The Significance of College Park Airport in Maryland

Only one airport can claim the title of the “world’s oldest, continuously-operating” one. That title belongs to College Park Airport, located in Maryland, some 25 miles from the state’s major facility, Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

College Park’s own origins can be directly traced to the Wright Brothers. Although their sustained, controlled, and powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, as well documented, had occurred in 1903, it had not been until 1908, when their attempt to interest the Europeans in their design had generated sufficient interest in it in their own country. The Wright Model A Military Flyer, one of three aircraft submitted to fulfill the US Army Aeronautical Division’s requirements for “a motorized, heavier-than-air flying machine and the training of two pilots,” had first flown from nearby Ft. Myer, Virginia, later that year, but its perilous fate had led to the injury of Orville Wright and the death of its passenger.

The reconstructed aircraft, demonstrating its capabilities during a one-hour flight, had met all specifications: a capacity of two, a 40-mph airspeed, and a 125-mile range, and the design had been handed over to the Army on August 2, 1909. What remained, however, had been the yet-unfilled requirement to train two officers to fly it.

The Ft. Myer site, hitherto location of all test flights, had proven too constrained and had often been surrounded by curious onlookers, and a larger area had clearly been needed. Its replacement, 160 acres of flat land in nearby Maryland, had subsequently been chartered as an airfield after Army Signal Corps Lieutenant Frank Lahm had spotted it from a balloon. The parcel, located near the new Maryland Agricultural College, had been train- and trolley-accessible, yet remote enough to discourage significant numbers of public viewers. It became College Park Airport.

After having been cleared of several trees in October, a small hangar and a launching track to facilitate the wheel-devoid Military Flyer had been constructed, while the actual aircraft had been transported, in a disassembled state, to the new location.

Flight training of Lieutenants Frank P. Lahm and Frederick Humphreys, which began on October 8, resulted in both successfully soloing in little more than three hours, but the latter, achieving the feat first, became both the world’s first military officer to become a pilot and the first to fly a government aircraft in the process. Both were subsequently reassigned within the Army.

Two other “firsts” occurred that year: Mrs. Ralph H. Van Daman became the first woman in the US to fly as a passenger and Lieutenant George Sweet became the first naval officer to fly when he did so with Lahm on November 3.

A hangar, housing the Wright Brothers and ten enlisted men, had served as living quarters during fight instruction.

Rex Smith, an inventor and patent attorney, can be credited with sparking civilian aviation at College Park when he had established the Rex Smith Aeroplane Company and the National Aviation and Washington Aviation Companies had later provided aircraft services and support.

The Wright Model B, succeeding the initial “A” version in 1910 and integral to this operation, had been a two-person, open-cockpit design constructed of West Virginia white spruce whose aluminum powder coating had given it a metallic look. Its dual wings, like those of the original 1903 Wright Flyer of Kitty Hawk fame, had been fabric-covered and bank-induced not by the later-standard ailerons, but instead by the Wright-designed wing-warping method. Powered by a 30-35 hp, four-cylinder, water-cooled Wright engine which drove twin, 8.6-foot, counter-rotating propellers at 428 rpm, the 950-pound aircraft could become airborne at an almost stationary 27 mph and could attain a maximum speed of 40 mph with its long, 38.6-foot wingspan. A dual rudder and equally warped elevator comprised its tail.

An initial deficiency of providing only a single, wing-warping and rudder control lever between the pilots, yet two elevator actuators, had been remedied two years later with the installation of a second wing-warping and rudder control, thus ending the right- and left-seat pilot phenomenon. The type conducted both training and experimental flights. Along with a Wright-Burgess and two Curtiss Pushers, it had formed the aviation school’s initial flight training fleet.

In all, Wilbur Wright had made 55 flights from College Park in 1909, the fastest of which had been at a record-setting 46 mph.

Although the Wrights had left College Park in November of 1909 after their contract had been fulfilled and they had relocated their training school to Ft. Sam in Houston, the seeds planted by the first two Signal Corps pilots had blossomed into a full-fledged military aviation training facility in 1911 when the Army, receiving a Congressional appropriation for Army Aeronautics, had leased 100 more acres of land, constructed additional hangars, and ordered more aircraft, establishing the first Army Aviation School. Indeed, the initial Wright hangar had multiplied into seven, along with a headquarters building and a medical and a mess tent at this time.

Aviation’s foundation continued to be laid that year. The first test of an aircraft bombsight, for instance, had occurred, while College Park had become both the origin of the first cross-country flight and the first military cross country, a 42-mile sector to Frederick, Maryland, in a Burgess-Wright airplane. The first member of Congress had been flown by the US Army and the first aerial photographs had been taken of the airfield at 600-, 1,500-, and 2,000-foot altitudes.

The Bleriot XI, a single-engine, fabric-covered monoplane designed and built in France and named after designer Louis Bleriot, had joined the Curtiss and Wright aircraft at College Park’s National Aeroplane Company in 1911. Powered by a 70-hp Gnome rotary engine, the 661-pound, pilot-only design, with a 25.7-foot “twistable” wingspan, had been the first heavier-than-air airplane to cross the English Channel from Calais to Dover more than a century previously on July 25, 1909 and had served as the basic configuration upon which all current-day aircraft had been based. Its (then) novel, single-wing arrangement, however, had been the reason for the Army’s rejection of the type over the standard biplane configuration after pilots from New York’s Moisant School had demonstrated it to them in Maryland at College Park. Nevertheless, the National Aeroplane Company became the type’s authorized agent for sales in the Washington area.

Aviation “firsts” continued to be notched up in 1912. A “Military Aviator” pilot rating, for example, had been introduced; the first aircraft-installed machine gun had been tested; Lieutenant Hap Arnold had made the first mile-high flight; and, sadly, the first death of a military enlisted man, Corporal Frank S. Scott of the US Army, had occurred.

Civil aviation had increasingly usurped its military counterpart until it had altogether replaced it in 1913 when the Army had relocated to North Island in San Diego as a result of its lease expiration in June. The Rex Smith Aeroplane Company, which had already established its presence there, had designed its own aircraft, and the National Aviation Company had repaired and provided flight instruction in Bleriot, Curtiss, and Wright designs. The Washington Aeroplane Company had built the Columbia Mono- and Bi-Planes during this time.

College Park Airport entered a new chapter in 1918 when the US Post Office had selected it as the location of its first airmail service after a three-month trial from Potomac Park in Washington to Philadelphia and Belmont Park in Long Island, New York. Operated by a Curtiss JN-4H Jenny on August 12, and flown by Max Miller, it had successfully carried the mail to New York.

The Jenny, the workhorse of the US airmail fleet, had a 27.4-foot overall length and a 43.8-foot wingspan. The two-place biplane, powered by an OX-5, liquid-cooled engine, had a 1,430-pound empty weight, but could carry a useful load of 490 pounds, comprised of the pilot in the rear seat and the mail itself in the front. Maximum speed had been 75 mph.

An airmail hangar and compass rose had been constructed in 1919 and 12 aircraft had formed the airmail fleet before the service had been transferred to the transcontinental route from New York in 1921.

Another chapter in College Park’s history had been written in 1924 when the father-and-son team of Emile and Henry Berliner, sponsors of the already-established Washington Aeroplane Company, had conducted the world’s first controlled vertical helicopter flight on February 24 before media and US Navy officials. The Berliner helicopter, employing an 18-foot-long Nieuport 23 fuselage, had featured a 38-foot wingspan in triplane configuration from whose leading and trailing edges shutter-like vanes had horizontally protruded and atop which two 13-foot diameter counter-rotating rotors driven by a 220-hp BR-2 Bentley engine had been installed. The single-seat, 641-pound design rested on a quad-wheeled undercarriage.

Rising to 15 feet, the helicopter had maintained a 40-mph airspeed and a 150-foot maneuvering radius, traveling some 200 yards, although the experimental flight had revealed a power deficiency and inadequate lateral control. Nevertheless, it had led to advancements which had been later incorporated in Igor Sikorsky’s own vertical design of 1940.

College Park Airport had not only been instrumental in vertical flight, but also in blind flight. Between 1927 and 1934, the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) had tested and developed radio navigation aids to facilitate zero-visibility flying with hooded biplanes. Jimmy Doolittle, making the first blind landing at Mitchell Field, Long Island, on September 24, 1929, had paved the way for the first such operation at College Park on September 5, 1931, while the first instrument flight, from origin to destination, had been conducted in 1934 between College Park and Newark. The Washington Institute of Technology, taking over the development program, had been able to lay the foundation for today’s instrument landing system (ILS).

Also in 1927, management of the airfield had been handed off to George Brinckerhoff, who had been instrumental in taking it into the Golden Age of Aviation by conducting extensive pilot training and staging frequent air shows, the latter of which, particularly, had introduced the public to aerial flight.

One of the most frequently featured aircraft during these shows had been the Monocoupe 110. Powered by a 145-hp Super Scarab piston engine, the high-wing, 1,611-pound aircraft, with a 20.8-foot overall length and 32-foot wingspan, had been fast, efficient, and aerodynamically sleek for its day and could attain 120- to 148-mph speeds. It had often won speed records at College Park races and air meets.

The two-place, tandem-arranged Taylor J-2 Cub, introduced four years later in 1936, had also been instrumental during this period. The docile, high-wing trainer, with a 22.5-foot overall length and 35.2-foot span, had had a 970-pound gross weight and could attain 87-mph speeds with its single, 40-hp Continental A-40 engine. Used by Brinckerhoff for flight training during a 30-year period, the type had become the quintessential private pilot trainer at general aviation airports throughout the country.

Another prevalent trainer, introduced three years later and featuring improved capability, had been the Taylorcraft CL-65. Unlike the tandem seating configuration of the J-2, the side-by-side arrangement had facilitated dual instruction. The high-wing, tail wheel aircraft, with a 22-foot overall length and 36-foot, fabric-covered wingspan, had been powered by a 65-hp Lycoming O-145 piston engine and, with a 1,150-pound gross weight, could achieve 102-mph maximum speeds.

Another College Park-indicative design, the Aeronica 65LA “Chief,” had plied Maryland skies during the 1940s. Equaling the Taylorcraft’s speed, it had been powered by a 65-hp Continental C-65 engine and had featured a 1,250-pound maximum weight. Only 87 of the type, however, had been produced.

During World War II, the Women’s Air Services Pilots, or WASPs, had trained at College Park under Maryland’s Civilian Pilot Training Program, enabling them to assume non-combat aerial duties.

The Boeing PT-17 Stearman, a two-place, open-cockpit biplane instrumental in the training of pilots, had often performed stunts and competed in air races during the Brinckerhoff period from 1927 to 1964. The aircraft, with a 24.10-foot overall length and a 32.2-foot wingspan, had been powered by a 220-hp Continental R-670 radial engine and, at a maximum gross weight of 2,717 pounds, could achieve 124-mph speeds. More than 8,500 in 11 different versions had been produced for the Army, the Navy, and several countries.

One aircraft, registered N8NP and piloted by Gus McLeod, had become the first open-cockpit biplane to have flown over the North Pole. Departing Gaithersburg, Maryland, in April of 2000, it had penetrated zero-visibility and below-zero temperature conditions on its intended 13-day expedition, finally circling the pole on April 17, but mechanical difficulties had forced it to land. The pilot, returning the following month with the needed replacement battery, had discovered that the ice floe on which it had been located had drifted some 80 miles toward Norway.

After repairs, the Stearman had flown as far as Nunavut in Canada before weather impeded further continuation.

The Ercoupe 415D, designed by the Engineering and Research Corporation (ERCO) which Henry Berliner himself had founded in 1932, had been a low-wing monoplane employing a tricycle undercarriage and twin vertical fins which had been tested at College Park. Powered by an 85-hp Continental A-85 engine, the two-place, 1,400-pound general aviation aircraft, with a 30-foot wingspan, could attain 117-mph speeds and had uniquely offered a coordinated control system by linking the ailerons and rudders by means of the control column. Devoid of rudder pedals, it had facilitated pilot training, and had been considered slip-, stall-, and spin-proof.

In 1973, the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission purchased College Park Airport and four years later it had been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, “the world’s oldest continuously-operating airport,” occupying 40 acres, is a non-towered, general aviation facility with 80 based aircraft and a single, lighted, 2,600-foot runway (15/33). The original airmail hangar and compass rose of 1919 are located at the end of the field below the railroad tracks, while the 27,000-square-foot College Park Aviation Museum, a glass-and-brick, curved roof building inspired by early Wright Brothers designs and an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is located on the side and showcases many historic, airport-related aircraft.

Countless, modern-day turboprop and pure-jet airliners regularly ply the corridor to and from Maryland’s Baltimore-Washington International Airport, perhaps oblivious to the tiny parcel of land called “College Park Airport” below them. But at least a nod of recognition and appreciation should occasionally be extended. This, after all, is where it all began.