Flying into History: Five Storied Airports Worth a Visit

Some historic sites flew under the radar but played critical roles in aviation.

When flying into a new airport, do you ever wonder how it wound up there? Sometimes the factors that typically drive the development of airports, like proximity to major cities, business centers or vacation destinations, seem to be absent. Indeed, many airports are located far from obvious points of interest.

Just like early carriage roads, railroads, and highway systems, U.S. airports reflect the needs for national defense, commerce, and travel at the time they were designed and built. The growth of airmail service drove a boom of airport construction during aviation’s golden age between the world wars. The network continued to expand with the need for training bases for pilots and crews during World War II.

More public-use airports sprang up in anticipation of the rapid postwar growth of general aviation that experts had predicted. That growth turned out to be far less than expected as the combination of family cars and falling prices for air travel pushed personal aircraft farther down on the list of priorities for most consumers.

For those of us who fly today, what seems like a possible miscalculation in infrastructure development has resulted in a long list of flying destinations. Pilots also enjoy a rather efficient way to get around while avoiding many of the delays and other hassles associated with traveling by car, train, or airline.

The following airports have interesting tales to tell, some famous, others obscure. A little research into your home airport might reveal similar stories of a historically significant past. It is worth a look.

Presque Isle International Airport (KPQI)

Presque Isle, Maine

Pilots approaching Presque Isle for the first time and spotting its intersecting runways at 7,441 and 6,000 feet long, respectively, might wonder how the place got so big. But those who have read Ernest Gann’s Fate Is the Hunter already know the story. The field was a military air transport hub for aircraft flying between the U.S. and England during World War II. Today, it is an ideal destination for private pilots exploring the northern reaches of Maine and brushing up on aviation history.

Pearson Field Airport (KVUO)

Vancouver, Washington

Another former Army Air Service base, Pearson is also among the earliest airports, thanks, in part, to aviation pioneer Lincoln Beachey. In 1905, Beachey landed an airship designed and built by Thomas Scott Baldwin at the Vancouver Barracks Army post. Three years later, the Army Signal Corps convinced the service to acquire one of Baldwin’s dirigibles—the Army’s first powered aircraft.

Iowa City Municipal Airport (KIOW)

Iowa City, Iowa

Lincoln Beachey really got around. He was scheduled to perform in a Cedar Falls, Iowa, flight demonstration in 1912, but agreed to deliver mail when a postal employee asked for his help. Beachey’s biplane carried mail pouches on its lower wings. The Iowa City Municipal Airport, which opened in 1918, made history in 1920 when Postal Service officials named it as a stop on the first transcontinental airmail flight that took place from September 8 through September 11, 1920. In 1929, Boeing Air Transport (parent to what would become United Airlines) built a unique “taxi-in” hangar to accommodate travelers without exposing them to the vagaries of Iowa weather.

Sussex Airport (KFWN)

Sussex, New Jersey

People driving past this quiet field in northern New Jersey’s farm country in the 1970s probably had no idea that aerobatic pilot Leo Loudenslager was building his Laser 200 monoplane in one of its hangars. Loudenslager was based at Sussex for many years, including when he won the World Aerobatic Championship in 1980. He also won the United States Aerobatic Championship seven times between 1976 and 1982, and performed regularly in the annual Sussex Air Show. His red, white, and blue Laser in Bud Light livery hangs in the National Air and Space Museum.

Stinson Municipal Airport (KSSF)

San Antonio, Texas

Another of the oldest airports in the U.S., Stinson has been around since 1915, when members of the Stinson family leased the land to start a flying school. The school was popular but had to cease operations when civilian flights were banned during World War I. Following the war, the field became San Antonio’s general aviation airport and served as an Army Air Forces training base during World War II. Today, it is home to the Texas Air Museum, flight schools, police aviation units, and a well-known barbecue restaurant.


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