U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission home page


Seaplane test hangar at Pensacola

The seaplane tent hangar at the Naval Air Station at Pensacola, Florida in 1914.

North Island airfield during WWI

Typical of military installations during World War I, the airfield at North Island, San Diego, California, was furnished with wooden hangars and headquarters.

Curtiss H-12L flying boats

Curtiss H-12L flying boats, 1918.

Plane at Bellefonte

Bellefonte Air Mail field was one of the early landing fields set up for airmail planes in the 1920s. An early morning arrival from Cleveland glides in for a landing.

Hangar at Omaha after tornado

This early hangar in Omaha, Nebraska, was hit by a tornado in 1924.

The Earliest Airports

The first airfields were any flat ground with predictable winds where the surface was relatively smooth. These open spaces were not permanent, dedicated areas for aircraft but were more often racetracks, golf courses, polo fields, or fairgrounds.


The earliest glider and fixed-wing flights required steady but gentle breezes to fly. Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, where the first powered, controlled flight took place, had sand dunes bordered by a grassy slope that was swept by Atlantic Ocean winds. Other early flights took place on prairies or near water because the series of warming then cooling air masses created predictable wind patterns.


Huffman Prairie outside of Dayton, Ohio, with its short grass and thermal-driven air currents, was where the 1905 flights of the Wright brothers' Flyer 3 took place. A windswept military parade ground near Paris and the Seine River, the Champ de Maneoeuvres at Issy-les-Moulineaux, helped Louis Blériot fly his earliest models before 1910 on convective currents rising from the water. None of these experimental grounds was permanent or friendly to passengers.


Operational airfields existed as early as 1909, but the first spaces built and dedicated as airports were commissioned in Germany in 1910 for the Zeppelin airships operated by the Delag company. Beginning in 1913, Delag built airship sheds in several German cities near rail hubs, combining passenger-handling facilities with airship maintenance. By 1914, before the start of World War I, Delag's airports had handled almost 34,000 passengers traveling on 1,600 flights.


The United States listed 20 airports by the end of 1912, though none had been built exclusively for that purpose but rather had been converted from fields or even country clubs. The U.S. Army had established three military airfields at the time of the First World War, and during the war, 67 military airfields were carved from farms and parks with the intention that they would return to grassland at the war's end.


In 1914, a short-lived passenger service began in South Florida. It used a converted waterside building for waiting passengers and aircraft supplies, and the flying boats left from reinforced docks. By the end of World War I, the U.S. Army Air Service (USAAS) listed 980 official landing fields but most were unsuitable for aircraft. Pilots had to navigate bunkers, flags, and low ridges on golf courses. Racetracks had tracks long enough for landing a plane but too short for taking off—hardly practical.


The USAAS listed two baseball grounds and several polo fields, including the one in downtown Washington, D.C., where the first regular airmail flight departed on May 15, 1918. "Aerial garages," the forerunner of hangars and maintenance shops, included dry lakebeds in Nevada and roadside gas stations along early roadways. Some aviators built hangars using the packing crates in which early airplanes had been delivered. Both Le Bourget in Paris and Tempelhof in Berlin were originally military parade grounds, which after World War I and some renovating, reopened with the labels of aerodrome and airport.


U.S. Postmaster Otto Praeger established five air stations at existing experimental airplane fields between New York and Chicago by the end of 1919, plus emergency stops consisting of a hangar, an extra airplane, relief pilot, and supplies and mechanics. At the mail station in Chicago, local businessmen donated a $15,000-hangar. The Federal Government tapped businessmen for airport funds because they stood to profit from passenger travel.


The United States began regularly scheduled international air travel in 1920 when Aeromarine West Indies Airways carried passengers by seaplane between a pier at Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba. By the end of 1920, there were 145 municipally owned airports and the nationwide airport system was beginning to form.


Post Office air stations usually had two runways set at right angles to each other plus a powerful light beacon revolving on a tower. The strength of artificial lighting is measured by how many candles it would take to burn as brightly, and the Post Office specified 500,000-candlepower beacons. By 1924, the most common design of airmail stations was a 2,000-foot by 2,000-foot (610-meter by 610-meter) square to allow for takeoff and landing into whichever direction the wind was blowing.


Airport surfaces were spread with gravel or cinders to help drainage. The only equipment and buildings were typically one hangar, gasoline and oil storage, a wind indicator, a telephone connection, and a location marker, all well spaced in case of fire or crash. Fields ranged from about 70 acres to 100 acres. Non-postal airports copied the square design of postal air stations, though some built rectangles, T-shapes with a perpendicular landing strip, or L-shapes with a crosswind runway.


Most flying took place in daylight when pilots relied on the practice of writing numerals, messages, or symbols on rooftops or hillsides to direct pilots toward the nearest airport. This practice, called airmarking, from the 1930s was an important means of visual navigation until around World War II, although some airmarks remained until modern times. At night, airmail pilots also used 50,000-candlepower beacons to help them spot emergency landing grounds.


In Canada, airport development was slow. The country claimed only 37 licensed "air harbors" by 1922. Six of the landing fields were smaller than 900 square feet (275 square meters). By 1930, the number of Canadian aerodromes had grown to 77, and the Prairie Air Mail Service began linking Winnipeg with Calgary and Edmonton. Edmonton has Canada's oldest municipal airport, which opened in January 1927.


On the other side of the world, Australia's principal cities, Sydney and Melbourne, have both had airports since 1921 and by April 1936, 181 public aerodromes with passenger and support facilities plus another 200 unimproved, open spaces were designated for landing. 


The Soviet Union began its first regular air service in the summer of 1922, linking Moscow with Nizhny Novgorod. Moscow linked with Leningrad in the northwest, Kiev in the southwest, and Tashkent north of Afghanistan, with some 3,500 Soviet towns and cities. Aeroflot, the Soviet airline, grew to 500 million passengers by 1975, serving what was then the world's largest domestic network of airports.


The first permanent, hard-surfaced runway in the United States was claimed to be at Newark, New Jersey, which opened on October 1, 1928, at 1,600 feet (488 meters) long, though Henry Ford may have built one at Dearborn, Michigan, earlier. However, most airlines continued flying from grass, or water for several more years. In 1929, Pan American Airways flew a grass-water route from Dinner Key, Miami, through Key West to Havana twice daily in a Sikorsky S-38 amphibian craft. Some airlines developed their own airports. In 1929, Pan Am replaced its rickety pier at Miami and built the first true, U.S. land-based international airport, 116-acre Pan American Field. Pan Am rented part of its facilities and ground equipment to competitor Eastern Airlines.


In 1930, Pan Am installed a radio station to send signals by Morse code. That same year, two-way radio telephone between the ground and aircraft and between aircraft in the air began to be used. Gradually, airports stopped using flagmen on the ground to signal to aircraft.


By 1938, Berlin Zentralflughafen Tempelhof at Tempelhof Airport was one of the world's largest buildings. The Tempelhof waiting room was 330 feet by 160 feet (101 meters by 49 meters) in size, and its hangars were a mile (1.6 kilometers) long under a single cantilevered roof that served as a rain shield. As many as 300 planes could be boarded at once. Tempelhof could handle 300,000 passengers per year, and its roof could hold 100,000 visitors to watch airplanes arriving and departing. Many early airports, including some in the United States, copied Tempelhof's practice of charging admission fees to profit from the public's fascination with flight.


--Roger Mola



Gilbert, Glen A. Air Traffic Control: The Uncrowded Sky. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973.

Greif, Martin. The Airport Book, From Landing Field to Modern Terminal. New York: Main Street Press, Mayflower Books, 1979.

Horonjeff, Robert and McKelvey, Francis. Planning & Design of Airports. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1983.

Wells, Alexander T. Airport Planning & Management. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1992.

Zukowsky, John, editor. Building for Air Travel - Architecture and Design for Commercial Aviation. Munich and New York: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1996.


Air Transport World. http://atw.atwonline.com/links.cfm#AIRPORTS  (URLs for airports and airlines worldwide)

“The Ninety-Nines – Which Airport Is That?” http://www.ninety-nines.org/airmark.html


Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 18

 Students will develop an understanding of transportation technologies.

National Council for Geographic Education

Standard 1

How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools, and technologies to process information.