During each flyover I looked down and was intrigued by the setting: a compact towered airport with two intersecting runways set atop a hill overlooking downtown Wheeling, the Ohio River that runs through it, and the monster smokestacks at the Cardinal power plant emitting a plume of steam 2,000 feet high.
I finally added it to my flight plan one glorious fall morning and thoroughly enjoyed the approach, with steep terrain rising to meet the runway threshold. An incredibly cheerful controller directed me to the FBO.
While fueling my airplane, a lineman casually mentioned that I should check out the museum in the terminal building—and I’m glad I did. Somewhat imposing from the outside, the terminal building shines with Art Deco brilliance on the inside. Stunned by the beauty and artful placement of the artifacts before me, I was no longer in a rush to depart. This place pulled me into the fascinating aviation history of Wheeling.
A sign near the building’s entrance reads, “The Ohio County Airport Terminal Building opened in 1946 and continues to serve the need of aviators & passengers. Many Presidents, famous entertainers, world renown dignitaries, and our nation’s most successful executives have found comfort with its walls…but None more important than you…Welcome.”
The famous include John F. Kennedy and wife Jackie Kennedy—the chairs they sat on that day still present. Dwight Eisenhower met Richard Nixon here in 1952 to discuss their presidential campaign strategy.
Less known, but no less significant for the future of general aviation, the stories of two early female pilots are told. In 1927, aviatrix Ruth Eider, flying with co-pilot George Haldeman, attempted to become the first woman to fly from New York to Paris nonstop in an airplane sponsored by Wheeling businessmen. The attempt failed mid-crossing, but Eider was rescued and received as a heroine. In 1938, Wheeling native Joan Stifel was taught to fly by famous instructors Max Constert and Tex Rankin. She became so well known as an accomplished and adventurous pilot, the Ohio County Airport was initially called Stifel Field.
There is much more to see in this gem of a terminal building, waiting patiently for you on a hill in northern West Virginia. It’s worth the trip to spend a few hours soaking in the history of the building, the city of Wheeling, and the early days of aviation in America.
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