‘MSP Airport model’ captures moment in time, cements a life-long friendship

Sep 27, 2019

It’s not often that two friends build a shrine to one of their favorite childhood memories.  But that’s exactly what Ben Graden and Cyrus Cambata did in constructing a scale model of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) in Ben’s basement over the past three years.

As kids in the same Cub Scout troop and elementary school class in Shoreview, Minn., they were regular visitors to MSP and its aircraft viewing area on Post Road. They even hosted a birthday party or two at MSP before the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to tightened security.

Their early passion for aviation – an early joint school project outlined their plan to start an airline (CB Airways, formed with the first letters of their names) – led to careers in aviation. Ben, 34, is an air traffic controller at Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie and Cyrus, 35, is an Airbus A320 captain with Allegiant Airlines based out of Asheville, N.C.

They stayed in touch over the years and knew they wanted to do something “cool” together again. On New Year’s Eve 2016, they hatched a plan to build a model of MSP as it existed during their youth in 2003-2004. 

“We really had no idea what or how big or how much of the airport it was going to encompass but we just kind of went with it,” said Ben. 

A 1:400 scale model

Using aerial photographs of the airport they had taken as private pilots, Ben arrived at a formula that would fit the model in his unfinished basement in Savage, Minn. – and still include what is now Terminal 1 in its entirety. It would be a 1:400 scale model.

Ben constructed an 8-foot by 13-foot box made of 2x4s and plywood that served as the canvas for the model.  He then glued down what he referred to as “foils,” which were 8 x 10 matte photos to sketch out Terminal 1 and the tarmac as it existed when Northwest Airlines was the principal carrier – and before MSP’s $3.1 billion expansion kicked off.

“We wanted to keep that timeframe alive from when we were young and just getting into aviation,” said Cyrus.

Cyrus and Ben scoured the Internet for vintage model planes, including the smaller Saab 340 turboprops that Northwest Airlink used for regional flights. Ironically, these small models were also among some of the most expensive – some going for as much as $75 each, said Ben.

The British connection

By chance, an aviation friend introduced Cyrus via e-mail to a model builder in Devon, England (350 miles north of London) – Dave Southam – who had recently constructed a model airport of his own to showcase his extensive collection of model airplanes.

Earlier this decade, Dave, 59, a carpenter and joiner (fine woodworker) by trade who operated his own building maintenance company, had undergone a double lung transplant.

“I got into model-making by accident, really, following a major medical procedure and needed something to take my mind off the enormity of what I had just undergone,” he said. 

Cyrus asked Dave if he would be willing to help with the project and Dave jumped at the opportunity. Using archival photos from Ben and Cyrus – as well as Google Earth – Dave meticulously recreated the MSP hangars, parking ramps, post office and Terminal 1, then mailed the completed structures to America. Over two years, Dave estimates he spent between eight and 10 months building all the structures.

“MSP became a big part of our family life with models and prototypes always under some stage of construction all over the place,” said Dave. “My kids used to always ask, ‘How’s the airport coming along?’”

A poster next to the completed model summarized how central Dave was to the project – even though Ben and Cyrus have still never met him in person:

“Dave, we cannot thank you enough for your time and dedication to our project. There is absolutely no way this could have been completed without you and your vision.” 

Focus on the details

As each model structure was completed, Ben and Cyrus continued to lay out the foils, runways, install fiberoptic lighting, and complete numerous finer details such as streetlights, signage and landscaping. (Cyrus would fly into MSP for a few days at a time when his schedule permitted.)
Ben’s dad was a model railroad enthusiast and both Ben and Cyrus had visited elaborate model railroad displays in the past at Bandana Square in St. Paul. Also, Cyrus’ grandfather was a London-based pilot for Air India. So Cyrus grew up hearing stories about all the wonderful airports his grandfather had visited.

They estimate they spent about $20,000 (including Dave’s fees) over the nearly three years it took to complete the project.

The greatest challenge, they said, was “worrying that it wasn’t perfect enough. We wanted it as perfect as it could be – but at the same time – we weren’t killing ourselves over the smallest of details.”

To illustrate that point, Cyrus pointed out a blue fiberoptic taxiway light that was a millimeter or two higher than the rest – a nuance that few, if any, would notice.

The open house deadline

Rather than endlessly fret over such details, they decided to give the project a deadline in the form of an open house held on Aug. 17, 2019. About 75 people – including many from the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) – came to marvel at the model.

Dave was invited to the gala but unfortunately wasn’t cleared to travel because of his ongoing medical issues. The project – larger than any he had ever tackled before – was way more than just a job to him.

“It has been a buzz and an absolute pleasure working with Cyrus and Ben throughout this project over the last two years,” he said. “It has aided my recovery to no end – both mentally and physically.”

Ben and Cyrus aren’t sure what the future holds for their elaborate model. Although both of their wives were extremely supportive of the project, both families have first children on the way. So free time fiddling with airport lights will likely be in short supply.

“As wonderful and loving as my wife is, I won’t be able to keep it here forever,” said Ben. “From the beginning, this model was designed to be disassembled for storage or relocation without inflicting any damage.”

Although just a few aviation enthusiasts have seen the model in person, photos of the model are getting rave reviews on a private aviation Facebook group.

“This is amazing! Great job,” wrote one group member.

“One thousand cool points! Just wow!,” wrote another.

More important than the physical model, however, is how it has kept Ben and Cyrus close over the decades and rekindled their early fascination with aviation.   

“Long-lasting friendships are a gift – something we both cherish and will always hold close,” said Cyrus. 

Cyrus and Ben have graciously provided some pictures on Facebook for those who are eager to see more. Take a look here.