Hope in a hopeless time

Aviation thrived because of the Works Progress Administration

January 1, 2010

Two great forces were at work during the tumultuous days of 1930s America. The predominant experience of that decade was, of course, the profound economic depression. But at the same time, the airplane was emerging as a publicly accepted means of transportation. This combination of developments helped create an atmosphere conducive to government investment in aviation infrastructure.

President Franklin Delano Roo-sevelt’s New Deal was a series of initiatives using government funding to create jobs, modernize the nation, reform business practices, and invest in the future. Rather than a single, continuous effort, the New Deal ran in fits and starts, beginning in 1933 with banking reforms. The following year, a “Second New Deal” was begun, and with this stage in policymaking aviation infrastructure was addressed. In 1934, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created, with the goal of building public roads, parks, bridges, buildings—and airports.

The WPA received an initial congressional appropriation of $5 billion, and employed more than 3.5 million people at its peak. The vast majority of the WPA’s efforts went to the creation of public infrastructure—buildings, highways, airports, utilities, and recreational facilities. And the WPA built a lot—well more than 100,000 buildings and 600,000 miles of roads.

The contribution to aviation was impressive—the WPA built more than 250 new airports in its first five years and improved or rebuilt another 300. In total, more than 700 miles of airport runways and 800 airports were built or improved during the WPA’s tenure from 1935 to 1943. The WPA contributed labor and materials for airport construction, primarily focusing on civil-use airports. However, as World War II loomed the focus switched more toward military use of public airports.

But the WPA wasn’t just about building things—it was about drawing, writing, and performing, too. The Federal Art, Writers, and Theatre projects were the WPA’s depression-era contributions to the arts and almost 10,000 paintings, drawings, and sculptured works were produced through the Federal Art Project alone. Much of that art was associated with those newly constructed airport terminal buildings, in the form of murals and architecture with a distinctive art-deco feel that emphasized patriotic themes.

With America’s entry into World War II, many Americans found employment as part of the war effort, and the WPA was no longer needed. Having served its purpose, the WPA officially went out of existence in 1943. An amazing program, the WPA went from nothing in 1935 to employing more than 8 million people, spending $11 billion, and then go back to nothing—all in less than eight years. Along the way it touched many parts of aviation history that we still enjoy today.

North Beach, New York

There was a time that if your ticket said “New York,” you couldn’t actually fly to New York—you had to go to Newark. All New Jersey jokes aside, this didn’t sit well with many New Yorkers, and one feisty New Yorker in particular.

As the story goes, Fiorello LaGuardia, the mayor of New York, allegedly pitched a fit after landing in Newark with a ticket that said “New York.” He demanded to be flown to New York—and what’s even more surprising—the airline actually did it. As a result of his fit, and the ensuing publicity, it was decided that a new airport would be built, and in New York this time.

With funding provided through the WPA, President Roosevelt approved plans for the New York Municipal Airport at North Beach on September 3, 1937. Construction began just six days later, and what would eventually be named La Guardia Field opened in October 1939. At the time, La Guardia was the largest and most expensive airfield.

The Marine Air Terminal was LaGuardia’s original international terminal, and it is a particular treasure, both for its architecture and its art. International in those days meant flying boats, so the airport was uniquely positioned to handle both land and sea operations. The terminal itself is beautiful, although it also is home to the largest mural created during the Federal Arts Program of the WPA. Flight, a 360-degree, 237-foot-long, 12-foot-high mural, told the story of the evolution of flight through the eyes of New York artist James Brooks. Today, the Marine Air Terminal is still in use, home of the Delta Shuttle and an FBO, SheltAir.

Moon Township, Pennsylvania

With the onset of World War II, the WPA was looking for a site to build a military base and settled on a large commercial dairy farm in Moon Township, Pennsylvania. The WPA bought the farm and converted it in to a major training and air base. Toward the end of the war, the military need for the base declined and a commercial passenger terminal was planned to relieve the existing 1920s-era civilian airport closer to town.

When the new facilities opened in 1952, they were the largest in the United States—until surpassed by Idlewild Airport five years later. The existing civilian airport was Allegheny County, and the new airport at Moon Township became Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.

Ontario, California

Ontario (California) International Airport was a field of humble beginnings—a small dirt landing strip used to fly surplus World War I Curtiss JN–4 “Jenny” biplanes. The WPA had planned an expansion of the field by the late 1930s, but with the war approaching, things accelerated and the military acquired the airport. Overnight, the airport doubled in size—changing from a dirt field to a state-of-the-art airport with paved runways, an instrument landing system, and an air traffic control tower. Its primary mission was as a launching point for patrols along the Southern California coast looking for Japanese submarines. And because of the area’s Mediterranean climate and geography, and its visual similarities to the terrain in the campaigns in southern Europe, it was also used as a training base.

Shortly after the war ended in 1945, the airport was given back to the city of Ontario and commercial air service resumed. The airport continued its growth into the major international airport it is today, culminating with a new terminal opening in 1998. The old terminal at Ontario is often used as a film set. It was featured in the movie Catch Me If You Can starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, as well as in the TV series 24, among others.

Douglas Municipal Airport, North Carolina

The WPA built Douglas Municipal Airport, which was the largest project in the state of North Carolina at the time, for less than $500,000. The city got a nice terminal building, a hangar, and three runways when airline service debuted there in 1938. Over the years the airport grew substantially, and even though the original terminal is now gone, two of the three runways are still in use and the Carolina Historic Aviation Commission has turned the hangar into the Carolinas Aviation Museum. It’s located in the northeast corner of the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport between two of the original runways, which now are known as 18L and 23.

Bryce Canyon Airport, Utah

It wasn’t just at high-profile airports where the WPA made a difference. After Bryce Canyon, Utah, became a national park in 1928, the WPA initiated a project to build the Bryce Canyon Airport to encourage tourism in the park. There was also hope that Bryce Canyon would become a regular stop on the Western Air Express airline’s route between Salt Lake and Los Angeles.

It’s been said that government funding wasn’t enough to pay for labor, so the locals provided it. And since the locals had never designed or built a hangar before, they designed what they knew and used mostly native materials, such as ponderosa pine. With its huge timbers and wood construction, the hangar is unique and it looks like it belongs in a national park. Since its completion, it has been used for a variety of civic uses in addition to aviation, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Marc K. Henegar is a commercial airline captain living in Bend, Oregon.

My favorite places

My favorite places to see old photographs at airports are the second floor of the art deco airline terminal in Long Beach, California, and the FBO near my home in Bend, Oregon. Those photos remind me of a simpler, more daring, more romantic time. And a lot of the places in those photos still exist.

Tustin, California, is the home of two of the few remaining blimp hangars in the United States. They were built during World War II and remain standing, even though the former U.S. Marine Corps base they are standing on was decommissioned almost a decade ago.

Years ago, I kept a Mooney 231 in another of those huge, ancient hangars at Chicago Midway Airport—the ones on the south side of the field, with the paint falling off those huge doors after years of neglect. Every time I walked through there I wondered about all of the airplanes, pilots, and mechanics that had been there before me.

I usually spend my flight layovers in Yakutat, Alaska, wandering through the old, wooden hangar there. If not for my current ride—an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 sitting several hundred yards behind me—it could be almost any decade since the 1930s. How often do you get a chance to walk from your airplane through history, all in a 20-minute stop?

Whether it’s a building or a monument at your local airport, walking across the huge tile mosaic of the post-World War II Western Airlines route system on the terminal floor at Salt Lake City, or gazing at the flight mural in the Marine Air Terminal building at La Guardia Airport in New York, this aviation history is waiting for you.—MKH