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75 Years of Flight in Columbus

This year marks the 75th anniversary of powered flight at Port Columbus, and with it we celebrate the long and respected history of aviation in Central Ohio. Even in its humble beginnings Columbus had its eyes set on the sky.

The Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903 sparked a worldwide intrigue for flying machines that swept into Columbus, inspiring 14-year old native son Cromwell Dixon to build a “SkyCycle”, which he flew at Driving Park in 1907. By the early 1920s members of Columbus’ Aeroclub were promoting the need for a commercial airport in the city. Columbus gained national attention in the late 1920s when Charles Lindbergh recommended the City as a vital link for coast-to-coast, rail to air travel.

At that time Lindbergh was serving as a technical consultant for Transcontinental Air Transport, Inc. (TAT), formed by the merging of Pennsylvania Railroad with the Atchison Topeka and Sante Fe Railroads. TAT planned to combine trains and planes in transporting passengers coast-to-coast in record-breaking time for the era, and they wanted Columbus on the route.

After a bond levy failed in 1927, Lindbergh visited Columbus in 1928 promoting an $850,000 construction bond. With efforts by other airport proponents, the bond passed on November 6, 1928. Lindbergh selected the site for Port Columbus, and groundbreaking took place in early 1929 under the direction of City Service Director W. H. Duffy and Columbus Mayor James J. Thomas.

The rest is history.

In its infancy, Port Columbus covered 524 acres, with two runways measuring 2,500 and 3,500 feet in length. At the time, this was ample space. Yet the Port Columbus of today, by comparison, dwarfs it in size. Spanning 2,100 acres, with a terminal nearly 800,000 square feet in size and runways over three times as long, the evolution of Port Columbus International Airport shows us just how far air travel has come.

On July 8, 1929, Port Columbus officially opened for business. With it, Port Columbus became the eastern transfer point for TAT passengers traveling cross-country by rail and air. Nineteen daring people including famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who served as Assistant to TAT’s General Manager, made the inaugural westbound trip. After leaving New York City at 7:05 pm by train on July 7, they arrived at Port Columbus Station aboard “The Airway Limited” at 7:55 am the following day. Two Ford Tri-Motors, the “City of Columbus” and the “City of Wichita,” were waiting to take them to Waynoka, Oklahoma where they would transfer to another train for the third leg of their journey. The entire coast-to-coast trip was publicized as taking 48 hours to complete. Several dignitaries were on hand in Columbus for the dedication ceremony, including:

  • Myers Y. Cooper, Governor of Ohio
  • John M. Vorys, Ohio Director of Aeronautics
  • David S. Ingalls, Assistant Secretary of Navy for Aeronautics
  • William Oxley Thompson, President Emeritus of The Ohio State University
  • Amelia Earhart, Famed aviatrix and Assistant to TAT General Manager
  • Henry Ford, Automobile pioneer, and his son Edsel
  • Harvey Firestone, Tire entrepreneur, and his three sons

Over 3,000 people witnessed the event, which despite the rainy day, proved to be an enormous success. In fact, over 100 airplanes flew into Port Columbus that weekend alone to join in the celebration of cross-country travel. In their first year of service, TAT would show revenue of $3,839. After completing 3,406 trips, moving 11,282 passengers, in its inaugural year. The future of Port Columbus looked bright.

Regrettably, the Great Depression, which began in 1929, prevented profitable operation for nearly 15 years. The luxury of flight was one that few could afford. Despite all of that, the airport remained active. In 1930, Continental Air Lines – not affiliated with today’s Continental, but rather part of Universal Aviation Corporation, predecessor of today’s American Airlines – brought the first scheduled mail and express service to the airport by moving their Mail, Express and Passenger operation from Sullivant Avenue Airport on the west side of town to Port Columbus.

In October 1930 the scheduled train-plane operation was suspended with the introduction of all air coast-to-coast service by the renamed and merged company of Transcontinental and Western Air Inc. (TWA). The Port Columbus Railroad Station continued to be used occasionally for a number of years to pick up stranded airline passengers grounded by bad weather. By the time 1939 rolled around, 15 flights operated by both TWA and American Airlines were taking off at Port Columbus every day.

Port Columbus opened as the eastern air link on the country’s first rail/air transcontinental travel service, operated by Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT). The airport was inaugurated July 8, 1929, when the train “The Airway Limited” arrived from New York City and passengers transferred to two awaiting Ford Tri-Motor aircraft to continue their journey to California.

U.S. mail first landed at Port Columbus in 1930 and is still today transported by the airlines.

City of Columbus Mayor James J. Thomas helped lay the cornerstone in 1928 for the first Port Columbus terminal built on Fifth Avenue near Hamilton Road at the southeast corner of the current airport grounds. The Columbus Regional Airport Authority still owns the structure, although it is privately managed as a commercial property.

Many people fondly recall being able to watch aircraft on the observation deck of the current terminal that opened in 1958.

All three air traffic control towers used during the 75 year history of Port Columbus remain standing as a testament to the progress of aviation in Central Ohio.


Timeline: World War II and Beyond

Port Columbus was one of only 31 non-military fields in the country (and the only one in Ohio) capable of handling military aircraft.

Curtiss-Wright Corporation leased 83 acres of land on the southwestern portion of the field to produce the famous SB2C “Helldiver” and SO3C-1 “Seagull” aircraft. Approximately 5,200 “Helldivers” were built at the plant. Over 700 Navy Observation aircraft were also built there. Some of these aircraft were used in the first major attack on Rabaul during World War II.

The Federal government took over airport operations and invested $1.5 million to enlarge the facilities.

A Naval Air Facility was established at Port Columbus. The Navy erected several buildings, lengthened the runways and enlarged the ramp facilities.

The Navy relinquished its control of the airport and Mayor James A. Rhodes named a new Metropolitan Airport Commission. Francis A. Bolton, a Navy veteran, was appointed superintendent of Port Columbus. At the age of 26, Bolton was the youngest large-city airport manager in the country.

A new Control Tower opened across the field from the airport terminal building.

On September 21 the new terminal building, part of the Port Columbus we know today, was dedicated.

Port Columbus entered the jet age September 1 when a TWA Convair 880 arrived from New York City’s Idlewild Airport to begin scheduled jet passenger service.

Port Columbus celebrated its 50th anniversary with a huge Air Show and later began a 3-year, $70 million face-lift to increase capacity and add passenger conveniences such as enclosed passageways for boarding and deplaning aircraft.

Airport expansion produced ”A” concourse on the terminal’s south side for use by USAir. Additional renovations improved retail shops, flight information displays, lighting and the food court.

Operation of Port Columbus was transferred to Columbus Municipal Airport Authority from the City of Columbus.

“C” concourse on the north side of the terminal opened along with additional ticket counter and baggage claim space for Delta and Southwest airlines. New gift shops and restaurants were included in the expansion.

Construction begins on a food court at the entrance to the center of “B” concourse.

The largest capital project in the airport's history was completed. The $92 million project included a six-level parking garage, extensive rental car and roadway improvements as well as a stunning atrium.

The FAA broke ground for a new state-of-the-art control tower scheduled to be operational in late April 2004. As 2001 came to an end, so did the 72 year service of TWA, successor of Columbus' first airline TAT. American Airlines took over TWA's operation in December.

On January 1, the Columbus Municipal Airport Authority merged with the Rickenbacker Port Authority to form the Columbus Regional Airport Authority, which operates Port Columbus International, Rickenbacker International and Bolton Field airports.

Port Columbus celebrates its 75th anniversary.

All photos graciously provided by The Ohio Historical Society. To learn more about The Ohio Historical Society, please call 614-297-2300 or visit the society 1982 Velma Avenue, Columbus, OH 43211.

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