Three Things You Didn’t Know About National Airport

The popular “Three Things…” post about Dulles Airport prompted me to give equal treatment to our other local, older and much more convenient airport: National Airport (not Reagan National Airport, thank you very much). Actually, the airport was once known as the National Airport at Gravelly Point.

Maybe we should change the name to George Washington National Airport (Reagan made a great quip about our first president in his State of the Union Address). Or, we could also name it after another favorite Virginia son, Thomas Jefferson … Reagan made a great comment about him as well. I’m sure the 40th president wouldn’t mind.

1. Guam-to-D.C. direct in 35 hours

The first interesting story I uncovered was from November 21st, 1945. Just after World War II, the airport had only been open for a few years, when a B-29 Superfortress — the type of aircraft that had dropped incendiary bombs on Tokyo near the end of the war and brought the war to a close by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — flew nonstop from Guam to D.C. without refueling.

At the time, this was the world’s longest flight, totaling 8,198 miles, breaking the previous mark set in 1938 by almost 1,800 miles. The U.S. Army Air Forces used the flight to demonstrate both the superiority of their technology, but also highlight a new age in warfare and vulnerability to attack from anywhere at anytime.

B-29 Superfortress in flight (Wikipedia)
B-29 Superfortress in flight (Wikipedia)

The plane was commanded by Col. Clarence S. Irvine, supported by a nine-man crew from their base on the island of Guam.

Below is a brief excerpt from the Washington Post’s report on their arrival.

Irvine said the heavily loaded craft waddled into the air at Guam just as the 9500-[foot] runway “gave out,” and was not flown above 50 feet for the first five hours. From the moment Guam faded behind them, the crew did nto [sic] see land again until they raised Cape Flattery, northwest of Seattle. There they cut out one engine to save fuel.

Along the way Irvine said, they ran into seven weather fronts “full of ice.” In one of them they had trouble with icing because the airplane had no de-icing equipment.

“Crossing the Rockies,” Irvine said, “we couldn’t get over 12,500 feet and it was very unpleasant. “We were in the soupr all the time.”

Otherwise, he said, they “didn’t have any trouble.”

Wow. Don’t forget that the Rockies top out at 14,400 feet … an exceedingly dangerous place to fly an airplane, not to mention one as large and cumbersome as a fuel-laden bomber.

When the crew landed at National Airport after their 36-hour adventure, they still 300 gallons of fuel remaining in their tanks, enough for one more hour of flight. They started their journey in Guam with 11,110 gallons.

2. TWA ticket agent murdered at National Airport

TWA logo
TWA logo

Okay, this is nuts. If you were living here over 30 years ago, you might remember this.

An article in the Washington Post from November 20th, 1980 details the tragic murder of a long-time employee of TWA (if you’re 30 or older, you’ll also remember this airline).

Michael F. Papa, a 25-year employe of Trans World Airlines at National Airport, was fatally stabbed in an airport restroom yesterday in an apparent robbery attempt near the TWA ticket counter where he worked as agent-in-charge.

Airport police took an 18-year-old Fort Belvoir solider into custody moments after a TWA customer service agent stopped him as he tried to leave the restroom in the main terminal building.

Police identified the suspect at Pvt. Joseph Patrick Shay of the 11th Engineer Battalion’s 902nd Engineer Company at Fort Belvoir, a former resident of El Paso, Tex. Shay was arraigned at U.S. Magistrate’s Court in Alexandria yesterday afternoon and ordered held without bond on a charge of first-degree murder.

Papa was stabbed over 25 times in the bathroom with a five-inch hunting knife and was hunched over clutching his bloody chest when he was discovered. Shay was exiting the bathroom as an alert ticket agent entered to investigate reports of a fight. The agent ordered Shay to stay put, which he surprisingly did, while law enforcement were called.

Shay claimed to have been high on amphetamines and he had no prior criminal record or known issues with drugs.

View of National Airport with plane in foreground (Library of Congress)
View of National Airport with plane in foreground (Library of Congress)

3. The airport is actually in D.C.?

The airport is largely built on top of landfill in the Potomac River. The boundary between D.C. and Virginia was established in 1846, after retrocession, as the high-water mark of the river (i.e., the land was Virginia, the water was Washington, D.C.).

It’s pretty clear today that when you fly into DCA, you’re landing in Arlington, Virginia, with an amazingly scenic approach over D.C. from the north. Well, it wasn’t so clear back in the 1941 when the airport was opened. And as with most jurisdictional fights, a large part of this was over money. Virginia wanted to tax both gasoline and liquor sold at the airport.

There were even suggestions to solve the problem by making Arlington part of the District again, especially since the War Department had already expanded across the river with the Pentagon.

In June 1945, a bill passed the House fixing the border as the mean high water mark on the new shoreline, placing the airport squarely in Virginia. The Post reported the story on June 26th, 1945 (a little more than a month before the end of World War II).

The House passed by a voice cote and sent to the Senate a bill which would end the century-old uncertainty about who has jurisdiction over a “No man’s land” on the southwest shore of the Potomac River.

“If a murder were to be committed in the area tomorrow,” Representative Smith (D., Va.) told the house, “there would be grave doubt that the guilty person would ever be brought to trial because of the uncertainty over jurisdiction.”

Someone recalled that a man died a month or so ago at the National Airport, across the river from the Capital, and no coroner would declare him dead.

The dispute between D.C. and Virginia was settled by Congress, placing the airport in the jurisdiction of the Federal Government, but permitting the taxation of liquor sales by Virginia.

Well, taxes weren’t the only thing. The desire to limit bureaucratic limbo and paperwork was another. An article in the Washington Post from February 8th, 1945 added an interesting twist.

Employes at the National Airport have been instructed, in a pseudo-official memorandum, to do their dying at home, and save the officials of Arlington County, Alexandria and the District of Columbia a jurisdictinal [sic] headache, it was learned yesterday.

“If you’re going to die, don’t do it here!” because the by-word last September, according to Airport Manager Harvey F. Law, after it took 36 hours to get permission to bury an airport employe who died on the job.

Check out some more photos of National Airport in 1941 at the Library of Congress.

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About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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  • Faye

    I believe there also used to be a public swimming pool at National when it opened.

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  • Kent Slowinski

    Several years ago, I read about biological agents that were dispersed from a briefcase being carried around National Airport. I think it was in the 60’s. Where can I find out more?

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  • MB

    Loved this piece. National is, by far, my favorite domestic airport.

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  • Sgt. Hartman

    Another interesting fact: It really IS called “Reagan National Airport.” No kidding.

  • It is officially “Ronald W. Reagan Memorial National Airport.” Locals still refer t it as National. If pressed to go beyond that, I’d say “Gipper National.” Good luck finding a cab that will take you to Reagan Memorial.

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  • Mark

    I always find it amusing how passionate liberals are about not referring to it as Reagan National. Never met a conservative who took issue with calling JFK airport (I guess I should note that to your point Kennedy wasn’t born in New York either) by it’s proper name. Just sayin

    • Tom

      JFK was renamed (from Idlewild) about two months after President Kennedy was assassinated. DCA was renamed in 1998 in honor of Reagan, in the waning years of his life. Also, JFK was a generation ago, but I’m sure that there are far fewer people who protested renaming an airport after an assassinated president.

  • So what happened to Joseph Patrick Shay after he stabbed Papa to death? Google doesn’t seem to know.

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  • Sheila

    To locals and just about anyone else, It was always known as Washington National Airport. Then in 1998 it was renamed after former President Ronald Reagan as the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. I NEVER like the change, and anyone that grew up, or knew it well, didn’t like it either. My, then boyfriend, back in the early 1960’s used to run the parking lots all around the airport, and we used to have to count the cars constantly, from one lot to the other. We watched the planes take off all night too. It was gorgeous back then, no overpasses and underpasses, and can you believe it, not that much traffic either. No kidding. I used to go inside and go into the HUGE room with the HUGE windows, and watch the planes take off and land, everyone would watch for hours on end. It was still very business like in DC then, men wore the best suits, and women only wore dresses, heals, and gloves were a must.
    Men still wore (high end) hats then too. Dang they were so handsome back then, when men knew how to dress too. I miss that.
    Used to be one of my favorite places in DC, to us, it was in DC, and I miss it.

  • NatsFanY2K

    One other local story (slightly) involving National Airport is the crash of TWA flight 514 in December 1974. The plane was headed on a run from Indianapolis-Columbus-Washington National when high crosswinds and fog at DCA forced the 727 to divert to Dulles. Back then, Dulles was practically in the middle of nowhere, compared to the rest of the DC metro area and was just 6 years old at that point. As a result, the airport didn’t get many flights and most pilots were unfamiliar with it.

    The plane was descending to land on runway 12, the (then-) little-used approach from the northwest which brings planes over the Blue Ridge mountains. Due to a misinterpretation of the controller’s instructions (which were not precise, but acceptable given the standards of the time), the TWA flight descended too low and slammed into the ridge just 50 feet short of the top. Everyone on board was killed.

    Making matters worse, a United aircraft had made the same approach and made the same mistake a few weeks before, only missing the ridge by a few feet. Unfortunately, few people knew about this. It took the TWA crash to force the government to make changes in the way controllers give clearances and how navigation maps are drawn to ensure that a crash like this never happened again. It’s sad, though, that if the weather had been just a little better that plane would have landed safely at National.