Eighty Years at College Park

Jan. 1, 1990
Trivia question for the aviation history buff: What airport has been in continuous operation longer than any other in the world?

The answer: College Park Airport, Md., 3.5 miles northeast of the city limits of Washington, D. C. The airport’s eightieth anniversary was marked by an “airfair” last September.

One of the specifications in the contract for the purchase of the Army’s first airplane was that the Wright brothers would teach two officers how to fly it. The commander at Fort Myer, Va., where Orville Wright had successfully demonstrated the Flyer on the post’s small parade ground in 1909, asked the Wrights to take their “aeroplane” and fly it elsewhere. They were glad to do so.

Lt. Frank P. Lahm, a balloonist assigned to the US Cavalry, selected the College Park site near the Maryland Agricultural College shortly after the Wright tests were completed. He made an aerial survey in a balloon, followed by an inspection on horseback.

Lieutenant Lahm and Lt. Frederic E. Humphreys, an engineer, were the two officers selected for flight training. Without extra cost, the Wrights included Lt. Benjamin D. Foulois, the only one of the trio assigned to the Signal Corps. He had been the passenger on the required cross-country demonstration flight in 1909.

Wilbur Wright made the first dual-instruction flights at College Park with Lieutenants Lahm and Humphreys on October 8, 1909. The next day, Wilbur flashed around a closed circuit 500-meter course at a dazzling forty-six mph for a new world speed record.

Lieutenants Lahm and Humphreys both soloed on October 26, with Lieutenant Humphreys having the honor of being the first Army officer to do so. The Flyer crashed on November 3,1909, during the first flight they made together. Lieutenant Foulois, who had not yet soloed, was ordered by the Chief Signal Officer to take the wreckage to San Antonio “and teach yourself to fly.”

A Parade of “Firsts”

The airport boasts several other aviation “firsts.” Mrs. Ralph H. Van Deman became the first woman airplane passenger in the US when she flew there with Orville Wright on October 27, 1909. The field became the first military air base in this country when the Signal Corps Aviation School was officially opened in 1911. The first use of field lights took place there on November 17, 1911, when Lt. Thomas DeWitt Milling made several night landings on an area illuminated by two acetylene searchlights. The first “mass cross-country flight” of three planes originated there on May 6, 1912, as did the first “long distance flight” (forty-two miles).

The airport is also the site where the first bombs were dropped from an aircraft using a bombsight. Riley E. Scott, a former officer in the Coast Artillery Corps, had invented a sixty-four-pound bombsight in 1911. Mr. Scott, lying prone on the lower wing of a Wright Type B airplane piloted by Lieutenant Milling, dropped two eighteen-pound bombs from 400 feet. They landed within ten feet of a four-foot by five-foot target.

Lt. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold flew to 4,764 feet at College Park on January 25, 1912; it took him fifty-nine minutes to complete the climb. He passed the one-mile height on June 1, 1912, and soared to a new world record of 6,540 feet.

Although the flight school was moved to Augusta, Ga., in anticipation of winter weather in November 1911, it returned to College Park the following spring. On June 7, 1912, Col. Isaac N. Lewis, inventor of the famous Lewis machine gun, fired the first aerial shots at a strip of cheesecloth six feet square and scored five hits in the short time he was over the target. His handheld weapon had no gunsights and fired at 500 rounds a minute. Early aircraft radio experiments were also carried out at College Park in 1912.

Rex Smith, a local inventor and attorney, flew airplanes of his own design there from 1910 until 1916. His first successful flight took place on November 20, 1910. The airport has been open to civilian aviators ever since.

On the Historical Register

On August 12, 1918, after Army Air Service pilots had proven the feasibility of scheduled airmail while operating from the polo field in Washington during the previous three months, College Park Airport became the Washington terminus for the Washington-Philadelphia-New York airmail route operated by the Post Office Department [see “The Day the Airmail Started,” December 1989 issue, p. 98].

In 1920, College Park was the site of experimental helicopter flights by Emile Berliner. On February 23, 1924, his son Henry made what locals claim to be the “first successful controlled flight by a helicopter.”

From 1927 through 1935, the airport was the site of experiments with blind-landing equipment and navigation aids conducted by the US Bureau of Standards. Now a general-aviation airport occupying forty acres of its original 160, the airport was purchased by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in 1973.

In 1977, the airport was added to the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its significance and continuous use as an airport “from the dawn of motor-powered flight to the modern era.” There are seventy-six small general-aviation aircraft based there now; twenty-five others use it regularly as transients. The Federal Aviation Administration has allocated $600,000 for airport improvements now under way.

The list of aviation “firsts” for College Park Airport might include one more: The top four management-level supervisors on the twenty-one-person staff are women.

C. V. Glines is a regular contributor to this magazine. A retired Air Force colonel, he is a free-lance writer; a magazine editor; and the author of numerous books. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine was “The Day the Airmail Started” in the December 1989 issue.