Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Cradle of Aviation: College Park, MD

College Park Airport (CGS), about half an hour away from us and established in 1909 for Wilbur Wright to train the very first military aviators, is the oldest continually operated airport in the world.

The historic airport is called "The Cradle of Aviation" because it was the site of many aviation "firsts," including the first mile-high flight in a powered airplane, the first controlled helicopter flight, and the first scheduled US airmail service.

The 2600-foot runway still supports general aviation needs today although pilots must undergo enhanced vetting procedures to fly into restricted airspace near Washington DC.

A very small Smithsonian-affiliated aviation museum is also at the airport with historical exhibits and both original and replica historical aircraft. It takes about an hour to go through the exhibit space, which has a long window looking out on the runway.

First Successful Powered Flight
Following their first short flights of several hundred feet at Kitty Hawk, NC on December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright spent the next few years working to build powered aircraft that could sustain controlled flight, and then trying to sell their invention to various skeptical governments.

In 1908 they demonstrated aircraft in both France and the US that could stay in the air for miles while making complex maneuvers, causing an international sensation and securing them contracts with French investors and the American government.

US Army Signal Corps
In the US the Wrights obtained a contract with the Army to build a new airplane and train pilots in its use.

The first test flights took place on the Parade Ground at Fort Myer, VA (adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery) but they soon realized they needed a larger field (and to escape the huge crowds of thousands of onlookers!).

A farm in College Park, MD was selected as the new airfield and Wilbur Wright began training two Army Signal Corps students while Orville Wright went to France to fulfill the contract with the French government.

Early Experiments
Early flights were a dangerous affair, with accidents common. In fact, during the 1908 demonstration flights in Virginia for the Army, Orville Wright crashed from a height of 75 feet when a propeller blade broke, killing his passenger and leaving Orville with severe injuries.

Wilbur Wright trained two pilots in late 1909 at the airfield in College Park, with spectators making the trek to even this remote location to witness the flights, including races against the B&O Railroad trains that ran along one edge of the field.

The aircraft was on skids rather than wheels, with the plane sliding on the ground like a sled upon landing.

After the initial training was completed College Park continued to host aviation experiments including several oriented toward warfare, such as the first bomb sights (dropping inert bombs into goldfish ponds at the end of the field) and the first machine gun on an airplane.

Despite this promising start, patent disputes between the Wrights and competitors such as Glenn Curtiss would delay the development of American aircraft, so that when the United States entered World War I American aviators were forced to fly French planes.

How To Get To The Museum:

College Park Aviation Museum
1895 Corporal Frank Scott Drive
College Park, MD 20740

Hours: Open Daily 10 AM - 5 PM, except major holidays

Tours: The museum is self-guided, but group tours can be arranged in advance on weekdays only for groups of 10 or more.

Mornings in the Museum are the second Saturday of each month, when museum educators discuss certain topics in greater detail (Air Mail on April 9; Military Aviation on May 9; and Biological Flyers on June 13).

Cost: Adults $4; Seniors $3; Children $2 (FREE 1 and under)

The College Park Airport and the museum are just off Paint Branch Parkway, within walking distance of the College Park/University of Maryland stop on DC Metro's Green Line. Driving from our area it's easiest to take the Kenilworth Avenue (MD-201) exit from the Beltway to Paint Branch Parkway, which avoids much of the traffic and lights on Route 1.

College Park Aviation Timeline

Emile and Henry Berliner's Helicopter

  • Jan. 27, 1908: In response to a solicitation from the US Army Signal Corps, the Wright Brothers submit a bid to supply a 2-passenger flying machine capable of going 40 mph.
  • Sep. 1908: Orville Wright sets records in demonstrations at Ft. Myer, VA for the Army. He is badly injured and his passenger killed in a crash on Sep. 17th.
  • Jul. 1909: Orville Wright flies demonstrations at Ft. Myer satisfying the Army's requirements. Flights are witnessed by President Taft.
  • Oct. 8 - Nov. 2, 1909: Wilbur Wright trains three aviators at College Park, making 55 flights including his final record-setting flight (46 mph over 500 meters).
    • Oct. 27, 1909: Mrs. Ralph Van Deman becomes the first woman passenger in America on a flight at College Park piloted by Wilbur Wright.
  • Summer 1911: The US Army establishes its first aviation school at College Park, where aviators experiment with aerial radio communications, photography, automatic weapons firing, signaling systems, and bombing devices. Aviators included "Hap" Arnold (later the first and only officer to be given the rank of General of the Air Force) and Thomas DeWitt Milling.
    • First bomb sight
    • First nighttime landing (using acetylene lamps for lighting)
  • Jun. 7, 1912: First test firing of a machine gun from an airplane by Lt. Milling.
  • 1912: First mile-high flight by a military aviator, with this and other records set by Lt. Henry "Hap" Arnold.
  • Oct. 7, 1912: Pioneering woman aviator Bernetta Adams Miller is selected to make the first military monoplane demonstration to US Army officials at College Park.
  • 1912-1917: Washington Aeroplane Company builds its Columbia biplane at College Park.

  • Aug. 12, 1918: College Park becomes the Washington terminus for the first US Postal Service airmail service to Philadelphia and New York through 1921. The original compass rose and airmail hangar remain at College Park today but are not open to museum visitors.
  • 1920-1924: Emile and Henry Berliner begin testing vertical flight machines at College Park, and make the first controlled helicopter flight at College Park on Feb. 24, 1924. Henry would go on to establish ERCO in nearby Riverdale, MD with the goal of building simpler, safer airplanes.
  • 1927-1935: The Bureau of Standards develops and tests the first radio navigation aids for all-weather flying at College Park.

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