College Park Airport’s first 100 years

August 31, 2009 by Dave Hirschman

Actors in period dress helped re-create the look and feel of the early days of College Park Airport.

Actors in period dress helped re-create the look and feel of the early days of College Park Airport.

Only 33 nautical miles away from AOPA’s headquarters, College Park Airport’s (CGS) 100th Anniversary AirFair was the nearest event for AOPA’s 2009 Sweepstakes Let’s Go Flying Cirrus SR22.

The Aug. 29 event was the first centennial of any airport anywhere, as College Park in suburban Washington, D.C., is the world’s oldest continuously operating airport. And airport supporters outdid themselves with the unveiling of an exact re-creation of the Wright Brothers’ 1909 Flyer, the airplane that launched fixed-wing military aviation in the United States.

Actors in period dress helped re-create the look and feel of the early days of the green, leafy, tree-lined airport a stone’s throw from the University of Maryland campus.

An aerobatic display by veteran airshow performer Greg Koontz was a rare occurrence inside Washington’s highly regimented flight restricted zone, the inner wall of the already imposing special flight rules area (SFRA).

Even though the straight-line distance to College Park is short, getting there required getting TSA and FAA screening in advance. Fortunately, I’d been through that bureaucratic scavenger hunt last year, so the IFR flight planning and filing process the morning of the event was virtually identical to any other domestic trip.

Fog and low clouds blanketed the mid-Atlantic that morning, however, and had barely lifted enough (700 feet) by 10 a.m. to allow the Let’s Go Flying SR22 to make it there on time.

Even with clearance to enter the SFRA, it’s a bit unnerving to see all the red lines and warning areas graphically depicted on the multi-function display, and then intentionally cross them. The two Garmin 430W GPS units practically beg you not to with multiple warnings of “special-use airspace ahead,” and “inside special-use airspace.”

Our ATC-assigned route directed us to the KRANT intersection, which, according to the Avidyne MFD, looks like it’s located just about on top of the White House swing set.

“I can’t believe they want us to fly that close to the Capitol,” said fellow pilot Joey Colleran, director of AOPA’s Airport Support Network, as we flew along in the clouds, watching the miles count down.

I was hoping for a turn to start the RNAV/GPS Runway 15 approach before we got there, and thankfully, we were cleared to descend and begin the approach before anyone scrambled the F-16s.

The WAAS-derived vertical guidance on the approach made flying it extremely smooth and precise, and we broke out of the murk in plenty of time to see the airport. The winds were calm, and the deer that like to graze on the grass near the 2,600-foot runway were absent.

The clouds lifted throughout the late morning, and we got to see some exceptional flying and talk with some of the many dedicated people who have done so much to keep College Park open despite the onerous restrictions and pressure to close the historic gem.

More than a dozen volunteer pilots at College Park were giving airplane rides to a long line of visitors, even as the 5 p.m. deadline to finish the flights approached. Scores of first-time passengers had been introduced to general aviation already that day, but the volunteers couldn’t accommodate all of them before time ran out. Fortunately, enough of the volunteer pilots kept at it, filing their own individual flight plans for each trip, to ensure no one who wanted a first flight left the airport without one.

It’s that kind of generous, resourceful, and determined spirit that ensures that, despite the obstacles, College Park will extend its remarkable legacy.

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11 Responses to “College Park Airport’s first 100 years”

  1. Lee Says:

    A year and a half effort among the myriad federal offices, culminating in a great event! Our thanks to the FAA, who were
    on board from Day One, and to the other various security agencies, who elected to become less of an obstacle as time went on.
    AirFair100! was the product of airport staff, local pilots, aircraft owners from the entire region and scores of volunteers who
    stepped up to the plate and helped pull this off. My sincere thanks and appreciation! Another kudo for the Little Airport That Could!

    Lee Schiek
    Airport Manager
    College Park Airport (CGS)
    AirBoss – AirFair100!

  2. drew Says:

    i would have loved to attend. pre 911, i used college park frequently. not all of us have the advantage of being paid to negotiate a year and a half of bureaucratize. it is particularly annoying that aopa rubs our noses in itl.

    lets try to get this reopened to transient pilots.

  3. Beth Says:

    I am thrilled to see that there is life in the College Park airport. I used to live and fly in the Washington area so know the history of the airport and terrible events following 911 when the life was almost squeezed out of aviation in the area. Unlike Drew, I think this is a good thing. The only way to beat the security bureacrats and the terrorists is to keep flying while working to open the airport to wider use.

  4. gregg reynolds Says:

    Re College Park, MD, airport’s centennial. What’s up (you should pardon the expression) with that?

    I’m under the impression that Pearson Air Field VUO, Vancouver, WA, is at least 100 years old and has been operated continuously as an airport whether as a civilian or a military field during its century of ops.

  5. Doug Ilg Says:

    Drew, you’ve got it wrong. College Park IS open to transients and has been for years. The catch is that you need to go through a bit of bueaucratic hassle to be approved as a transient (or based) pilot.

    Note that this is not the 1.5 year wrestling match that Lee Shieck spoke of. He was referring to the time it took for him to get the approval to host AirFair100! You can get cleared to fly into College Park within a few weeks, if things go well.

    Give Lee or one of his folks a call at the airport. They’ll be happy to help you through the process of getting “vetted.” (And we’ll all be happy to see you fly in for your first visit!)

    Doug Ilg
    AirFair100! volunteer
    CGS-based pilot

  6. Carl Says:

    To Gregg Reynolds, Exactly what type of aircraft was flying at VUO 100 years ago. As far as I know the only operational aircraft at that time was the Wright Flyer which was flying at College Park. Have a good day, Carl

  7. Claude Burkhead CFII Says:

    Enjoyed the info so very much. Enjoyed reading that you flew all those wanting rides even after shut off time…We did the same years
    ago when I volunteered to sell tickets and the pilots honored them all- flying well into the afternoon. The two t-shirts from that event are
    well worn and appreciated by all. My son, Claude lll later flew Ercoupe N94352 in a gagle from College Park to the Washington
    Monument and return- he will never forget! I have many memories of coming up the river to Washington National from NC on many trips.

  8. Jim Shutt Says:

    Remember well in the mid-60′s when serious consideration was given to sell it for use as a junkyard. A coalition of community and
    aviation groups got together and fought off the sale, but it was a near run thing. Great to see it’s still going strong. Is that aviation themed resteraunt still there?

  9. lloyd moroughan Says:

    The Air Fair 100 was a great success. I’m a College Park old timer and went to school at u of m. I used to instruct at College Park in cubs. What I liked best about Air Fair 100 was that I could freely walk around the airport and look at the grounds and see pieces of the old runway, and get close to the single remaining air mail hangar. My memories of the airport are from a time when it was a real airport. I was really surprised that aerobatics and airplane rides were happening at College Park. It was great. The Koonz people are big time and put on a great show. It must have taken incredible political clout to allow those flights to take place inside the FRZ. I can’t imagine the TSA softening like that. Perhaps whoever has the political clout to get the TSA to lighten up on College Park for one special event could get the TSA to ease up the other 364 days of the year. In an above comment one guy says that transients are not allowed to fly into College Park. He is correct. The fact that one can get “vetted” to fly in, is the exception that proves the rule. I would so love to fly into College Park, and jump on the Metro and visit downtown DC and fly home the same day. There’s two reasons why it’s not worth it to get “vetted”. One, the BS hoops you jump through including getting fingerprinted and visiting the FSDO and proving you’re not a criminal. Two, they violate about 400 pilots a year who screw up inside the ADIZ/SFRA. I love College Park airport and I grew up there. So I’ll try not to rant about the rules except for one more thing. It’s very funny actually. Every airplane has to have a “lock” on the prop. This is a cable like a bicycle lock. This cracks me up. What could it be for? What could it prevent? It’s kind of an example of non-pilot bureaucrats running the show. College Park airport is not really an airport. It’s a park. And an historic landmark. And it’s sacred ground to me. Please just don’t tell me the airport was “saved”. The airport died when NCPPC took over the land. It was buried on 09-11-2001.

  10. Cindy Greer Says:

    RE: the post by Gregg Reynolds. A little research gave me the following information.

    An April 2009 “Seattle Times” story has the following paragraph: “Museum displays: This museum describes the exciting times when flying was new to the world, and the site’s aviation history dates back to 1905. All of the aircraft in the hangar are in mint flying condition; many are World War II trainers used to teach beginning and advanced flying skills (a list of the museum’s aircraft is posted on the museum Web site).” The Pearson Air Museum website (http://www.fortvan.org/pages/pearson-air-museum) says: “Pearson Air Museum sits adjacent to the historic Pearson Air Field, the oldest operating airfield in the United States.”

    At http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/aviation/pea.htm, the page says: “Pearson Field, located in Vancouver, Washington, within Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, is one of the oldest active airfields in the West and a historically significant center of aviation in the Pacific Northwest. In 1905, the first aeronautical event took place here when Lincoln Beachey, one of the most talented early aviators, landed a dirigible on the parade grounds of the U.S. Army’s Vancouver Barracks. The first airplane flight in the Vancouver-Portland, Oregon, region took place in 1910, and generated much public interest. By 1911 two local aviators, Charles Walsh and Silas Christofferson, began flying the first airplanes on the polo grounds with their Curtiss Pusher biplanes.”

  11. lloyd moroughan Says:

    Hooray for Pearson Field and their history. That’s great and I’d like to read up about it. College Park is a much more important historical site. College Park airport is perhaps, second to Kitty Hawk, the most important aviation landmark in the United States. Do we trivialize it worrying about whether it’s the oldest continually operating airport? Another thing: Remember that when the Wrights got to College Park in 1909, there was already an operating “FBO” there flying airplanes at an existing aerodrome.