Take off at the world's largest model airport (pictures)

The model airplanes at Hamburg's Miniatur Wunderland don't just sit on a shelf, they fly right out of the room. Even the Millennium Falcon makes an appearance.


Kent German

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One of Hamburg's most popular tourist sights isn't a medieval church or an ancient ruin, it's a gigantic model railway next to an incredibly realistic miniature airport. As a passionate aviation geek, I put a visit to the Miniatur Wunderland at the top of my to-do list. It's a little airport terminal complete with tiny people, moving jet bridges and aircraft parked at the gates. And these airliners actually taxi across the field to a runway before taking off and "flying" away through a hole in the wall. At the other end of the room, they return to land.

The airport, which opened in 2011 after six years of construction, is a jaw-dropping sight to behold. Everything from the baggage carts to the taxi rank outside the terminal is created in exhausting detail, even down to the engine sounds that match each of the 45 mini-planes. Oh yeah, and the trains were cool, too.

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The view from the other end of the room shows the full expanse of the Knuffingen Airport (its official name). Aircraft types and airlines are widely represented, from a Thai Airways Airbus A380 (that's the double-decker commercial airplane) to Lufthansa regional jets.

Look way in the background on the left side. See anything unusual?

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Yes, that really was the Millennium Falcon in the previous photo. In the background here she's taxiing to the terminal. That's after making the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, of course.

The airport's 14-meter (46-foot) runway spans the full length of the room. In the foreground is the freight terminal and behind it, the control tower.

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The Falcon takes off and lands on the runway with amazing authenticity -- which you can see for yourself in our video. Another unusual visitor is the space shuttle Atlantis.

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As an EasyJet Airbus A320 lines up for takeoff, other aircraft wait in line on the taxiway. A British Airways Concorde makes regular flights to and from London, even though it's no longer flying in the full-sized world.

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As aircraft arrive and depart they fly through plastic flaps covering a hole in the wall. Though it's difficult to see in this photo, planes lift into the air on two thin rods that rise out of the runway surface. Our video gives you a closer look.

I desperately wanted to see how it all works -- where do the planes go when they fly out of the room? -- but the guided tours were booked. For a behind-the-scenes look, check out this video.

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Back at the terminal, a Lufthansa Airbus A340 pushed back from the gate. Just like at a real airport, service vehicles are constantly driving around the field and carefully dodging the aircraft.

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The airport cycles through day and night every few minutes. Here's the terminal just after a simulated sunset. As night approaches, the 2,465 LEDs that line the field and the runway light up.

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For a couple of minutes in the middle of night, the airport is lit mainly by the glow from the lights inside the terminal.

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Just after nightfall, a KLM Boeing 777 lines up for takeoff to Amsterdam.

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I saw historic aircraft such as the Lockheed Constellation in miniature alongside the latest airliners, all preparing to take to the skies. This ANA Boeing 787 Dreamliner is loading for departure.

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On one side of the airport, catering and fuel trucks ready aircraft for their next flights.

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In front of the terminal are parking garages, a commuter rail station with a working train, a radar tower, and a white zone for the loading and unloading of passengers (there is no stopping in the red zone).

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There's also a large hangar for repairing airliners and a small aviation fair.

The entire model, which spans 150 square meters or 1,615 square feet, has 75 buildings, 6,000 trees, 15,000 figures and 4,500 cars. In all it cost 4.01 million euros, which converts to around $4.6 million, £3.2 million or AU$6 million.

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Look inside the terminal to see the uncomfortable seats you'll find in almost any real airport.

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A departures and arrivals board lists the 180 daily flights. Five up from the bottom of the arrivals screen, you can see that the Falcon is an arrival from the Death Star. The aircraft type? (A YT-1300). See? I told it was detailed.

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