by Spencer Howard
The inauguration of the first air passenger service between Washington DC and Philadelphia on July 16, 1926 was a major milestone in the development of the nation’s capital, and of unusual personal significance for Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Not only was Secretary Hoover, by virtue of the new Air Commerce Act, responsible for fostering air commerce, issuing and air traffic rules, and licensing pilots, but the grassy field that functioned as Washington DC’s first commercial airport was named Hoover Field in his honor.
In hindsight, perhaps it wasn’t such a great honor – Hoover Field had a short and troubled life as Washington’s first airport.
In 1925, Thomas Mitten, the head of the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, sought to begin daily passenger air service between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. in connection with the upcoming celebration of the 150th anniversary of Declaration of Independence. Finding no functional commercial airfield in the District, Mitten selected the site of a former horse racing track on the south side of the Potomac River, which was just barely large enough for an airfield. A single sod runway, 2400 feet long, and a single small hangar were constructed in five and a half days. The only navigational aid was a windsock.
When Mitten’s service was finally inaugurated in July 1926, passengers and mail were carried on a schedule of three trips in each direction daily, using three-engine Fokker monoplanes seating 10 passengers. The flying time was approximately 1 hour 30 minutes each way, and the passenger fare was $15 one way and $25 roundtrip. The service lasted for five months before Mitten finally gave up and sold his interest in Hoover Field. Other companies took up the challenge of providing air service to DC, with mixed success.
Even though accidents were thankfully rare, Hoover Field was considered one of the most dangerous airfields in the country. A major road ran along the east side of the field. Nearby landfills often burned trash, producing black smoke that reduced visibility to virtually zero. Power lines, radio antennas and a tall smokestack made approaches hazardous. Improvements to the field helped, but the site was too cramped for a viable airport. In 1927, Hoover Field lost the local airmail contract due to the dangerous conditions, though passenger flights continued including service to New York and other cities.
A second airfield named Washington Airport opened for business in 1927 on a tract of land directly adjacent to Hoover. The two airfields operated jointly at times and finally merged into one facility in 1933 under the name of Washington-Hoover Airport. New local ordinances prohibited some (but not all) trash burning, which improved visibility. The main problem was the government-owned Military Road that crossed between the two airfields. With the merger, the main runway was extended directly across – you guessed it – Military Road. The airport management attempted to stop traffic to allow planes to land and take off, but were fined by county officials for obstructing traffic! It took an act of Congress to allow the airport to install traffic lights, and eventually the road was rerouted around the airport.
Throughout the 1930s, gradual improvements to the airport and removal of nearby hazards significantly improved safety. But planes were getting bigger and safety standards were constantly improving, and Washington-Hoover had no space for longer runways or many new safety measures. Every attempt to find a better site for a more suitable airport was stymied by a provision in the Air Commerce Act that prohibited the Federal government from owning or operating commercial airports; in the DC area, there was no viable way to build an airport without involving Federal land or resources.
In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt engineered a workaround – the new Civil Aeronautics Act allowed the Federal government to build commercial airports if necessary for national defense. Construction began on a new Washington National Airport on reclaimed land along the Potomac River, south-east of Washington-Hoover. After National (later renamed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport) opened in 1941, the land that had been Hoover Field was sold to the War Department to become the site of the Pentagon. The name Hoover Field, once synonymous with innovation in aeronautics, faded into obscurity.
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