Open spaces such as racetracks, golf courses, polo fields and fairgrounds made for the earliest airfields. These offered flat and smooth surfaces with predictable winds, which were essential for initial gliders and fixed-wing aircrafts to take flight.
Together with locations situated on prairies or close to water where winds could be predicted, Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, were popular choices for early controlled and powered flights.
While Huffman Prairie near Dayton, Ohio entertained the Wright Brothers’ groundbreaking 1905 flights of the Flyer 3, and the Parisian ground of the Champ de Maneoeuvres, Issy-les-Moulineaux witnessed Louis Blériot’s pre-1910 flight models, neither of these grounds facilitated passenger flights.
The first commissioned airports were in Germany in 1910, which were primarily for the Delag-operated Zeppelin airships. Delag then constructed airship sheds in many German cities situated near rail hubs from 1913. These could handle passengers and maintenance of their airships. Prior to War World I in 1914, close to 34,000 passengers across 1,600 flights had been attended to in these airports.
By 1912, the United States had 20 airports, which were mostly converted from fields and country clubs. In comparison, over the course of World War I, 67 military airfields were established on farms and parks, although with the understanding that most would be reconverted when the war ceased.
There was even a failed attempt at a passenger service in South Florida in 1914, where a waterside building was modified to cater to passengers and aircraft supplies. With the close of World War I, 980 fields were listed as official airfields. Yet, unfriendly golf courses and insufficient racetracks rendered most of them unusable by aircraft.
The first regular airmail flight took place in May 15, 1918, on a polo field situated in downtown Washington, D.C. Dry Nevada lake bottoms, gas stations found on roadways, and even packing crates which housed airplane deliveries, served as “aerial garages”, otherwise known as hangars and maintenance shops. The post-World War I military parade grounds of Le Bourget and Tempelhof were converted into airports.
By 1919, five air stations, including emergency stops, were constructed by the U.S. Postmaster Otto Praeger between New York and Chicago. The Federal Government convinced local Chicago businessmen to contribute to a $15,000 hangar, with potential profits from passenger travel.
In 1920, scheduled international flights became commonplace in the United States with passengers traveling by Aeromarine West Indies Airways between Key West, Florida and Havana, Cuba. With 145 airports by the end of 1920, the airport system slowly began to take shape across the nation.
Early Post Office air stations featured 2 perpendicular runways and a tower with a light beacon of the intensity of 500,000-candlepower. These stations eventually evolved into 2,000-foot by 2,000-foot square designs by 1924, which facilitated multi-directional takeoff and landing regardless of the wind.
Airport fields were typically the size of 70 to 100 acres, with gravel or cinder covered surfaces to assist drainage. The fields were relatively bare, commonly with only one hangar, and bare essentials such as gasoline and oil storage, and telephone connection – all spread out to guard against fire or crash accidents. Most were built on the square postal air station design, although variety came in the form of perpendicular T-shaped strips or rectangles.
From the 1930s prior to World War II, pilots relied on airmarking to fly during the day. To aid navigation and identification of airports, rooftops or hillsides were visually marked. The 50,000-candlepower beacons were used for night flight instead.
The growth of airports began slowly in Canada, but it eventually grew to 77 air harbors by 1930 from an initial 37 in 1922. The Prairie Air Mail Service started to link Winnipeg with Calgary and Edmonton, where its older municipal airport opened its doors in January 1927.
Across the world, airports continued to experience growth. Australia saw 181 public airports with passenger flights and support capabilities by April 1936. This was on top of the 200 designated open landing areas. The Soviet Union had a massive airport linking system, which stretched across Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Leningrad, Kiev and Tashkent, north of Afghanistan. The Soviet airline Aeroflot served the world’s biggest domestic air network, with over 500 million passengers catered to by 1975.
Despite the majority of airlines preferring to fly from grass or water, and perhaps protestations from Henry Ford, the first laid hard surfaced runway in the U.S. was publicly unveiled in Newark, New Jersey, on October 1, 1928. It measured 1,600 feet in length. In 1929, Pan Am became the first airline in the U.S. to build its own airport – the Pan American Field. Part of the 116-acre field was rented to its competitor Eastern Airlines. As a precursor to radio communication between airplanes and ground staff, Pan Am used a radio station for Morse code signaling in 1930.
The Berlin Zentralflughafen Tempelhof was widely recognized as one of the world’s largest building in 1938. With simultaneous boarding facilities available for 300 planes and a handling capacity of 300,000 passengers annually, the Tempelhof roof could also accommodate 100,000 visitors watching airplane arrivals and departures. Its model of charging visitors admission fees was duplicated by countless airports trying to cash in on the public’s growing flight fascination.
Read also: National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics