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Evolution of the first airports

If the first powered airplane was the Wright Flyer, then the first runway was the short wooden rail that the Wright brothers laid down in the sands of Kitty Hawk in December 1903, pointed directly into the wind. No crosswind takeoffs or landings for these brothers.

If the first powered airplane was the Wright Flyer, then the first runway was the short wooden rail that the Wright brothers laid down in the sands of Kitty Hawk in December 1903, pointed directly into the wind. No crosswind takeoffs or landings for these brothers.

The very first airport sprang up in Huffman Prairie, a few miles outside of the brothers' home in Dayton, Ohio, a year later. The second Flyer, the 1904 Flyer, shared it with cows and, like in Kitty Hawk, the Wrights changed the rail runway's direction to take full advantage of the wind. They erected a building out there to store their flying machine, the world's first hangar, or FBO, if you want to call it that.

The brothers were nothing if not cautious, so they never left the confines of Huffman's acreage. They never flew cross-country, so they never had to navigate from one field to another — never had to find a strange destination, line up with an unfamiliar runway, perform a crosswind landing, taxi up to one of the local FBOs for a tiedown and fuel, and chew on an indigestible hamburger on a hardened untoasted Wonder Bread bun that, including greasy fries, drink, tip, and fuel, cost around $110.95.

But soon enough someone did fly cross-country: Henri Farman, who in 1908 departed Châlons, France, and rode his shaking biplane 17 miles to Reims, where he set down on the local cavalry parade grounds. It was the perfect place: a wide, open grass field, where these early, brakeless kites could land and drag themselves to a halt with their tailskids. Since the first cross-country flight was in France, it only made sense that the first airport would spring up there too: the Port-Aviation outside of Paris. It was a circular field, of course, but it also had grandstand seating for 7,000 spectators.

During World War I, most combat airfields were grass fields chosen for their strategic value. After the war and at the beginning of airmail service, American pilots needed permanent places to land, says Janet Bednarek, a professor of history at the University of Dayton and author of America's Airports: Airfield Development, 1918-1947 (published by Texas A&M University Press, 2001).

In the United States the first permanent airports were a result of airmail routes, which the pilots flew day and night in all weather. "Relatively early on the post office would want the fields to be lit," Bednarek says. For night landings two schools of thought emerged. The first was that airplanes should carry landing lights; the second was that the field itself should be bathed in floodlights. Those who supported the latter argued that packing all those headlights on an airplane would weigh it down and reduce its mail-carrying capacity; those who wanted the former declared that floodlights would blind pilots. In the end both sides struck a compromise. Airplanes were equipped with landing lights, and airports were slathered with floodlights. "One of the biggest expenses they had was for the lighting," Bednarek adds.

But there was no standardization. During the early 1920s the U.S. government advised aviators to mark their fields with a 50- to 100-foot-diameter gravel circle with a windsock and paint the name of the nearest town on the top of the nearest building, be it a hangar, barn, or farmhouse. One such field was Wold-Chamberlain Field, near Minneapolis. The field itself was circular, so pilots could take off and land into the wind. But advice was about as much as the government supplied. "They pretty much left that to local officials," Bednarek explains. "Local airports were built by private groups: chambers of commerce, the local chapter of the aero club."

When airmail service expanded into airlines, airport managers had to let go of the grass. "If you're going to have commercial airline traffic day and night in all weather, even though a DC-3 can operate off a 2,000-foot grass strip it becomes problematic when it rains and snows," says the professor. The first concrete was poured in 1927 at Henry Ford Airport in Dearborn, Michigan. And as grass gave way to concrete, manufacturers let go of tailskids. Not only did wheels allow airplanes to maneuver on the ground, but also they kicked up fewer sparks than a skid dragging on a hard surface.

In 1929 the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce, forerunner to the FAA, advised that each clean, well-lit airport should have a beacon light, runway lights, signaling lights, obstruction lights, building lights, a light on the wind-direction indicator, and a floodlight pointed heavenward to mark the ceiling.

Consider Everett Taylor Field, in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Inbound pilots were guided by a smoke beacon, rising from a 150-foot-diameter stone circle in the center of the field, the smoke plume also advising the pilots of the wind direction. They could land on any one of eight crisscrossing runways, measuring from 2,640 to 3,400 feet long. A row of green lights marked each threshold. Mounted on top of the roof of the main building was a tiny airplane, pointing in the direction of the wind. That airplane also controlled lights on an eight-point star, one for each runway, to indicate which one was active.

But what of airports in the big city? In the early days engineers considered placing them downtown, on the top of big buildings such as post offices or maybe train depots. For one rooftop runway proposed on the west side of Manhattan, engineers considered using catapults and arrestor gear — turning a few square blocks of the neighborhood into an aircraft carrier.

"There was one concept for a runway placed between two tall buildings, made of glass," says Bednarek. "If you built it between the two buildings, someone noted at the time, you didn't want to block light and air." And there were proposals to build runways on top of bridges. "Imagine the Brooklyn Bridge with a runway between the two big towers," she says.

Even into the late 1920s air-minded folks were considering building airports above railroad tracks to link the two forms of transportation. Ultimately they settled on building them on the edge of town: Close to Roosevelt Field, the grass field Charles Lindbergh flew from for his historic flight in 1927, they built New York's Floyd Bennett Field, all concrete, and the starting and stopping point for record flights by the likes of Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes.

When the Great Depression hit and around a quarter of all Americans lost their jobs, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began creating an alphabet's worth of agencies designed to give people work instead of a handout. One of those, the WPA, or Works Progress Administration, took up projects that were light on materials but heavy on manpower: building roads, bridges, dams, and, yes, even airports. By the end of the decade the WPA built almost 1,000 airports, constructed more than 1,500 airport buildings, and installed tens of thousands of runway lights. And unlike most of the previous airports, all of the WPA airports were publicly owned.

How can you tell if your local field was a WPA project? Is the main building in Art Deco style? Was it built in the mid-1930s? Can you see slabs of ancient concrete underneath displaced threshold markings? And most important, is there a dedication plaque identifying it as a WPA project?

Still, not everyone had quite given up on multidirectional landing instead of fixed runways. "Cleveland Hopkins [airport] had a huge concrete apron that had multidirectional landings into the late '30s," explains Bednarek. And that was probably the last. Sometimes a runway ended up too close to the road, so a traffic light was installed to halt traffic for an airplane on takeoff or departure. In a similar vein, with radios still a rarity in airplanes, airport managers put up traffic lights to manage taxiing aircraft. There is no record of any collisions from one pilot running a red light, or speeding up to blast through the yellow before it changed.

Meanwhile, most of the rest of the world seemed to be degenerating into war: Japan invaded China, Italy invaded Ethiopia, and Germany annexed a few countries in Eastern Europe and invaded France. Faced with an isolationist nation, but desperately needing to prepare for war fought at best abroad and at worst here, Roosevelt had the WPA build more and bigger airports along the coasts, especially in the Northeast. Now not only were all these airports publicly owned, but also they were built to military specification. Just in case. For the first time all the lights were standardized, all beacons rotated and flashed uniform colors, and all the runways bore the magnetic bearing in large black figures.

And that's how the modern airport was born.

OK, back to the beginning. We know that Huffman Prairie was the first airport in America, but which was the second?

"You will find any number of airports in America with claims to first. The first reference I saw was in Atlantic City [New Jersey] — 1917 or 1918 — but Tucson, Arizona, was very early also," according to the professor. "The Air Service was looking for landing fields after the war. It needed them to train pilots, but didn't have the money to build them." But Tucson recognized the economic benefit of having an airport: namely jobs. "The Air Service blanketed the nation with telegrams," she says, "and Tucson was the first to respond. That was in 1918." So now you know.

Phil Scott is a freelance writer and pilot living in New York City.

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