A farmer’s pasture, a 5,500-foot runway, and a professor’s encouragement to dream big.

The Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Airport - which originated, according to local history, in a farmer’s pasture nearly 110 years ago - is now able to accomodate most corporate jets with its 2020 runway expansion. But what if that included commercial air travel?

Heinrich Schnoedt, associate professor in Architecture within the College of Architecture and Urban StudiesSchool of Architecture + Design, challenged students to design a facility for a future of commercial passenger travel at the Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Airport. 

The airport is located adjacent to Virginia Tech on Research Center Drive, steps away from the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center and minutes from the Blacksburg campus. It facilitates a number of business activities, including aerial inspections, photography, surveying, agricultural spraying, emergency medical aviation, and flight training. It also serves as a gateway for business and political leaders, law enforcement, public charters, Virginia Tech Athletics, recreational flying, and rescue flights.

Virginia Tech Air Transportation Services also operates flights out of its hangar at the airport.

“Professor Schnoedt and I felt it would be fun for the students to do a project so close to their classroom that they could visualize their concepts in a real-life format,” said Keith Holt, airport director. “When it comes to introducing commercial air travel, the airport offers some unique design opportunities such as planning for vehicles, aircraft, security areas, ticketing, and baggage processing.”

The Virginia Tech Montgomery Airport has been operational for nearly a century. The last approximately 20 years of which, were under its current name and governed by the airport authority. From left to right: Photo provided by Virginia Tech Special Collections. Photo by Sarah Myers for Virginia Tech.

The 10-week project was no simple task. It included developing a branding strategy for a regional airline and crafting plans for a remotely operated air traffic control tower and a new terminal building inclusive of commercial travel specifications.

“In an airport there are a lot of requirements for different spaces set forth by the Federal Aviation Administration as well as the Transportation Security Administration. This project taught me how to account for lots of different programmatic elements and how to allow enough space for each while still creating a cohesive and interesting building,” said Connor Brown, a rising fifth-year architecture student in the five-year professional degree program.

The class toured the Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Airport with Schnoedt and Holt to gain project inspiration based on the facility’s programmatic needs and site characteristics, which include the Blue Ridge Mountains, Lane Stadium, and Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus.

“When traveling, people are often required to spend a lot of time in a confined space prior to leaving for their destination. As the students were developing their designs, I asked them to think about what happens during the waiting time in travel. What makes a spatial encounter - especially at a small airport - memorable?” said Schnoedt.

The final projects were imaginative and innovative.

“When the class came back to the airport at the end of the semester to give their presentations, many of the students had incorporated things they learned on their tour or incorporated items in the design that paid homage to the airport’s past and history,” said Holt. “It was fun to see what these creative minds were able to come up with.”

Blurring the lines between art and practicality, the students' work reflected Schnoedt’s encouragement to design big within the realms of possibility.

“I wanted to create a space that departs from the norm. Airports are meant to be exciting and unique. They are in many cases a traveler's first impression of a place, so I believed that the design of the Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Airport had the responsibility of welcoming people into the university community and being a memorable part of their stay,” said Alexander Kuhn, first-year graduate student in the M. Arch. 2 program.

While there are no plans for commercial airline service nor terminal expansion by the Virginia Tech Montgomery Regional Airport Authority - the airport’s governing body, which includes members from Virginia Tech, Montgomery County, Blacksburg, and Christiansburg - the student concepts are fitting for any airport across the country, noted Holt.

Designs for a future Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Airport commercial air travel facility proposed by fifth-year architecture student Connor Brown. Photo provided by Connor Brown.

“I really enjoyed how real it felt for a studio project. We got to visit the airport and talk with the airport director about the needs of the airport and the final presentation at the airport felt as if we were presenting our work to a real client,” said Brown. “This was different from other studio projects where we may never visit the site nor meet the people who will occupy the building or when the concept of the building is so lofty that it would not be feasible as a real building. The realness of this project was very exciting to me.”

The students' works are currently exhibited in the Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Airport and are available for visitor viewing Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

“In an academic setting, students should be encouraged to dream. It’s always healthy for people to dream. Sometimes, a dream project might become a reality or promote a new reality,” said Schnoedt.

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