“Is the 727 at the Museum of Science & Industry Real?”

Take Flight is a 5,500-square-foot exhibit on the Balcony Level at the Transportation Gallery (East Court) of the Museum of Science and Industry’s Central Pavilion, and its centerpiece is the United Airlines Boeing 727 airliner built by The Boeing Company for United Airlines.[1]   United Airlines physically gave the 727 to the Museum of Science and Industry (M.S.I.) in September of 1992.

In twenty-seven years of service for United Airlines, from 1964 to 1991, this 727 flew nearly 28,000,000 miles, logging 66,000 hours in the air, and transporting more than 3,000,000 people.[2]  The 727 is 133 feet long from nose to tail, and 34 feet high from the bottom of the wheels to the top of the vertical stabilizer.[3]  It weighed 90,000 pounds when flying empty.[4]  When both wings were intact, it had a wingspan of 108 feet.[5]  With the portside wing missing, the plane has a wingspan of forty-eight feet.[6]  The top speed it could achieve was 632 miles per hour.[7]

The Boeing 727 is sometimes called a “trijet” because of its configuration of three jet engines.  It could be used as a passenger plane or a freighter and could quickly be converted from one to the other.

The first commercial flight of this 727 was undertaken on May 15, A.D. 1964.[8]  Its last commercial flight was from Omaha, Nebraska to Denver, Colorado on November 14, A.D. 1991.[9] 

On September 28, A.D. 1992, Captain B.C. Thomas flew the 727 from O’Hare International Airport to Merell C. Meigs Field, becoming the largest airplane ever to land at Meigs Field.[10]  [Note that according to the Museum of Science and Industry’s short film The Plane Truth, it was First Officer Ray Waddell who landed the 727 at Meigs Field.] Northerly Island Park, which includes a concert venue, sits on the former site of Meigs Field.[11]  Northly Island is a peninsula in Burnham Park that is connected to the mainland via a causeway.  It is the only manmade “island” to have been built out of a chain of islands called for in the Plan of Chicago by Daniel Hudson Burnham, Senior (1846-1912) and Edward H. Bennett (1874-1954).  The runway had not been built to accommodate jetliners, so it was too short.[12]  Landing it there required considerable skill.

Credit: B.C. Thomas Caption: This is a compilation of clips from local news programs about the 727 landing at Meigs Field.  Many of the clips included interviews with Captain B.C. Thomas.  Jim Tilmon appears in the first clip.  Tilmon was the perfect reporter to cover the event because he was a commercial airline pilot (for American Airlines) as well as a weatherman for Channel 5 (N.B.C.).  According to the caption, Captain Thomas was assisted by First Officer Bill Loewe and Second Officer Greg Hammes.

On October 1, A.D. 1992, Holly Marine towed the 727 to Burns International Harbor in Burns Harbor, Indiana.[13]  On September 18, A.D. 1993, the Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company began digging a temporary canal 100 feet wide, 300 feet long, and 3 feet deep.[14]  

            In order to allow the plane to be pulled off the barge, across the beach, and onto Lake Shore Drive (L.S.D.), on September 20, A.D. 1993, Taft Contracting Company began building a ramp ultimately composed of ten 5,000-pound concrete blocks, thirty steel plates, and A few hundred tree-sized timbers were needed for this stage of the project.[15]   On September 21, A.D. 1993, Holly Marine transported the plane by barge from Burns International Harbor in Burns Harbor, Indiana to Calumet Harbor on 95th Street in Chicago, Illinois, where the company transferred the plane to a smaller barge capable of navigating the temporary channel at 57th Street.[16]  On September 22nd, the 727 arrived at 57th Street beach.[17]   As was the case with the U-505, it was necessary to stop traffic on L.S.D. in order to bring the 727 to the M.S.I., which took place on September 22nd, and just as with the “U-505 Crossing” sign, the airplane crossing sign is on display at the tavern Woodlawn Tap (popularly known as Jimmy’s in honor of its first owner) at 1172 East 55th Street in Hyde Park.  The airplane was temporarily stored in the Museum’s West Parking Lot.[18]  Whilst there, the plane had to be largely dismantled before it could be brought indoors.

Figure 1 Credit: Museum of Science and Industry Caption: Thousands of people turned out to see the 727 pulled across Lake Shore Drive in 1993.

            Notably, it was easier to tow the 727 past the north face of the Museum of Science and Industry than it would be today because back then the north parking lot was in front.  A few years later, the Big Dig project took place so a subterranean garage structure, the Burlington Zephyr’s exhibit hall, and the Entry Hall (originally called the Great Hall) could be built and then the north lawn was placed on top (with a driveway for buses and taxicabs) as a green roof.  [That underground complex opened in 1998.]  The North Parking Lot light-posts had to be dismantled so they would not be obstacles for the 727.

To move the 727 inside, the doorway of the Central Pavilion’s West Court had to be enlarged, concrete specialists had to temporarily remove a thirty-two-ton ionic column, and four exhibits had to be dismantled.  Between the 17th of October and the 5th of November in 1993, the Pepper Construction Group removed the column and widened the entrance.[19]  Both wings had to be removed (with water jets) before the fuselage could be brought inside.  The right wing was later reattached to the fuselage after it was anchored onto the Balcony. The four dismantled exhibits were the original Farm, Civilization through Tools, Conquest of Pain, and Chicago. [20]  The Museum’s original model railroad exhibit, the Museum & Santa Fe Railway, was cut into quarters and placed in storage.[21]  The Great Train Story, which opened on November 22, A.D. 2002, replaced the Museum & Santa Fe Railway.  This project also afforded the M.S.I. the opportunity for restoration and conservation of three historic airplanes in the Museum’s collection: the Curtiss JN-4d Jenny, the Boeing 40-B2, and the Texaco #13 Travel Air Mystery Ship.[22]   From the 8th to the 17th of November, 1993, Taft Contracting built a steel bridge connecting the Main Floor (now called the Main Level) of the Central Pavilion to the West Park Lot via the West Court entrance Pepper Construction had widened.[23] 

            From January to May of 1994, faculty and students of Purdue University’s Department of Aviation Technology created an air-driven system to replace the 727’s hydraulics.[24]  On the night of March 30, A.D. 1994, the 727 was moved from the West Lot, across the West Court, across the Grand Rotunda, and into the East Court.[25]  The fuselage was pulled across the West Court and Great Rotunda to the East Court in a wheeled cradle.  Two gantries were used – one at the front and another at the back of the plane.  Jacks raised the fuselage up to the Balcony, where it was wed to the building’s structural steel.  The 727 is cantilevered from the Balcony.  Although the plane now weighed forty tons, it weighed less than the material that had to be removed from the balcony to accommodate it.  On May 11th and 12th, workers reaised the 727 up to the south side of the East Court Balcony, where they anchored it.[26]  More than 500 people were involved in the project, from people who planned the logistics to people who dismantled light poles. [27]   In mid-March of 1994,the 727 was repainted in its 1964 vintage color scheme using forty-one gallons of paint. [28]  The Flight 727 show required the installation of seventy-five spotlights, twelve special effects projectors, and eight audio speakers. [29]  Take Flight opened on the morning of October 28, A.D. 1994 in a ceremony attended by Dr. Jack Kahn (1931-2013), President & C.E.O. of the M.S.I. (1987-1997), and Joseph H. O’Gorman, Executive Vice President – Operations, of United Airlines. [30]

Credit: Museum of Science and Industry Caption: The Plane Truth (1993) is a short film that documents how the Boeing 727 landed at Meigs Field, and was subsequently gutted, cleaned, disassembled, brought into the Museum of Science and Industry, and placed on exhibit.

Stutka+727 in the transportation gallery of the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago
Figure 2 Credit: J.B. Spector, Museum of Science and Industry Caption: Here, we see the Boeing 727 on the Balcony in the Transportation Gallery, and multiple smaller planes suspended from the ceiling, including the Supermarine Spitfire and the Stuka Junkers-87B-2 Dive Bomber.

Credit: Amy Thurston Caption: This is the old video that used to be shown in Take Flight.  Take note, this video also states First Officer Ray Waddell landed the plane at Meigs Field.  Current and former employees and volunteers at the Museum of Science and Industry will be pleased to see the video includes Ed McDonald (1952-2021), the longtime Director of Facilities and Operations at the M.S.I., and M. Richard Klarich, the longtime Capital Program Manager, in addition to United Airlines pilots who volunteered as docents in the exhibit.

Take Flight in Chain Reaction

The M.S.I.’s 727 appeared briefly in the science fiction thriller Chain Reaction (1996).  For that film, Chicago-born director Andrew Davis blended the Museum of Science and Industry with The Field Museum of Natural History to create the vaguely mentioned “Science Museum” (a stand-in for one of the Smithsonian Institution’s facilities) when the action shifts from Chicago to Washington, D.C., largely confining his use of the M.S.I. to the East Court’s Take Flight exhibit. 

For a meeting with Paul Shannon (Morgan Freeman) in front of a Neanderthal exhibit (at The Field Museum), University of Chicago researchers Eddie Kasalivich (Keanu Reeves) and Dr. Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz) enter a building Chicagoans will recognize as The Field Museum, pass by a dinosaur exhibit (in The Field Museum), meet with Shannon, realize he is not the friend and ally they thought him to be, and after running from his minions, Kasalivich attempts to hide Dr. Sinclair in a landing gear wheel well of the 727 airliner hanging from the south end of the East Court Balcony of the M.S.I.  He then leads what he mistakenly thought were all of the thugs chasing after them away from the plane, escaping by running across the plane’s starboard wing to the north end of the East Court Balcony. Dr. Sinclair, meanwhile, is kidnapped from the plane, and Kasalivich gives chase, only to be frustrated by a locked doorway (in what is really the gallery connecting the East Pavilion and Henry Crown Space Center), while Dr. Sinclair’s kidnappers bundle her into a fake (or improperly used) ambulance at what looks to be the shipping dock on the west face of our Central Pavilion.  When Kasalivich manages to get outside, where he is lucky to be able to see and memorize the ambulance’s license plate, the exterior shot was filmed at the Field Museum.  

Captain Norwood

Real United Airlines pilots volunteer at the exhibit to share stories about their careers and answer questions. The 727’s fuselage bears the name of Captain William R. (“Bill”) Norwood – not to be confused with the late surgeon Dr. William I. (“Bill”) Norwood (1941-2020) – the first Black African-American pilot to be hired by United Airlines and the first Black pilot to achieve the rank of captain at United Airlines.  Captain Norwood earned his bachelor’s degree at Southern Illinois University in 1959 and his M.B.A. at The University of Chicago.  After he graduated from S.I.U., where he was a member of the R.O.T.C., he served as a pilot in the Strategic Air Command from 1959 to 1965.  During at least part of his time with the U.S. Force, he flew Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers.  Captain Norwood retired in 1995 after thirty years.  Altogether, he logged over 25,000 flight hours.  He sat on the S.I.U. Board of Trustees from 1974 to 2001 and was Chairman of the Board for part of that time.  His tie to this 727 is that he flew it eight times.

Credit: Museum of Science and Industry Caption: In 2017, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the United Airlines pilot volunteer program at the Museum of Science and Industry, Captain William R. Norwood visited the M.S.I. and answered some questions about his life and career for a promotional video.

Take Flight Renovations

Take Flight closed on Monday, October 5, A.D. 2020 to undergo renovations and re-opened on Thursday, May 13, A.D. 2021. A part of the cabin has been restored to the way it looked in 1964.

Figure 3 Credit: Heidi Peters, Museum of Science and Industry Caption: The exhibit Take Flight re-opened on May 13, A.D. 2021. The Stuka Junkers-87B-2 Dive Bomber can be seen over the 727’s cockpit.

Boeing and United Airlines support the exhibit Take Flight, which is covered by Museum Entry (general admission).  Museum Entry (general admission) tickets are $21.95 for adults and $12.95 for children (ages three-to-eleven).  It is free for Members.  Museum Entry tickets cover most permanent exhibits such as Science Storms and Numbers In Nature and many temporary exhibits.  It does not cover parking, special exhibits and events, or Giant Dome Theater films.

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[1] Museum of Science and Industry press release, dated October 10, 1994, p. 1

[2]Take Flight Grand Opening” pamphlet, p. 3

See also (2021) Take Flight Fact Sheet

[3]Take Flight Grand Opening” pamphlet, p. 3

[4] Ibid

[5] (2021) Take Flight Fact Sheet

[6]Take Flight Grand Opening” pamphlet, p. 3

[7] (2021) Take Flight Fact Sheet

[8] (2021) Take Flight Fact Sheet

[9]Take Flight Grand Opening” pamphlet, p. 1

See also (2021) Take Flight Fact Sheet

[10]Take Flight Grand Opening” pamphlet, pages 1 & 3

[11] Meigs Field, the single-strip airport on Northerly Island in Burnham Park no longer exists, of course.  It was in operation from 1948 until 2003, when Mayor Richard M. Daley (Richard Daley the Younger) arbitrarily had it destroyed.  He had bulldozers gouge an x-shape into the runway overnight on March 30, 2003.  The Federal Aviation Administration fined the City of Chicago $33,000 for destroying the airfield without the required thirty-day notice.  In 2006, the City of Chicago agreed to pay the fine and $1,000,000 of the $1,500,000 the F.A.A. stated the City of Chicago had misappropriated from Airport Improvement Program (A.I.P.) funds to create Northerly Island Park.

[12] (2021) Take Flight Fact Sheet

[13]Take Flight Grand Opening” pamphlet, p. 1

See also (2021) Take Flight Fact Sheet

[14]Take Flight Grand Opening” pamphlet, p. 3

[15]Take Flight Grand Opening” pamphlet, p. 2

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20]Take Flight Grand Opening” pamphlet, p. 3

[21]Take Flight Grand Opening” pamphlet, p. 3

[22] Ibid

[23]Take Flight Grand Opening” pamphlet, p. 2

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid

[27]Take Flight Grand Opening” pamphlet, p. 3

[28]Take Flight Grand Opening” pamphlet, pages 2 & 3

[29]Take Flight Grand Opening” pamphlet, p. 3

[30]Take Flight Grand Opening” pamphlet, p. 4

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