Dearborn airport
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This article is taken from Phil Scott’s new book Then and Now: How Airplanes Got This Way, available now from Sporty’s Pilot Shop. -Ed.

When the Wright brothers finally had a flying machine that could take off and fly under complete control, they still had no place to fly it from. So, being cautious men, they flew in circles. They flew in circles above their secluded test site at Huffman Prairie outside of Dayton, Ohio, they flew in circles above the heads of the U.S. Army and Congress at the parade grounds of Fort Meyers, Virginia, they flew in circles at Le Mans race track while demonstrating their machine for the French. They flew mile after mile in their miraculous machine—astonishing a world that had believed human flight impossible—yet the Wrights never seemed to go anywhere.

Huffman Prairie Flying Field

Huffman Prairie Flying Field hardly deserved the name airport.

Still, the brothers’ trailblazing machine outperformed the wave of flying machines that followed. And France—home of those groundbreaking aerial scientists, the balloon-building Montgolfier brothers—took the Wrights’ success personally. Not having their thorough understanding of lateral control, French aviators needed to capitalize on their machines’ ability to fly straight (and nearly level) if they wanted to take some of the aeronautical glory away from the United States.

And so it was that in late October 1908 Henri Farman took off from Chalons, France, in his aileron-less Voisin biplane. Navigating with little more than national pride and a good eye for church spires, Farman flew at an altitude of around 150 feet for 17 miles to the cathedral city of Reims, where he landed on the cavalry parade grounds. It was the world’s first cross-country flight.

After that success more cross-countries followed, with the aviator inevitably winning some cash for his trouble. After a while so many pilots were flying to relatively faraway places that it just didn’t pay to recognize them. Nonetheless, the aviator was inevitably greeted with the same nagging problem: Once they got to where they were going, there was no proper place to land, no place to store their airplane, and no place to buy a rancid cup of coffee.

Permanent airfields began to spring up, but they tended to lay in the aviator’s backyard or very near it, the grassy farmland where the pioneer pilots – Farman, Louis Bleriot, Glenn Curtiss, the Wright brothers – chose to locate their training schools. Physically the fields tended toward level, naturally, and they were broad with no clearly defined runways. Since early airplanes were as frail as kites, there were no such things as crosswind takeoffs or landings; for each such event the airplane’s nose had to point directly into the wind. At the same time no field could be paved with anything other than grass. The early machines had no brakes, so they slowed themselves by dragging a tailskid through the turf.

Port-aviation airport

The world’s first real airport, Port-aviation outside Paris, even had a grandstand.

Before the war, the first official public airfield opened outside of Paris. Called Port-Aviation, the circular field had grandstand seating for 7,000 spectators. While airplanes might travel to faraway places, they couldn’t take passengers, but just watching them fly was enough for most people. Otherwise airplanes had no place to go except maybe the local racetrack or broadest lawn. When the popular English aviator Claude Grahame-White called on President Taft in 1912, he landed his Farman airplane right in front
of the White House. And he wasn’t even wrestled to the ground by the Secret Service.

World War I made up for the dearth of landing spots. Most were ad hoc circles with tents erected on the borders. The war also made up for the dearth of pilots and airplanes: Where before just a few hundred pilots had flown individually crafted machines, the war trained thousands of pilots to fly, while thousands of airplanes were manufactured. Postwar, airplanes that never made it to the battlefield—which included nearly all the De Havilland DH-4s and Curtiss Jennys manufactured in the States—were sold as surplus for a few hundred bucks apiece. Mostly, these airplanes could be converted for joy riding, mail carrying, and passenger hopping. Everywhere that was anywhere needed an airfield right now. By the time Charles Lindbergh reached Paris Le Bourget from New York’s largest airport, Roosevelt Field, there were 207 municipal fields and 163 commercial and private airports in the States. Of those, 124 were lighted and marked. But according to a contemporary issue of Popular Aviation, Flying Magazine’s predecessor, the U.S. Department of Commerce had on record some “3,000 unimproved fields, such as pastures or similar areas…on which landings and takeoffs can be made.” While President Calvin Coolidge officially encouraged every community to have an airfield, though he added that save for “the facilities of experience and advice,” the Government would provide no further aid.

As for that advice, the Government recommended that, to distinguish their fields from those meant for livestock, aviators marked the middle of each airfield with a 50- to 100-foot-diameter circle of white gravel. At the circle’s center they should place a windsock, “purchased from any dealer of aircraft supplies, or…made by any person of normal intelligence,” according to Popular Aviation. The magazine also said that the name of the nearest town should be painted atop a hangar or nearby barn, adding that in this case neatness didn’t count, since “altitude covers many sins.”

But Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic feat captured the public imagination, and resulted in booming airport construction. A year after his flight, the number of lighted fields more than doubled to 262. Since there were few regulations, what passed for “lighted” could be dubious indeed. Folks initially tried floodlights, which tended to blind pilots. By 1929 the Bureau of Aeronautics now suggested that the well-lighted airport needed a beacon, landing strip marker lights, boundary lights, an illuminated wind-direction indicator, signaling lights, obstruction lights, building floodlights, floodlights in general, and a ceiling projector light. If it didn’t glow brighter than Times Square on New Year’s Eve, the field was too dark to use.

Around the same time a debate brewed over landing lights on airplanes. One side argued that with such glow-in-the-dark fields, airplanes should be spared from the weight and drag of onboard lights. The opposing camp maintained that with landing lights an airplane could touch down at any of the thousands of unlit fields. “No definite trend of opinion toward one or the other has been noted,” said Popular Aviation.

Dearborn airport

Henry Ford’s airport was the first truly modern airport, with paved runways.

While airports everywhere were still grass, Henry Ford made a bold transformation at his Detroit airport. To accommodate his new fleet of large and rather weighty Ford Trimotors that could handle a crosswind, Henry paved the runways with concrete. Now airport design was no longer the bailiwick of barnstormers, but the realm of engineers. And what designs these new engineers gave us. In Chicago, its four public fields making it the largest aircraft operating center, engineers unveiled plans for a six-story post office with an airport atop its 320-by-800-foot roof. And then an overhead airport was proposed for New York City’s Upper West Side, possibly using arrestor gear and catapults. Engineers also envisioned that there would soon be vast airports, “ultramodern in keeping with the modern airplane,” with concrete runways, steel-frame buildings, unobstructed fields, and “an underground central establishment…reached by subways and tubes leading directly from the business and hotel centers of the city.” A writer went on to add that “Archaeologists of 3000 A.D. will look upon [the airport terminal] and say, ‘This architecture was created around a new problem, the air problem of 1929. It is truly a real contribution to the history of architecture.’”

A bigger problem waited in the wings: The Great Depression. When the stock market crashed, there were 1,510 operational airfields, with an additional 1,234 in the works. Most were still little more than grass strips, but construction of the new fields and improvements to old ones ground to a halt, along with the rest of the economy. “How in the name of Confucius can flying develop satisfactorily with so few places to go?” a pilot groaned. He had a point: By 1934 there was only one airport for every 1,472 square miles of U.S. real estate, and only one lighted field for every 4,303 square miles. Building a lighted field cost $20,000, and an unlighted one went for $12,000. Meanwhile unemployment hovered at around 25 percent. If there was a private investor, he usually decided to put his spare cash into mattresses.

While the Depression stalled the birth of airfields, airport technology pushed the outside of the envelope. Everett Taylor Field at Ponca City, Oklahoma, boasted one of the most modern airports of the early 30s. Pilots flew inbound guided by a column of smoke emanating from the 150-foot-diameter stone circle placed at the field’s center, and had their choice of eight criss-crossing runways ranging from 2,640 feet to 3,400 feet long. Each had a set of green lights marking their thresholds. A miniature airplane mounted on the roof of the main terminal indicated the wind direction. The tiny airplane also controlled lights on an eight-point star, which represented the eight runways.

At Washington Hoover Airport in Washington, D.C., engineers had great success controlling taxiing airplanes with stoplights like the ones used on city streets. A few years later workers installed another traffic signal “to prevent collisions between automobiles on the highway and planes landing at the airport.” The signal flashed “a red eye to automobile traffic until the plane is on its way,” a contemporary magazine reported. The article didn’t go into what punishment drivers could expect by trying to beat the light.

LaGuardia airport

Many WPA airports, like New York LaGuardia, featured beautiful Art Deco terminals.

Before air traffic could develop further, something had to be done about the nation’s airport infrastructure. The solution turned out to be the very thing that stymied airport growth: the Depression. To halt the economy’s downward spiral, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to get a regular paycheck into the hands of unemployed workers to kick-start the economy, without compromising their work ethic or destroying their pride with welfare. His solution, enacted by Congress in 1935, was the Works Progress Administration. WPA administrator Harry Hopkins immediately set out to find thousands of labor-intensive, material-lean projects. Since the aviation industry was stagnant, Hopkins began a massive project to build or improve nearly every one of the nation’s airports. If a community had unemployed workers but no airport, it received a brand-new, modern airport. If a community had unemployed workers and a grass strip, it received a paved airport.

Though figures are vague, tens of thousands of WPA workers built or improved nearly 1,000 airports in the last half of the 1930s. They fabricated more than 1,500 airport buildings, erected more than 10,500 airway marker beacons, and planted field lighting standards and boundary lights by the thousands. In total the WPA spent more than $150 million in wages and materials—mostly wages—on the airport improvement program. That was so much money that conservative Congressmen labeled it a blatant boondoggle. “Why else would anyone waste so much money on such frivolous projects as small- and medium-size airports when no one flew anyway?” one asked. And so in 1938 Congress voted to halt funding and closed down the WPA.

Yet a year later it returned with a new name and the same initials: The Work Projects Administration, continuing its slightly surreptitious purpose. With Germany, Italy and Japan annexing or invading every country in their neighborhoods, Roosevelt knew that another global war was in the offing—and it would be an air war. Hobbled by an isolationist Congress, Roosevelt couldn’t spend money on defense projects like sorely needed military air bases. Instead the WPA built $110 million worth of “frontier air defense bases.” Though the official story was that they were simply more airports, one writer said that “Every airport touched by WPA’s shovel leaners is publicly owned and will be available should a national emergency arise.” Hint, hint.

That emergency did arise, and fortunately American pilots could rise to meet it, training on a fully developed airport infrastructure—standardized right down to the magnetic bearings painted on the end of each runway. As promised, after the war they were returned to the communities they were supposed to serve, and today they have evolved into everything to hometown strips to regional and national airports, to remote ghost strips slowly being consumed by prairie grass and sand.

Though airports have been around for more than a century, some trends seem to have taken hold. Traffic lights on runways have lost, while landing lights on airplanes have won. Thanks to the WPA, most American airports are publicly owned, paved, lighted, and have magnetic bearings painted on either end of the runway.

Smoke beacons gave way to radio beacons, though circles and windsocks still mark the center of our airfields. And while archaeologists have not yet needed to excavate the “underground central establishment” prevalent in airport design, a team has set up camp on the Wright brothers field at Huffman Prairie. With a little luck, they may teach us something more about the development of modern airports.

3 replies
  1. David
    David says:

    This is a great piece.

    Although perhaps we wish we had gone the way of traffic lights, given the issue with runway incursions lately.

  2. Warren Smith
    Warren Smith says:

    I like the piece. It brought back many memories of the dozen +/- civil airports around San Diego in the 1930’s [There are now just four I think.] The WPA was active there also contributing many parts of the infrastructure, some of which exist today. – Warren

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