America’s best airport: DCA

It was ours to use freely until 9/11

Of all the constraints that have been put on general aviation over the years, the most hurtful (to me, at least) is the virtual ban on the light airplane use of Washington National Airport. In my active years, I used it a lot and being able to touch down so close to the center of power was something special. The airport is something special, too.

Few people today are familiar with the WPA and the PWA. Both were creations of President Roosevelt to combat the Great Depression. The PWA, for Public Works Administration, did projects. The WPA, for Work Projects Administration (originally Works Progress Administration), hired unemployed people to work on these projects. The two most noteworthy airports that came about because of this are Washington National and LaGuardia in New York.

Both these airports started at the top. President Roosevelt said he had dreamed about a bloody crackup at the obstructed 147-acre Washington-Hoover Airport. He couldn’t get Congress to do anything about it but it did set up the Civil Aeronautics Authority that was largely under Presidential control.

Washington National Airport in 1941
Washington National Airport opened in 1941, with a striking terminal building.

That was all President Roosevelt needed and soon money started to flow for the development of a 750-acre airport, named Washington National from the beginning, at Gravelly Point, on the Potomac River about a mile south of the existing airport and three and a half miles from the center of the capital area. Five hundred of those acres didn’t belong to anybody because they would be “made” land created with fill. The government controlled the rest. The plan was for four 5,000 foot runways and in what would now be unheard of, they allowed a year to finish the airport with an additional year for finishing touches. That was as reported in the October 10, 1938, issue of Time. The airport was actually opened for business on June 16, 1941, so it didn’t quite make the initial schedule but that was still impressive. Along the way, the north-south runway length was increased to 6,855 feet.

If you wondered what happened to Washington-Hoover, the government built a little building called the Pentagon using that site.

LaGuardia in New York came about because an airliner bringing Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to New York actually landed in New Jersey, at Newark. La Guardia demanded that he be taken to New York so the flight went on to Floyd Bennett, a field in Brooklyn, and work soon started to transform a small Queens airport, North Beach, into a municipal airport for New York that would be a lot closer to town than Floyd Bennett. This airport would also make extensive use of fill as the land for the airport was extended into Jamaica Bay. LaGuardia was opened on December 2, 1939, so the two airports, DCA and LGA, are about the same age. (Note: Before you comment on this, the mayor did use the space in his last name –La Guardia – but it was apparently never used in the airport name – LaGuardia.)

Both President Roosevelt and Mayor La Guardia got the airport that they wanted.

I think I had flown into LaGuardia with my father in his Culver previously but on November 7, 1944, I landed at both these relatively new WPA/PWA airports. I was ten, on an American DC-3, en route from LaGuardia to Little Rock with my mother to attend the funeral of an uncle. The flight made a stop at Washington as well as at a lot of other places along the way.

LaGuardia Marine Air Terminal
LaGuardia’s iconic Marine Air Terminal was another WPA project.

I didn’t have any strong impression of LaGuardia from that day because I had been there before. We used to ride our bikes there to watch the airplanes and a special treat was to go to the Marine Air Terminal at LGA when Pan Am’s big Sikorsky flying boats were in residence. Washington National was new and different. I can still visualize how that beautiful terminal looked through a window of that DC-3. They have built a new terminal but the old building is still there.

Trivia: As at LGA, the original DCA plan called for a flying boat terminal at the south end of the airport. That was not built and as best I can determine, no flying boat airliners ever operated out of the Potomac River.

There are still some of those old WPA/PWA terminal buildings out there, too. Off the top of my head I can recall ones at Port Columbus, Wichita, Cincinnati and at some airport that I visited in California as well as the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia. One of the neat features of some are propaganda murals of laborers toiling away. I’m sure readers will tell us of more old terminals.

I did not revisit National until I got into the magazine business. My first trip there was in Air Facts’ Skylane on December 9, 1958, over 14 years after my previous and first visit. I remember the airport looking about the same.

From that 1958 flight until I moved to Maryland in 1988, I used DCA a lot. My work at Air Facts (until 1968) required some contact with the bureaucrats. When I moved to FLYING in 1968, the pace quickened and when I became Editor-in-Chief in 1977 even more trips to DCA were required. Most of these trips originated from Mercer County Airport in New Jersey where I based for a lot of that time. The distance from there to DCA is 133.8 nm as the crow flies. I never quite managed to fly like a crow between the two points.

That might well have been an ideal use of private aviation. I could mount my airplane in Jersey and walk into the front door of FAA headquarters an hour and a half (or less) later.

To say that it was a busy hour and a half is quite an understatement. Using DCA was demanding and my short flight there was what you might call action-packed. All of us who used the airport in light airplanes did so with a determination to fit in and not disrupt anything. We honestly felt like too many GA pilot screw-ups could result in Draconian limitations on our use of the airport.

Washington National Airport from air
Washington National packs a lot of runways into a small area.

There was no space for parallel runways at DCA and, as a practical matter, it is a one runway airport for airline jets. Runway 1/19 is now 7,169 feet long. The other two are shorter at 5,204 for 15/33 and 4,911 for 4/22. I have seen airliners use 33 when the wind was howling out of the northwest but you could almost hear the “whoa” cry from the cockpit as the crew reversed and braked.

The runways all crossed and I don’t remember any land-and-hold-short events because if there was room for that anywhere it was marginal. (One commuter airline did have approval for hold-short arrivals in de Havilland Dash 7s on 22.)

DCA is in flat country but the airport might as well have been in a canyon because of the walls of prohibited airspace over downtown Washington. For a long time the only instrument approach was the ILS to Runway 1, which I think used to be 36. To land on 19 the drill was to fly a river visual and that is exactly what it sounds like: follow the Potomac River visually to the runway. This approach involves lead-in lights and last-minute low-level-turns to line up and isn’t for the faint of heart, either in the cockpit or in the passenger cabin. The view, though, is both historic and spectacular.

To the north, the jets can fly the ILS or follow the river to Runway 1.

The controllers at DCA were always sharp and excellent. I think they were the absolute best at getting the most out of the least when the airport was open to all. What they were not was patient. The airport had a beat to it and he who dared interrupt that beat was up for fifty lashes.

When we would show up in our light airplane on a VFR day their challenge was to fit us in without disturbing the constant procession of jets. They did this by “shooting the gap.” That simply meant putting the light airplanes on the two shorter runways, to roll through the intersection with the long runway after one jet had passed and before the next one flared for landing or started a takeoff roll. If you look at the airport diagram and imagine that you can see why it was so necessary for us to do exactly as told, when told.

River Visual chart at DCA
The River Visual approach zigs and zags to avoid restricted airspace and noise-sensitive areas.

As the airspace worked when I first started going to DCA from New Jersey, the VFR drill was to come across Baltimore (BWI) above the airport traffic area, find the Anacostia River, and follow it to DCA. The preferred next step was a straight-in to 21.

That required exceptional timing because all the controller could do for spacing was ask for an increase or reduction in speed. The prohibited areas were just to the north of the river and Andrews AFB was just to the south.

If spacing for that approach got screwed up, the usual procedure was to hold altitude, fly up over 21, and enter a close left downwind for further spacing. An alternative would be a landing on 33.

I always though the windsocks at DCA had lead weights and the anemometers were lubricated with axle grease. Once they got the traffic flows established, it did take a pretty humongous change in wind to interrupt the beat of the airport and go in another direction. That would add substantial delays to any and everything. I remember looking at a windsock before one DCA takeoff and thinking that was going to be one long takeoff roll.

The controllers took it for granted that the pilots flying the light airplanes were big boys, knew what the pedals on the floor were for, and could handle crosswinds. A favorite test on this was in the strong northwest winds of winter. It was easy to get to Runway 3 for departure and if you were headed northeast it would get you out of their hair quickly. A drawback was that you had to taxi right by the rear end of all the jets. The ground controllers would tell them to power back and some would, others wouldn’t. I got blown sideways in my Skylane once, and when I mentioned it, a voice said “If you can’t stand the heat….” That was the only hostility I ever noticed when using the airport.

My P210 was a superb airplane in a crosswind and I departed on Runway 3 with a 90-degree crosswind gusting to 35 knots a lot more than once. One day I did it right behind a Falcon 50 and his takeoff was something to behold. The airplane ran almost to the end of the runway and was then rotated. Because of the variability of such a wind it’s difficult to know what will be encountered but sailing experience helps. It makes you aware that when the wind speed increases it also moves in a clockwise direction.

When the weather was IFR, it usually meant an ILS to Runway 1. Here the controllers had to mix the light airplanes with the jets and the first question they would ask was what speed you could maintain on final. It was not going to be a long final because the plan always seemed to be to keep us from joining final until fairly close to the marker. That way, if there was no gap for us they could wave us off to come back for another try.

I had a procedure in my P210 that I developed just for this approach. I would track the ILS with the airplane clean, indicating 150 or 160 knots. When 1,000 feet above the ground I would power back, put the gear and approach flaps out, and continue tracking. When a few hundred feet high the airspeed would be below the full flaps limit so I’d do that and land. There were a lot of places to turn off about half way down the runway but they were right angle turns so I had to be well slowed to make the turn. I hand flew those approaches and have no idea whether or not an autopilot could have handled such. Over the years I did that a few times to minimums.

Washington National Airport
DCA’s location is hard to beat – just minutes from Capitol Hill and downtown Washington.

In answer to the question about speed on final I would always say I could do 150 knots until 1,000 feet above the ground and then I would have to slow. A couple of times they actually asked me to reduce speed on final for spacing. I always wondered what they would do if a stabilized approach fanatic showed up in a 172 and said he would be at 80 knots on final.

As I was using DCA in the 1960s I often got the feeling that operations there would have to change. There were just VFR days when the place would become chaotic, with the traffic heavier than the controllers should be asked to handle.

The FAA felt like DCA could accommodate 100 operations (takeoffs and landings) per hour in good VFR weather. I heard that the all-time record was 128, or substantially above the limit. It might have worked for one hour but there was no way the airport could sustain that amount of activity without, for lack of better words, a lot of luck.

As this was going on there was a furor over the FAA’s proposed TCAs, or terminal control areas. The TCA proposals were prompted by a rash of collisions between air carrier and general aviation airplanes. The public would hardly sit still for that and the TCA program provided for separation of all traffic around busy airports. Those in general aviation with open minds knew that this had to happen.

The capacity business at busy airports was a different matter. There unlimited access would simply no longer work. They had to have a way to meter traffic when the demand exceeded the supply. This was treated in a method that had nothing to do with the TCA program.

The program was called the high-density airport rule and it became effective on June 1, 1969, at Chicago O’Hare, LaGuardia, Kennedy and National. I always though the airports other than National were window dressing as far as our use went. They might have needed constraints on airline traffic at the other airports but were not desirable airports for us to use, at least not like National. There was little general aviation activity at those other airports.

This metering system would be managed by an airport reservations office (ARO) that would allocate IFR arrival and departure slots on an hourly basis. At National, air carriers got 40, scheduled air taxi (commuter airlines) got 12 and general aviation got 12. That theoretically left 36 for general aviation VFR in good weather and those would be available on a first-come basis. There was no advance reservation for VFR and you couldn’t know whether or not you would be allowed in until calling a flight service station when 30 miles out and asking if VFR would be okay. If so, they would tell you to contact approach control. If not, tough luck. In practice they accepted most VFR inbounds and handled virtually all VFR outbounds though the number of both dropped when the new rule was implemented.

DCA tower
The controllers at DCA are the best of the best, cramming a lot of airplanes into a relatively small airport.

I had business in DC on June 2, the second day of the program, so I called the ARO and got an IFR arrival for the desired time. To get a departure slot on the same call, it had to be within three hours of the approved arrival. The maximum time in advance allowed was 48 hours and for this trip I had to wait a bit and make a second call for a departure slot more than three hours after my arrival.

It worked well and the effect on traffic was plain to see when I parked in our small area near the FBO. That lot was almost always full by 8:30 in the morning and you had to go to overflow parking in the outback. The morning of 6/2/69 it was virtually empty when I got there.

When the high-density rule went into effect, a transponder was required for IFR flights but not for VFR flights.

I used DCA a lot until 1988 when I moved to Maryland and could easily drive to Washington. In the 19 years that I dealt with the ARO I came and went freely and never had a problem getting a reservation in the desired hour or the one next to it.

I actually used a DCA reservation for another purpose one night, in the aftermath of the air traffic controller’s strike. General aviation access to the IFR system was restricted and the acronym was GAR for general aviation reservations.

I have forgotten what the event was but something was going on as I tried to get a GAR IFR slot for a trip from Indianapolis back to Trenton. Nothing was available. Then I remembered that if you had an arrival slot at DCA (or other capacity controlled airport) you didn’t have to have a GAR. It was early evening, a DCA slot was readily available, I took that, filed to DCA, and changed my destination before getting close to DCA. I didn’t feel bad about working the system nor did I feel I had deprived anyone else the use of National because the demand there was not strong at that time of day.

Despite the limitations of the airport, the safety record has been good. The most recent serious accident was the Air Florida crash into the Potomac River on January 13, 1982. The only midair collision was between a Bolivian P-38 and an Eastern DC-4 with 55 lost on the airliner. That happened in November, 1949. I also remember a case of a general aviation pilot becoming so flustered trying to arrive that he flew his airplane into the river.

Like everything we do in our airplanes there are flights that stand out. I’ll share a few from DCA.

On December 11, 1981 a wonderful friend, Dwane Wallace of Cessna, was awarded the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy, the best of all. My son, Richard Jr., and I picked up my father in Asheville, N. C. in my P210 and flew IFR to DCA for the black-tie event. Three generations in one IFR arrival slot with the youngest of the three in the left front seat. I won’t mention the body English that was expended by the other two during the gusty crosswind landing at DCA. My father also questioned the wisdom of me letting a 17-year old fly into DCA.

Another evening I was going to DCA for yet another of those seemingly endless Washington events that I was expected to attend. All gussied up in a tux, I flew there, feeling a little stupid flying an airplane wearing a tuxedo. I arrived at the same time as Arnold Palmer in his Citation III. I remarked that I felt foolish flying in a tux and quickly learned that he had changed into his tux on the flight from Philadelphia. The image of him standing in the aisle of his jet and changing from golf to formal clothes was something I remembered.

In offering a final thought about flights, I’m not doing this to pad my resume.

In the early 1970s I was living in Little Rock, working for FLYING. It was a time when I was ever so slightly politically connected. I even have one of those expensive inauguration invitations to show for it though no good came out of that inauguration.

I was asked to come to Washington to interview for the FAA Administrator job. I knew that would never work but why not go, just for laughs? I correctly assumed that they felt compelled to interview a certain number of people before giving the job to one of their own, Alexander Butterfield in this case. I guess, coming from Little Rock, I was viewed at their token hillbilly interviewee. Butterfield did a far better job than I could have done.

The interview didn’t last too long and the lack of real interest was obvious. I suppose the most fun I got out of it was thinking about how I might be able to contribute to more, better and safer flying as I flew from Little Rock to DCA. Flying back, my thoughts were more along the lines of “Why did I do that?”

My last trip to DCA was on September 6, 1993, and I now invite you to fly along on that trip. Mike Rosing of Sporty’s and I had decided to make a video production of flying IFR to Washington National and it follows. The only substantial change at DCA in the time I used it was a move for general aviation parking from the north to the south end of the field.

Welcome aboard.

This is the latest installment in Richard Collins’s Logbooks series, where he looks back on a lifetime of flying. Read all of the articles in this incredible series here.

8 Comments

  • You triggered some great memories Richard recalling flights into DCA. I probably have a dozen or so DCA trips in my logbook most of them emanating from the upper Midwest states of Wisconsin and Minnesota where I was a sales manager working in a technical business and had established my company’s aviation department with a 1977 model T210 N4818Y.

    You of course were my vicarious mentor during that period and I couldn’t wait to absorb your ongoing articles in FLYING about your experiences and flight safety wisdom flying your P210 around the country – much as I did in the T210 in the pursuit of company business in the lower 48.

    My trips into DCA were usually trade show related and I never forget the headiness involved in flying the company plane, me a hick county boy from Minnesota, into an airport that was the power base center of the USA. The timeframe of those trips was 1985 – 1995 and I had to pinch myself on every trip that I was actually flying into DCA!

    The company grew and in 1981 we graduated into a TBM 700 (SN 29) N700PW based upon my belief in the safety of single engine flight. By then I was VP of Sales & Marketing for a rapidly growing company but the titles I really savored were those of Chief Pilot and Manager of the Aviation Department. My main source of relaxation was always in the cockpit and I averaged around 360 flight hours per year relaxing during that period 1985 – 1995.

    I left that company in 1995 in pursuit of ownership in my own company but took a hiatus when I learned of a very wealthy youngster from Hong Kong who’s father had purchased a TBM 700 for him but no insurance company would sign off on him without several cross country hours in his logbook. He hired me to accompany him as safety pilot and I took over dispatch and maintenance responsibilities of the plane based in the US. He would call me at any hour and ask me to meet him in New Orleans or DCA or SFO or wherever.

    My last trip with him was a flight from Toronto into DCA after clearing through customs in upstate
    NY. It was CAVU midday and he was at the controls as PIC flying VFR. About 10 miles out I could tell that he was way too high and way too fast but he was also way too headstrong and did not like any advice whatsoever from a mere mortal. We were cleared to land on 15 and he proceeded to overfly the runway at a speed too fast so as to make the gear and flaps useless. He then got some terse communication from the tower to circle over the bay, reduce speed and altitude and land on 33. Once on the ground he was “directed” by ground control to taxi to the base of the tower and then “invited” to walk in. When he asked me what I thought that was all about I told him that he better go find out.

    I don’t recall anymore as to how we parted ways shortly thereafter but to my knowledge – that TBM 700 could still be sitting at the base of the DCA tower.

    • My thanks, too, for an article that brought back a warm memory. Back in 1968, I flew my wife and two young boys to DCA in our C172. Parking for the day was all of $5! It was an exciting trip and made me somewhat nervous to line up with DC9s and the like but all went well. The surrounding scenario impressed me but what impressed the boys was the little green bus that took us from our plane to the terminal: one was not allowed to walk on the tarmac!

  • DCA has always been one of my favorite airports and I’m happy to be based out of there now for a major airline. But my best trips in/out of DCA have always been in GA airplanes. Prior to 9/11, I used to fly friends and neighbors on sightseeing trips from my home base at GAI about 20 nm to the northwest, down to DCA and back. We wouldn’t land but we’d get sequenced in with the airliners doing the River Visual and then turn to the northeast up the Anacostia after an awe-inspiring view for my passengers. The controllers were accommodating all but once and had a knack for knowing whether the nut behind the yoke could walk the walk.

    I remember one controller asking me if I could maintain 170 KIAS or better all the way down the river to fit in the flow. I was in a Baron that day and said “sure.” It was a quick sightseeing trip, but it was an experience my passengers would never forget. In fact, one of them reminded me of that trip recently.

    It’s sad that the airport/airspace is effectively closed to light GA airplanes, but I’m thankful that I had the opportunity and utilized it often to payback friends or impress dates at the time.

  • I always enjoyed the Sporty’s videos with Mr. Collins. Seems there’s an infinite number of these type videos on YouTube these days. With every airplane type and geographical location one could want. But back in the day, ordering those VHS cassettes from Sporty’s was special.

  • Richard, thanks for the colorful reminiscence of such an iconic field as DCA. Yes, I remember flying GA into there many years ago – taking off to the north and following the Anacostia River up to Baltimore or Westminster, MD. I fly into there regularly now, but of course, only in part 121 airplanes. The controllers at DCA, in my recollection, have always been some of the best and most aggressive anywhere. One time while approaching runway 15 in a Metro II airliner the traffic situation was questionable. The tower controller had us break off at the last moment to circle for, what was then, runway 18. Again on short final, traffic precluded us from continuing, and he had us break off for a second time to circle to runway 21. We banked steeply left then right and finally got on the ground and shutdown. The last passenger to deplane was a rather burly ex-army ranger. He poked his head into the cockpit and exclaimed with an excited rush: “Wow, man, that was better than Nam…!!” Good memories of DCA.

  • I flew into DCA a number of times over the years, it was never a problem as long as you paid attention and followed the directions you were given promptly and to the letter. And I sure miss the convenience of being close to downtown DC. I also miss the opportunity and the sense of adventure, and the sense of being treated like I was important enough to be landing where the nation’s leadership was landing.

  • Just a ‘quickie’ here Richard. Circa 1960-70 I remember seeing Max Karant’s Aerocoupe parked on the north ramp. Then there was the ‘dance’ I did in our 172 at 10 ft. altitude, landing (I forget which runway) when the left wingtip vorticies of a ‘heavy’, hit the ground and drifted over my ‘flare’ point. Also, the sign at the departure end of 33 calling for a right turn when airborne to avoid “The Pentigon.” Great memories,….jim

  • I Loveeeed this. I have flown into and out of DCA a number of times. The lightest was a Cessna 402C and the heaviest was a B727. The 727 was most memorable because it was considered at the time a “special use airport”. At least one cockpit crewmember had to have flown into the airport before as a cockpit crewmember; as a junior First Officer I qualified. It along with a few other things made me a Rockstar at ATA.

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