Sunday, October 15, 2017

Aviation Comes to Washington (1926-1941)

National Airport

     In the early days of aviation, Washington had the reputation of having, “the poorest aviation ground facilities of any important city in the United States or Europe.”  Wiley Post, the first pilot to make a solo flight around the world, said, “there were better landing grounds in the wilds of Siberia than at Washington."

     Thomas Mitten, the owner of the Pennsylvania Rapid Transit Company in Philadelphia, opened the first airfield in the Washington area in 1926, hoping to reap huge profits by flying Washingtonians to Philadelphia for the 150th anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence.  Mitten’s “Hoover Field” was located on a thirty six acre tract in Arlington where the Pentagon now stands.  Mitten sold the airfield after only six months to a group of investors who incorporated as the Potomac Flying Service, which took over 25,000 passengers for sightseeing flights over the nation's capital between 1926-28.  A competing airfield, “Washington Airport”, opened across the road to the south on ninety seven acres.  Seaboard Airlines was established here, flying one daily round-trip flight to New York, starting in 1928.

     In 1930, at the height of the Great Depression, the owners of both Hoover Field and Washington Airport sold out to the National Aviation Corporation, which merged the two airfields into a new facility called Washington-Hoover Airport.  The new owners built a modern terminal building and a new hangar.  The new terminal boasted a passenger waiting room on the lower floor.  The airport also offered a large outdoor swimming pool for the enjoyment of the sightseers who converged on the airport.  The pool served as an important source of revenue.

     Despite improvements, Washington-Hoover could not overcome it structural defects.  The airport's single runway was intersected by a busy street, Military Road, which had guards posted to stop oncoming traffic during takeoffs & landings.  Additionally, due to its low-lying location next to the Potomac River, and its poor drainage, the airport was prone to flooding.  Bordered on the east by Route 1, with its high-tension electrical wires, obstructed by a high smokestack on one approach and a dump nearby, the field was increasingly unable to handle increased air traffic and newer planes.  Hoover Field closed in 1941, replaced by the much larger Washington National Airport (now Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport), two miles to the southeast.

Read about the Rebel blockade of the Potomac River, the imprisonment of German POWs at super-secret Fort Hunt during World War II and the building of the Pentagon on the same site and in the same configuration as Civil War, era Fort Runyon. Meet Annandale's "bunny man," who inspired one of the country's wildest and scariest urban legends; learn about the slaves in Alexandria's notorious slave pens; and witness suffragists being dragged from the White House lawn and imprisoned in the Occoquan workhouse. 

Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history.

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