, he dropped the gun after shooting seven balloons at about 15,000 feet. By the time he reached his peak height, he was laboring for breath because he had not taken oxygen, and his toes were numb. He thought about jumping and using the parachute he was wearing.

He’s lucky he lived. You’re encouraged to use oxygen above 10,000 feet and required to use it above 12,500 feet in a small plane. And Walters was stuck up there.