Reagan National Airport, Washington DC

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, DC, USA

Airport facilities in Washington, D.C. had long been seriously inadequate early in the 20th Century.  Hoover Field, located near the present site of the Pentagon, was the first major terminal to be developed in the Capital area, opening its doors in 1926.  The following year, Washington Airport, another privately operated field, began service next door. In 1930, the economics of the Great Depression caused the two terminals to merge to form Washington-Hoover Airport. Bordered on the east by Highway One, with its accompanying high-tension electrical wires, and obstructed by a high smokestack on one approach and a dump nearby, the field was less than adequate. Incredibly, the airport's one runway was intersected by a busy vehicular street, Military Road, which had guards posted to flag down traffic during takeoffs and landings.

International airport code - Reagan National Airport: DCA

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The Beginning:

Between 1926 and 1938, Congress produced reams of debate transcripts and 37 committee reports on the need for a new airport, but no action was taken. In the Fall of 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced at a press conference that he was "tired of waiting for Congress" to select a site for the new airport, and said that it would be built on mudflats on a bend of the Potomac River at Gravelly Point, 4 ½ miles south of Washington, D.C. Two months later, on November 21, 1938, the first ceremonial shovelful of dirt was moved to signal the start of construction.

Before the final site selection, flights were made over the area with representatives of airline pilots, and year-round studies of weather conditions were made by the U.S. Weather Bureau. It was found that the approaches to proposed runways from eight directions were clear for such distances as to provide flight angles of 40 to one. Several government agencies cooperated with the newly formed Civil Aeronautics Board, predecessor agency to the Federal Aviation Administration, in the construction of Washington National Airport.

Additional assistance came from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Public Works Administration (PWA), the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of the Interior's National Park Service and the Fine Arts Commission.


The bulk of the proposed airfield site was under water. Between November 1938 and December 1939, almost 20 million cubic yards of sand and gravel were moved onto the site.

The first step in construction was to erect a dike around the riverside perimeter of the site. The second task was to clear the runway locations of silt so that sand and gravel could be pumped in on top of a stable base to eliminate the possibility of settling. Four hydraulic dredges, among the largest and most powerful at that time, were put to work to clear the 11 feet of silt from the future runway locations to a width of 200 feet. Then sand and gravel were pumped from the riverbed into the canals which formed the runways up to a height of 20 feet above the river level. By this method the runway base was so stabilized that paving could be laid within six months after the fill was completed.


The airport was designed with four runways, the main north-south at 6,855 feet long, a northwest-southeast at 5,210 feet, a northeast-southwest at 4,892 feet, and an east-west at 4,100 feet in length.


On September 28, 1940, two years to the day of the site selection, President Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of the terminal building at the dedication.

In their desire to house the most modern of all facilities within the spirit of the classic architecture of the Nation’s Capital, the designers of National Airport faced a difficult problem.  The landscape planners wanted the structures to fit into the architectural picture of the Capital and to adhere to the colonial atmosphere of the site. The proposed design represented a unique attempt to create a “modern” structure which still integrated architectural references to the Colonial and Neoclassical style. Over 2 million people visited the airport during the first year; of that number, 344,257 were passengers.

The airport opened for business on June 16, 1941, with President Roosevelt attending and observing the first official landing. American Airlines won the honor, piloted by Bennett H. Griffin, who later became the manager of the airport in 1947. The second inaugural landing was made by Eastern Airlines. On opening day, just one hangar was completed and in operation and five were under construction with a seventh in the planning stage.

At this time, National Airport was considered the “last word” in airports – a concentration of the ultramodern developments in design of buildings, handling of planes, air traffic and field traffic control, field lighting, facilities for public comfort and convenience, and surface vehicle traffic control.


National Airport became a success, but a controversy over legal jurisdiction began to brew. Was the airport located in Virginia or the District of Columbia? The District "owned" the river to Virginia, claiming the boundary had been set in 1846 at the high water mark along the shoreline. But since the airport was built on a fill, a new eastern shoreline was created and the question arose as to whether the District's authority ended at the new or the original shore.

The problem went unresolved until 1945 when Congress approved a bill that fixed the airport boundary at the mean high water mark, regardless of changes, which put the airport in Virginia. However, the Congress established exclusive federal jurisdiction over National Airport.

The first major expansion was completed in November 1950, when a 297-foot extension to the south end of the main terminal added 25,110 square feet of space. Five years later, in 1955, the 587 by 17-foot south finger was added increasing the square footage by 9,979 square feet and also providing badly needed aircraft gates and loading positions. Over the years, the runways have changed only slightly in length, except for the East-West runway which was closed in 1956, and used as a taxiway and for aircraft parking. Today, the airfield contains three runways. The main north-south runway (1/19) is 6,869 feet. In recent years, overruns were added to each end of that runway.

In the intervening years more space for passengers and aircraft became necessary. In October 1958, the North Terminal was opened, adding an additional 7,264 square feet of usable space. In 1961, the 772-foot long passageway between the Main and the North Terminals was enclosed.

With 344,257 passengers in 1941, and the first million in 1946, the annual number of passengers grew steadily until the late 1980's when the number reached 16 million. Airport passenger number have remained between 15 and 16 million over recent years.


The federal government relinquished direct control of National and Dulles Airports when President Ronald Reagan signed the transfer bill that authorized the creation of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority in 1987.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is an independent interstate agency created by legislation enacted by the Commonwealth of Virginia and the District of Columbia, with the consent of the United States Congress, for the purpose of operating Washington Dulles International and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airports.

The Airports Authority operates this two airport system which provides domestic and international air service for the Metropolitan Washington region. In addition to operating Dulles and National, the Airports Authority, a financially self-sustaining agency, is responsible for capital improvements at both airports.

On February 6, 1998, President William Jefferson Clinton signed into law the bill introduced and passed in Congress that changed the name of Washington National Airport to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.


1938    President Roosevelt selected the site for the new Washington National Airport.

1940    Dedication of the Washington National Airport by President Roosevelt.

1941    Airport opened for business June 16th with one hangar completed and five under construction.

1949    First fixed-based operator (private aircraft service business) opened for general aviation business.

1950    South extension of Main Terminal completed.

1956    Runway 9/27 closed, became taxiway Alpha.

1958    North Terminal opened. Pan American Airlines first jet (Boeing 707) christened at National Airport

1964    Construction of air cargo building.

1965    Construction of United Airlines holdrooms and ticketing facilities completed.

1966    Jet aircraft began operating at National Airport.

1968    Opened new American Airlines’ facility and gates.

1970    Commuter Terminal Opened. NW / TWA facilities opened.

1973    Start of Metrorail construction on the airport.

1977    One-way road system placed into operation. Metrorail service to the airport began.

1982    Night time noise level limitations policy put into effect.

1986    Bill transferring the operation of National and Dulles to a new regional Airports Authority was signed by President Reagan.

1987    The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority began operations.

1989    Interim Terminal (Hangar 11) opened. Commuter Terminal closed.

1991    First parking garage opened on the airport.

1993    Construction of the New Terminal started.

1996    Parking garage B/C opened.

1997    The New Terminal opened.

1998    Abingdon Plantation site restored and Exhibit Hall opened.

1999    Completed improvements to Mt. Vernon Bridge Trail.

On July 27, 1997, National Airport was transformed by the official opening of the new Terminal which offers modern, efficient facilities that include direct connections to Metrorail and new parking garages via enclosed pedestrian bridges. The three-level, one million square foot terminal houses 35 aircraft gates and “National Hall”, a main street for shops and eateries on the concourse level.

The terminal provides 100 ticket counters, 12 baggage claims, three piers where airline gates are located and a passenger connector the Terminal A. To enhance the spacious, passenger friendly environment, the terminal offers an unparalleled view of the Nation’s Capital and works of art from 30 artists are incorporated into the structure of the terminal using various designs – glass, marble, mosaic, terrazzo, murals, balustrades and sculpture.

Renowned architect Cesar Pelli designed a Washington landmark that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. Pelli’s design included a large window overlooking airport operations and the Washington, D.C. skyline, and the building is adorned with 54 “Jeffersonian” domes that establish a connection with the architecture of the region.

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