Washington-Hoover Airport

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Above: Hangars at Washington-Hoover, April 1932

If the potential closure of College Park is a national tragedy, the actual disappearance of Washington’s first “municipal” airport was not. Washington-Hoover Airport was one of the most ill-conceived airports a nation’s capital could have been saddled with, and its passing was little lamented, although its replacement had its own set of difficulties which haunt us to this day.

Washington-Hoover was actually a composite of two adjacent airports. Hoover Airport–located at the intersection of the George Washington Parkway and the 14th Street Bridge–was opened in 1926. Washington Airport, across Military Road, opened the following year. Both were privately owned; in 1930 they came under common ownership and the two airports became one. Neither was paved and their facilities were primitive. Consolidation justified construction of a nice Art Deco terminal for commercial aviation. Nearby was a private club, the probable home of the “Flying Bologna Club.”

earl-steinhauer

Hoover’s Operations Manager, J. Earl Steinhauer, was a friend of Chet’s and flew with him from time to time, as did Jack Wynne, the airport’s Manager. (He was later manager of National Airport after it opened in 1940.)

Washington-Hoover was convenient to central Washington and the Warrington Motor Car Company, so it was a natural place for Chet to both fly in and out of and to conduct the Stinson aircraft trade which was a part of his dealership.  Life at Washington-Hoover, however, was frequently comical. In November 1931 the bird problem in the hangar where Chet’s Stinson Junior was housed was so bad that the aviators resorted to hunting them down with air rifles, which did solve the bird problem in short order. Chet took no chances after that; he built a ceiling under the rafters to protect his beloved Stinson. The following month Chet, while landing at Hoover, spotted a large hole and, braking too suddenly, turned his Stinson over on its back (another event recorded by Ernie Pyle!) Chet had to plead with his rescuers not to break the glass to get him out of the cockpit! The government promptly suspended the plane’s registration while repairs were effected. The following May another column noted that the hay crop at Washington-Hoover could not pay the taxes, and that they had to rent part of the airport to the Johnny Jones Circus to keep the operation afloat.

These problems were small compared the larger ones that crippled the airport from the start. The road that divided the two was never closed, so it has to be blocked when planes taxied from one part to another, and also during takeoffs and landings. Washington-Hoover was selected to host the 1932 Washington Air Derby; part of Chet’s preparations for that event was to write the district commissioners to have the power lines at the end of Washington Field taken down. The airport in general was hemmed in by the development around it, and was unable to expand as airplanes became larger.

As chairman of the Aviation Committee of the Washington Chamber of Commerce, Chet felt that Washington needed a “New Deal” in airports, even though his own personal activities as a sportsman pilot were gravitating to College Park (general aviation was probably being crowded out at Washington-Hoover as well.) The favoured location for a replacement by the Chamber was the “Gravelly Point” site, which eventually won out in spite of objections from such as Gen. Oscar Westover, and became what is now Reagan National Airport. Washington-Hoover closed in 1941; much of its site became the land for the Pentagon. Its replacement soon became hemmed in like its predecessor, and the flight patterns dictated by security and noise considerations have made Reagan National one of the least desirable major airports to take off and land at in the U.S.. Washington-Hoover’s convenience was too addictive to break, an addiction that has haunted Washington commercial aviation ever since.