Between 1926 and 1938, Congress produced reams of debatetranscripts and 37 committee reports on the need for a new airport, but noaction was taken. In the Fall of 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announcedat a press conference that he was "tired of waiting for Congress" to select asite for the new airport, and said that it would be built on mudflats on a bendof the Potomac River at Gravelly Point, 4 ½ miles south of Washington, D.C. Twomonths later, on November 21, 1938, the first ceremonial shovelful of dirt wasmoved to signal the start of construction.
Before the final site selection, flights were made over the areawith representatives of airline pilots, and year-round studies of weatherconditions were made by the U.S. Weather Bureau. It was found that theapproaches to proposed runways from eight directions were clear for suchdistances as to provide flight angles of 40 to one. Several government agenciescooperated with the newly formed Civil Aeronautics Board, predecessor agency tothe Federal Aviation Administration, in the construction of Washington NationalAirport.
Additional assistance came from the Works ProgressAdministration (WPA), the Public Works Administration (PWA), the Army Corps ofEngineers, the Department of the Interior's National Park Service and the FineArts Commission.
The bulk of the proposed airfield site was under water. BetweenNovember 1938 and December 1939, almost 20 million cubic yards of sand andgravel were moved onto the site.
The first step in construction was to erect a dike around theriverside perimeter of the site. The second task was to clear the runwaylocations of silt so that sand and gravel could be pumped in on top of a stablebase to eliminate the possibility of settling. Four hydraulic dredges, among thelargest and most powerful at that time, were put to work to clear the 11 feet ofsilt from the future runway locations to a width of 200 feet. Then sand andgravel were pumped from the riverbed into the canals which formed the runways upto a height of 20 feet above the river level. By this method the runway base wasso stabilized that paving could be laid within six months after the fill wascompleted.
The airport was designed with four runways, the main north-southat 6,855 feet long, a northwest-southeast at 5,210 feet, a northeast-southwestat 4,892 feet, and an east-west at 4,100 feet in length.
THE TERMINAL BUILDING:
On September 28, 1940, two years to the day of the siteselection, President Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of the terminal building atthe dedication.
In their desire to house the most modern of all facilitieswithin the spirit of the classic architecture of the Nation’s Capital, thedesigners of National Airport faced a difficult problem. The landscape plannerswanted the structures to fit into the architectural picture of the Capital andto adhere to the colonial atmosphere of the site. The proposed designrepresented a unique attempt to create a “modern” structure which stillintegrated architectural references to the Colonial and Neoclassical style. Over2 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 PresidentRoosevelt attending and observing the first official landing. American Airlineswon the honor, piloted by Bennett H. Griffin, who later became the manager ofthe 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 wereunder construction with a seventh in the planning stage.
At this time, National Airport was considered the “last word” inairports – a concentration of the ultramodern developments in design ofbuildings, handling of planes, air traffic and field traffic control, fieldlighting, facilities for public comfort and convenience, and surface vehicletraffic control.
NATIONAL OVER THE YEARS:
National Airport became a success, but a controversy over legaljurisdiction began to brew. Was the airport located in Virginia or the Districtof Columbia? The District "owned" the river to Virginia, claiming the boundaryhad been set in 1846 at the high water mark along the shoreline. But since theairport was built on a fill, a new eastern shoreline was created and thequestion arose as to whether the District's authority ended at the new or theoriginal shore.
The problem went unresolved until 1945 when Congress approved abill that fixed the airport boundary at the mean high water mark, regardless ofchanges, which put the airport in Virginia. However, the Congress establishedexclusive federal jurisdiction over National Airport.
The first major expansion was completed in November 1950, when a297-foot extension to the south end of the main terminal added 25,110 squarefeet of space. Five years later, in 1955, the 587 by 17-foot south finger wasadded increasing the square footage by 9,979 square feet and also providingbadly needed aircraft gates and loading positions. Over the years, the runwayshave changed only slightly in length, except for the East-West runway which wasclosed in 1956, and used as a taxiway and for aircraft parking. Today, theairfield contains three runways. The main north-south runway (1/19) is 6,869feet. In recent years, overruns were added to each end of that runway.
In the intervening years more space for passengers and aircraftbecame necessary. In October 1958, the North Terminal was opened, adding anadditional 7,264 square feet of usable space. In 1961, the 772-foot longpassageway 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 thenumber reached 16 million. Airport passenger number have remained between 15 and16 million over recent years.
A TIME FOR RENEWAL
The federal government relinquished direct control of Nationaland Dulles Airports when President Ronald Reagan signed the transfer bill thatauthorized the creation of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority in1987.
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is an independentinterstate agency created by legislation enacted by the Commonwealth of Virginiaand the District of Columbia, with the consent of the United States Congress,for the purpose of operating Washington Dulles International and Ronald ReaganWashington National Airports.
The Airports Authority operates this two airport system whichprovides domestic and international air service for the Metropolitan Washingtonregion. In addition to operating Dulles and National, the Airports Authority, afinancially self-sustaining agency, is responsible for capital improvements atboth airports.
On February 6, 1998, President William Jefferson Clinton signedinto law the bill introduced and passed in Congress that changed the name ofWashington National Airport to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
HIGHLIGHTS IN THE HISTORY OF NATIONAL
1938 President Roosevelt selected the site for the newWashington National Airport.
1940 Dedication of the Washington National Airport byPresident Roosevelt.
1941 Airport opened for business June 16th withone hangar completed and five under construction.
1949 First fixed-based operator (private aircraft servicebusiness) 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 ticketingfacilities 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. Metrorailservice to the airport began.
1982 Night time noise level limitations policy put intoeffect.
1986 Bill transferring the operation of National and Dullesto a new regional Airports Authority was signed by President Reagan.
1987 The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority beganoperations.
1989 Interim Terminal (Hangar 11) opened. Commuter Terminalclosed.
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 Hallopened.
1999 Completed improvements to Mt. Vernon Bridge Trail.
On July 27, 1997, National Airport was transformed by theofficial opening of the new Terminal which offers modern, efficient facilitiesthat include direct connections to Metrorail and new parking garages viaenclosed pedestrian bridges. The three-level, one million square foot terminalhouses 35 aircraft gates and “National Hall”, a main street for shops andeateries on the concourse level.
The terminal provides 100 ticket counters, 12 baggage claims,three piers where airline gates are located and a passenger connector theTerminal A. To enhance the spacious, passenger friendly environment, theterminal offers an unparalleled view of the Nation’s Capital and works of artfrom 30 artists are incorporated into the structure of the terminal usingvarious designs – glass, marble, mosaic, terrazzo, murals, balustrades andsculpture.
Renowned architect Cesar Pelli designed a Washington landmarkthat is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. Pelli’s design included alarge window overlooking airport operations and the Washington, D.C. skyline,and the building is adorned with 54 “Jeffersonian” domes that establish aconnection with the architecture of the region.
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