June 16th, 1941: The Day National Airport Opened for Business

- click image for more -
At the entrance to the municipal airport in Washington, D.C. - July 1st, 1941
At the entrance to the municipal airport in Washington, D.C. – July 1st, 1941

Who doesn’t love National Airport (correct, not Reagan)? There is no argument that the approach from the north as you’re landing, has the best views of any approach to a major urban airport. Just make sure you’re sitting on the left side of the plane. Also, if you’re an avid plane watcher, Gravelly Point gives you incredible views of incoming airplanes, close enough to see the pilots in the cockpit.

In honor of the best airport, which happens to be celebrating the 72nd anniversary of operations on Sunday, here’s some interesting stuff we dug up in the papers from the airport’s opening in 1941.

National Airport. Plane beside building and control tower at National Airport
National Airport. Plane beside building and control tower at National Airport

Here is an article from the Washington Post on June 5th, 1941, a little over a week before the airport officially opened to passengers.

The National Airport at Gravelly Point will be opened formally in about 10 days–that’s definite.

A sort of rehearsal was held over there yesterday, and gabe a small group of officials and visitors a taste of what is to come. John Groves, the airport manager, wanted to see how the turntables on the apron, or ramp, would work, so he had Eastern Airlines fly one of its big transports on to the field.

The flight was perhaps the shortest since the Wright brothers first got off the ground at Kitty Hawk. With Capt. L. S. Theakston at the controls, the Eastern Airlines ship took off from the postage-stamp field at Washington-Hoover Airport. After a flight lasting about two minutes, it came down on a runway of the National Airport and rolled up to the ramp in front of the magnificent terminal building.

Capt. Theakston brought one of the huge rubber ties to rest on the turntable. Then he flipped his rudder and demonstrated how the plane could turn around without running up and down the ramp. Literally, it was like turning on a dime. The advantages of having these turntables will be obvious to the layman when planes begin coming into the airport as frequently as trains come into Union Station.

No matter how much a person has read about this “dream” airport, no matter how many superlatives have been used in describing it, the first actual view of it now that the curtain is about to go up is a thrilling experience.

The Terminal Building, with its huge lobby, its north and south concourses, its coffee shop and handsome dining room, is an architectural jewel. All the doors are of glass and aluminium. They are therefore extremely light, and the ease with which they swing open is a delightful surprise. The postoffice in the terminal is larger than many postal substations around Washington.

The view from the promenade deck that curve around the Terminal Building is not to be equaled anywhere in the world. Beyond the field is the Potomac, and beyond that, in a clear panorama, is the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, and the great dome of the Capitol.

- click image for more -
opening day at National Airport (source: MWAA)
opening day at National Airport (source: MWAA)

The old terminal seems pretty dated now when you’re flying AirTran or Frontier, and it feels like you are stepping into the past. The airport cost $15 million to build and officially opened on June 16th, 1941. Below is the coverage in the Washington Post.

The new Washington National Airport was opened for full-time transport operations early this morning as the Eastern Air Silverliner Peachtree roared in from New York en route to Tampa, Fla. Her wheels touched the ground at 12:10 a. m.

More than 5,000 persons lined the tiers of the $15,000,000 airport to see the ship taxi up one of the runways with her load of 16 passengers and a batch of mail.

District Postmaster Vincent Burke, Second Assistant Postmaster General S. W. Purdum, Roy Martin, superintendent of the United States Airmail Service and Maj. James C. Edgerton, who inaugurated the first air mail service between New York and Washington in 1918, were on hand to greet the ship’s crew and passengers.

Senator Arthur Vandenburg, of Michigan, the third passenger to step off the plane, expressed delight at the new terminal.

The first male passenger to land at the airport was B. E. Chapman of Dallas, Tex.

A pretty New York show girl, Hilda Ferguson, 20, was the first woman passenger to set foot on the airport. She was en route to Charlotte, N. C.

Placed on board the plane for shipment to Florida from the Nation’s Capital was a pouch containing some 15,000 letters which philatelists had dispatched here from all sections of the country.

Postmaster Burke received the mail pouches from Flight Capts. F. W. Tucker, of New York, and in turn presented him with the pouch of 15,000 letters. The plane took off again for Florida at 12:30 a. m.

The airport was brilliantly lighted for the grand opening, with attendants and mechanics nattily dressed in new outfits.

The opening of regularly scheduled flights today marks the completion of long months of work during which the new field at Gravelly Point was dredged from the bottom of the Potomac.

Its completion marks the realization of a plan of President Roosevelt. The President tol reporters that he dreamed of a bad accident at the old Hoover Airport and expressed the belief Washington needed a new terminal.

Given the photo above, it’s possible that then meant 12:10 p.m. Midnight seems like an odd time.

So, if you’re taking a flight this Sunday, into or out of National Airport, think about that old Eastern Airlines flight, landing 72 years ago to mark the opening of operations at our favorite airport. Oh, don’t forget to read our old post with three things you ditn’ know about National Airport.

- click image for more -
plane taxing to the runway at National Airport
plane taxing to the runway at National Airport

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.

Check Also

The Little Green House on K Street

This is a guest post by Angela Harrison Eng  At a first glance, there is …

  • djdc

    Excellent post!

  • Terry

    I still love the old terminal, and you’re right. It’s National Airport.

  • National. Always National.

  • Bruno Rosacker

    President Reagan used the surtax on airline tickets, which was meant to improve air travel safety, towards balancing the budget. But even worse, Reagan severely damaged the air traffic controllers union during the strike of 1981. To rename an iconic airport in his honor, was a betrayal of the aviation community.

  • Ellen Gee

    In the late 50’s and early 60’s, I used to stand in front of that massive set of windows waiting for my grandparents to return from exotic places like Nigeria, Pakistan, and India. I’d watch the planes pull up with their propellers spinning. The big ladder was pushed to the planes door. I still feel the rush of excitement at seeing my grandparents heads pop out, and the breeze blowing their hair as they descended those stairs. It’s still some of my fondest childhood memories.

    • the romance of flight back then! Do you have any photos of National from then?

  • DCA

    The architecture and interior design of that old terminal are amazing. I hope they don’t take some of those old 1940’s accents away in the main section when they refurbish it.