A history of flight
Airport’s humble beginnings led to coming of age
Click here to listen to Citizen Managing Editor Patty Kruszewski discuss this article on the Richmond Morning News with Jimmy Barrett on WRVA-1140 AM Jan. 10.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a yearlong, 24-part series examining the most significant events in Henrico County’s 400-year history.
Although the Richmond airport was officially dedicated in 1927, its historical beginnings could be said to date to the Civil War – or even to the turn of the 19th century.
According to a timeline of Richmond aeronautic history, gliders were flown near the present-day area of the airport in the 1800s. During the Civil War era, Union and Confederate forces both employed tethered balloons near today’s airport site to spot enemy artillery and troops and sketch terrain for reconnaissance purposes.
The most famous of the Civil War aeronauts, Thaddeus Lowe, made more than 3,000 flights in two years for the Union. Among the memorable Henrico conflicts he observed were the 1862 battles of Seven Pines and Fair Oaks, which took place in the current airport’s backyard.
Lowe’s balloon, the Intrepid, was superior to its Confederate counterparts because he had developed a portable rig capable of inflating the craft in the fields. Scorning the Confederate apparatus as a “fire balloon,” Lowe filled the Intrepid with superior hydrogen gas using generator wagons. Confederate balloons, which could only stay aloft for half an hour, had to be filled with hot air at the gas works in Richmond and hauled by rail to the battle sites.
With the dawn of the 20th century, the Richmond fairgrounds (then located near The Diamond) became the area’s first center of aviation activity. Airplane flights began to be regular occurrences at the annual fair; the rest of the year, local aviation enthusiasts used a landing strip known as Charles Field, in an open pasture located at the end of Chamberlayne Avenue. When residential development eliminated that field, local pilots used a small private airfield known as North Field – now Chamberlayne Farms – until that filled in with housing as well.
But it was in 1917, when Sandston became the site of wartime factories, that the scene was truly set for the airport’s creation. With World War I came the construction of not only a large assembly plant for Curtiss Jenny training aircraft, but also a gunpowder packing plant. A small runway ran along one side of the aircraft plant, within half a mile of the current airport.
In the years following the war’s end, says Tony Dowd, Richmonders began to awaken to the need for an airport.
“Local businessmen realized aviation was an up-and-coming reality,” notes Dowd, who served as airport manager from 1957 to 1977. The businessmen instructed well-known aviator Roscoe Turner to survey the Richmond area and recommend locations, and the Sandston site was selected. In addition to flat terrain, says Dowd, the Sandston location had the advantage of already-laid utilities and land cleared of obstructions – thanks to the establishment of the WWI plants.
The Richmond City Council purchased 100 acres of land at the intersection of Charles City Road and the C&O railroad for $30,000, and leased an additional 300 acres, in March 1927. One of the first items to be constructed at the site was an airplane hangar to house the Spirit of St. Louis while famed aviator Charles Lindbergh visited for the dedication.
The airport was named the Richard Evelyn Byrd Flying Field in honor of Admiral Byrd, the North Pole explorer and aviator from Virginia who was the brother of Governor Harry F. Byrd. A newspaper account of the Oct. 15, 1927 dedication described the excitement as thousands of citizens turned out to watch a squadron of 15 army planes from Langley Field escort the Spirit of St. Louis – and cheered as Lindbergh, the airport’s first official visitor, circled and landed his plane for the ceremony.
In the years to come, as air traffic increased, Sunday trips to Sandston for airplane-watching became a favorite local pastime.
With the arrival of World War II, Richmond City Council voted to lease Byrd Airport to the U.S. Army for $1 a year, and the airport was transformed into Richmond Army Air Base. More than $10 million was spent to build and equip the new air base, which was used primarily for training fighter pilots. The airport’s acreage and runway infrastructure expanded greatly during this time, and included a little-known addition that has since achieved a measure of fame with ghost-town enthusiasts.
During the war, military officials worried that the fighter training center might be bombed by Germans, and decided to build a decoy airport three miles east in an area known as the Elko Tract.
“They camouflaged the real fighter training base,” explains Dowd, “and laid out an exact duplicate – with runways, roadways, taxiways, and major buildings.” Details included streetlights, mailboxes, sewer covers, sidewalks and even park benches. In the event of an air raid, the runway lights and street lights would be turned on at the dummy airport, and Richmond and the real airport would be blacked out.
In 1947, the U.S. government returned the airport property to the city, and the fake airport was abandoned. (Henrico County attempted to claim the airport land, but the War Assets Administration ruled in Richmond’s favor.) Over the next several decades, as vegetation took over the Elko Tract, the decoy airport became a hangout for local youth and a curiosity visited by tourists in the know. Most traces of the old airport were eliminated with the construction of the White Oak semiconductor plant in 1996. But references to the “Lost City” can still be found online – or heard in conversation with Highland Springs or Varina High School alumni from the post-war era.
When Tony Dowd arrived at the airport in 1952, he recalls, the facility had changed little from its days as a World War II fighter base. Officials from City of Richmond, which for decades had been shouldering the airport’s $12 million development and operating costs, were finding it a challenge to fund needed improvements. And as airport manager, Dowd was finding it equally challenging to effect any change through city government.
“I used to knock my brains out,” he recalls. “But it wasn’t the people. It was the organizational structure, which made the city very slow to respond to airport needs.”
Over the next decade or so it also became apparent that of the three most populous localities in the region, the City of Richmond had the fewest airport users. By surveying county stickers on the cars in the parking lot, Dowd was able to determine that Henrico County residents used the airport most, followed by Chesterfield County residents and city residents.
“So Richmond went to Henrico and Chesterfield,” says Dowd, “and asked if they’d like to share in the cost of developing and operating the airport.
“I imagine elected officials at the time almost burst their sides laughing.”
In 1974, city officials tried another tactic, introducing a bill in the General Assembly to divert personal property tax receipts on aircraft based at the airport from Henrico County to City of Richmond. Faced with the prospect of losing $300,000 a year, Henrico joined Richmond in introducing legislation to create a regional airport authority.
And with the formation of the Capital Regional Airport Commission in 1976, the Richmond airport was launched into the modern era.
The eight members of the Commission (four from Henrico, four from Richmond) were all aviation professionals, and working with them was like “a breath of fresh air” when it came to getting new projects, recalls Dowd.
Long-time pilot and aviation buff Neil November, who served as the Commission’s first chairman, echoes Dowd’s assessment.
“Up to that time we had a second-rate airport,” he recalls. “The terminal building was pitiful – it was a Quonset hut. Things were pretty primitive.”
November describes the Commission’s early days as a struggle, with challenges that included transferring all airport functions from the city and assembling a new police force and transportation system from scratch.
“It was pretty ambitious, but we surged ahead,” says November. Because Commission members were all flying enthusiasts, he adds, “there were no ulterior motives. We had nothing in mind except to make Richmond Airport pre-eminent.”
In 1984, soon after November rotated off the Commission, the airport was renamed Richmond International Airport.
And although the airport has grown tremendously in the decades since -- from terminal expansions and a new air traffic control tower to additional air carriers, parking decks, and a multimillion-dollar renovation -- it would be hard to top the satisfaction November felt as the new Commission “surged ahead” and those initial enhancements took shape.
“The Quonset hut had disappeared,” says November. “And we became a top-notch airport.”
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