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an airplane sits in the foreground with the noes of the airplane facing toward the camera with engines on either side with the airport terminal in the background
An airplane at National Airport (Theodor Horydczak Collection/Library of Congress)

The New National Airport

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This image is from the January 1, 1940 issue of the Civil Aeronautics Journal and is the plan for Washington National Airport developed by the Public Buildings Administration with assistance of staff of the Works Progress Administration.

there are 4 drawing that are Plans for the Washington National Airport. Top one shows an aerial view with the terminal and runways. Second is the terminal building from the field (airplane) side. Third is the terminal building from the public approach side. The Fourth are the Hangars elevation from the field side
Plan for the National Airport from the January 1,1940 issue of Civil Aeronautics Journal. (Image courtesy of Ellen Terrell)

The history of bringing an airport to Washington long predates the ceremonial first shovel on November 19, 1938; Congressional discussions go as far back as the 69th Congress, when H.R. 17208, a bill “To provide for the acquisition of certain land in the District of Columbia and the establishment and operation of a municipal airport thereon,” was introduced on February 18, 1927. A 1936 paper from the Washington Board of Trade, titled Airport for the National Capital and the District of Columbia, lists over 30 congressional bills, hearings, and reports, directly or indirectly related to bringing an airport to the National Capital Area. The publication also includes editorials previously inserted into the Congressional Record for May 12, 1934 (page 8664) and  May 16, 1934 (page 8934).

The passage of the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 (52 Stat. 973; P.L. 75-706) cleared the way for an airport at Gravelly Point, and, in early November 1938, President Roosevelt moved the plan along. An article in the November 17, 1938 Evening Star provides a bit of airport history.

Two articles from the January 1, 1940 issue of Civil Aeronautic Journal include a bit of information about how the project was ahead of schedule — completion of the raising of the landing field was “2 months and 19 days ahead of schedule” with the flying surface ready by July 4, 1940. The airport opened in June 1941 and, when President Roosevelt spoke at the airport that September, his speech included a nod to the long history of the airport’s genesis. You can read a part of what he said courtesy of the American Presidency Project:

“This problem of an adequate flying field for Washington, if you go back to it, has been a problem since the Wright Brothers had their first crash on the Fort Myer parade ground thirty or more years ago. And we might even go further back, indeed, and say the problem has existed ever since Dr. Langley tried to fly his “Aerodrome” from a barge that was anchored just below us here in the Potomac.

“Following my first dream, I kept having bad dreams, as you know, dreams of sudden crashes, and things like that. The dreams got bad, and I was afraid that they might come true. Therefore, upon the passage of the Civil Aeronautics Act, one of the first tasks I asked of the new agency was to create an adequate airport for the nation’s capital.

“That was in August, two years ago. On November 19, 1938, I watched a dredge bring the first mucky soil from beneath ten feet of water near the spot where we now stand. They told me it was a practical thing to do because we could kill two birds with one stone. That is a favorite maxim of mine, and we try to do that wherever we can. By deepening the river, we minimized the possibility of flood damage; and the soil we have dredged out of the old river has been used to build most of the field for the airport.

“They told me, in November, 1938, that it would take two years to make this field usable. Today the field has been used and we are well within that limit by two months. It will be in regular use for the public within three more months, and Assistant Secretary Hinckley tells me that it will be so extensively used, because of the growth of civil aviation in these past two years, that already we must begin to plan other subsidiary airports for Washington as, indeed, we must do in many other parts of the Nation.”

image shows the pick up line at the original National Airport terminal with a covered walkway held up by pillars to the left with the terminal in the distance where cars are idling at the curb
National Airport, original terminal. (Theodor Horydczak Collection/Library of Congress)

Over time the new National Airport evolved as technology and needs changed. Prior to 1984, when control over the airport was transferred to Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, National Airport was under the control of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). A decade later, President Bill Clinton signed Public Law No: 105-154, on February 6, 1998, changing the airport’s name to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Increasing air travel forced the airport to grow and, in the wake of 9/11, security enhancements led to other changes. However, the original terminal is still in use, and the “new” Terminal Two, designed by architect César Pelli, opened in 1997.

aerial view of airport looking north with the airport in the foreground; the parking structure then metro rail and then terminal with air traffic control tower to the left, then plans at the various gates and then the runways. The river and then te other side of the Potomac.
Aerial view of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive/Library of Congress)

If anyone wants to research National Airport, Chronicling America* is a great way to look at news reporting on the airport and its opening. The Library also has a number of photographs and other items related to it including:

There are many other books and periodicals that cover airports and aviation and if you are interested in those, Business has new guide, Airlines & Commercial Aviation Research Guide, that includes resources on all aspects of aviation from aircraft manufacturing and airlines, to air cargo and airports.

*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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