Art Piece Replicating A Plane’s Flight Path

What’s the sculpture inspiration for “Slipstream” in the Heathrow Terminal 2 building in London?

Designed by Richard Wilson, a British sculptor, the sculpture measuring 78-meters long, is suspended on four structural columns 18 meters apart and supporting two passenger walkways. The Heathrow Terminal 2 building was scheduled to open on June 4th and the Slipstream sculpture will be shown to the public on the same occasion. The sculpture is one of the longest permanent sculptures in Europe with twists and turns that simulate a small airplane’s movement through space while performing a series of acrobatic maneuvers. 

Rapid Rivet - Aircraft Rivets - May 2014 940443p512EDNmain01--Slipstream3D Simulation Technology

The British sculptor and the fabricators used the 3D simulation technology (Dassault Systèmes 3DEXPERIENCE) to model each of the 23 sections, 30,000 unique parts and more than 300,000 aircraft rivets, digitally. The masterful digital modeling of the “hundred-thousand-piece jigsaw” ensured that all engineering issues pertinent to exact fit, center of gravity, alignment and structural integrity were carefully analyzed, anticipated and resolved prior to manufacturing, delivery and installation of the 77-ton art piece.

Slipstream Sculpture: Centerpiece Of Heathrow’s Terminal 2

Serving as the centerpiece of Heathrow Airport’s extension Terminal 2 building, the aluminum-clad Slipstream sculpture replicated the flight path of a stunt plane in a 3D and fluid form. The finished art work is suspended across the atrium-like space in the Terminal hall in a dynamic silver sweep. The designer and fabricators used computer software that allows plotting of the different points of the plane’s movement, and interpolating between the points to achieve a line of movement.

Flowing Form In Aluminum Cladding

Algorithm is used to calculate the many surfaces of the sculpture that would maintain the flowing form in aluminum cladding. However, due to time constraints, the time-consuming computer-programming had to be helped by hand-sketching which is not as time-consuming as the high-tech counterpart, in delineating the piece-by-piece placement of the 30,000 unique “puzzle pieces.”

“Stressed Skin”

The shiny and glossy finish of the surface made use of “stressed skin” – covering a series of pieces made from plywood and OSB (oriented strand board). The “skin” takes some of the weight force and transfers it back to the bearing steel structure. Visible rivets were used to fix the cladding, similar to how they are used in aircraft construction. And if a jumbo jet typically uses about a million rivets, this sculpture used nearly half that number.

Rapid Rivet - Aircraft Parts May 2014 03-Slipstream-1024x682Mounted Like A Bridge

The Slipstream sculpture is like a bridge mounted between sets of columns. A complex series of timber bulkhead structures were assembled and connected by steel sections attached to the four structural columns, beneath the aluminum cladding. The standard size for each of the 23 sections was determined by the capacity of a flat-bed lorry.

Replicating A Flight Path

The engineers and fabricators of this massive piece of art explained that a stunt pilot was hired to recreate the flight path created by the artist and designers based on earlier artistic studies of motion. The stunt pilot was able to successfully replicate the flight path.

Rapid Rivet - Aircraft Rivets - May 2014 11-Slipstream-1024x682Strong And Stable Enough To Stand Explosion

But apart from its aesthetic value, the Slipstream sculpture has been tested for stability. More specifically, the art form had to be tested for behavior in the event of an explosion, say, a terrorist attack. The engineers prepared a mock-up section for an explosion test to find out if the sculpture will break into dangerous shrapnel. The section was found to be pretty well intact and will not just break apart.


Will Heathrow start a new artistic trend in airport interior design?