Visiting the DC-3 Airports
That three airports near the capitol survived the post-9/11 security paranoia is an aviation miracle. And all three remain accessible.
On September 10th, 2001, the world of general aviation was, if not rosy, not too bad. Cessna had re-started single-engine production and a new company called Cirrus was having encouraging success with a composite airplane with a parachute. You could see a future.
A day later, it all but vanished in a choking cloud of smoke and dust that enveloped lower Manhattan, to be followed within the hour by a poisonous black splotch obscuring a mortal gash in the side of the Pentagon.
On September 12th, nothing flew, apart from some twitchy Air Guard fighters and military emergency flights. It took a week to return the nation’s civil aviation to a semblance of normal but it would be a lot longer than that for three airports that lie in the shadow of the capitol’s airspace, variously known as the DC-3 or the Maryland three. College Park Airport, Potomac Airport and Hyde Field—also known as Washington Executive—all have long-standing ties to the capitol area and all three represented a practical way for pilots to fly into Washington without messing with the traffic and fees at Washington Reagan.
That these airports still exist is a case study in determination and survival. Even in the best of times, airports in urban areas live a dicey existence, pressured by encroaching airspace, cranky neighbors and market pressure to give the land over to something more profitable, like shopping malls. After 9/11, the Maryland three had all that, plus the full weight of the federal government viewing them as nothing but paved security risks within sight of the White House. Beating what must be the most lopsided odds ever stacked against small GA airports, all three still exist today in varying degrees of vitality. Last month, on a trip the Capitol area, I took the time to visit all three airports, but I didn’t fly in this time. I rode a motorcycle.
If you imagine the District of Columbia as a square tipped up on one corner with a third of it eroded by the meandering Potomac River, College Park Airport is near the top of the square. It’s but 3.5 miles from the District line and seven from the Capitol building. Because of its long and storied history, College Park may have had the best survival chances following the 9/11 attacks. It also has, along with Hyde Field, a personal connection for me: As a student at the University of Maryland in the early 1970s, I was introduced to J-3 Cubs at College Park, an infatuation that continues to this day.
The modern College Park Airport looks like nothing I remember. Then, as now, it was situated on government-protected land, but now Prince George’s County through the regional park consortium owns it, not the federal government. During the early 1970s, the single runway—15/33 now—was narrow, rough and poorly maintained. I remember having to dodge loose chunks of asphalt while taxiing. The approach to southeast was over a railroad line that’s still there and still busy with freight and commuter traffic. The place was ramshackle when I camped there flying Cubs. Several of the hangars were caved in and the FBO, if you could call it that, was cold, drafty and as far from the sterile, brightly lighted modern ideal as it was possible to get. I loved the place. It had a 1930s charm lost to the Signatures and Million Airs of the modern world. It also had a rich history. Orville Wright taught military aviators to fly there and a guy called Henry H. Arnold—better known as Hap—ran a flying school there and set a few records in the process.
To say that College Park has been through turns as a hard luck airport is an understatement. There were efforts in the mid-1970s to close it and it very nearly ceased to be an operating airport. That all changed when the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission bought the airport and in 1977, it was added to the national register of historic places, all but assuring its survival as an entity, if not a going airport.
Yet it still operates. The runway has been upgraded, there’s an approach and even some new hangars. The operations building—there’s no FBO--resides in a temporary building at the southeast end of the field. It’s a short walk from there to a Smithsonian-affiliated museum that documents the airport’s colorful history. When I flew there, I had no idea the airport was founded just six years after the Wright’s first flew.
Today, manager Lee Schiek describes the airport as in a state of “moribund stability.” The runway was upgraded in the late 1980s when the Metro line came through and there’s a GPS approach to runway 15, although it’s seldom used. A dozen years ago, there was also an FBO and an avionics shop, but they’re gone now, victims of the 9/11 shutdown, which shooed more than 100 airplanes out of the airport. The traffic dropped by 83 percent, Schiek told me. Today, about 45 airplanes remain. There’s no flight training, nor will there ever be, by county ordinance as a noise-restriction measure.
Can anyone one fly into College Park now? Yes, anyone can, but because all three Maryland airports lie in the so-called flight restricted zone (FRZ), the security clearance is onerous. “What we tell people is to fly into BWI, rent a car and go to the FSDO for the application, then drive the rental car down to College Park and leave it. Jump on the Metro and go to National [Reagan] to get the fingerprinting done. Then Metro back and leave the paperwork and you can accomplish the whole thing in one day,” says Schiek. Two weeks later, you get a pin number and you can fly in.
It sounds involved and is, but Schiek says some 2500 pilots have taken the trouble to do that because the nearby Metro stop makes it quick and easy to reach the Capitol area.
At Potomac Airport, owner David Wartofsky told us he thinks the security arrangements might be about to be relaxed, but Schiek’s not so sure. “This really isn’t about security anymore, but power and control in the corner office downtown. Who wants to be the bureaucrat that says we ought to relax security at an airport that’s seven miles from the Rose Garden?” asks Schiek.
Clockwise around the beltway from College Park is Hyde field. In my days of being based at CGS, I recall Hyde being the rough kid on the other side of the tracks. In 40 years, it hasn’t changed much. It’s been through various private owners and without benefit of government beneficence, it hasn’t seen much investment.
Hyde or Washington Executive Airport, if you prefer, has a 3000-foot runway with an approach to runway 5. Geographically, it’s on the southeast side of the District even closer to the Capitol than is College Park. Manager Stan Fetter thinks the place is a slam-dunk if it got the right investment capital. It’s near National Harbor, a popular convention site and although there’s no Metro stop, the beltway and I-295 offer quick access into the District. For many years, Fetter has operated a traffic reporting service out of Hyde.
There are about 67 airplanes based at Hyde, down from 175 before 9/11. Until a little less than a year ago, it had a flight training operation. There are hangars, but in general, the place has a rundown feel and Fetter doesn’t deny it. “It is rough,” he says, “but we’ve had a rough way to go.” For a number of years, a sand and gravel company owned the airport, mined the area, but invested little in the airport itself. As recently as 2002, there was proposal to convert the airport to housing and a shopping center, but the deal fell apart.
“If we could get the financing to make it work as an airport, it’s a no brainer, considering the location,” Fetter says, “but banks aren’t helpful. If somebody with resources was willing to roll the dice, I think they could make a go of it.”
As with College Park, flying in requires jumping through the same security hoops. The Hyde Field web site has a section explaining how to do it and although Fetter says the process is evolving, it still requires a physical visit to the D.C. area to complete the background check.
But a dozen years after the attack, actually using the PIN and navigating the airspace is just business as usual for Fetter and pilots who regularly operate in the area. “It’s gotten to the point where once you get into the system, you actually get better handling. ATC is friendlier to people coming in and with everyone trained, if problems happen, they know to report them,” Fetter says. But it took a few years to get things smoothed out.
The observant traveler on Piscataway Road will notice, just upon reaching Hyde Field, a sign pointing to Potomac Airfield just a mile due west of Hyde. Located adjacent to a tidy housing development at the bottom of a hill, Potomac is the up and comer of the DC-3. It’s owned privately, having been bought by David Wartofsky in the late 1980s as what he calls a “bizarre form of real estate.” But it happens to be real estate in a nice location, even a bit closer to the District than the other two airports and in a non-commercial setting.
And that means that Potomac looks like what it has always been: a small, country airport, albeit a pretty busy and well-kept one. The runway is 2665-long with a GPS approach to runway 6 and, quixotically, the only civil runway we know of painted with Navy FCLP markings. Owner Wartofsky has a well-developed sense of humor and uses Potomac Airfield to test his material. (For a sample, see this video.) Potomac has both tiedowns and hangars available at, according to the airport’s web site, competitive rates.
In the darkest days following 9/11, Wartofsky—and others-—got busy with the government to work out the procedures that today form the basis of the FRZ security procedures. While all three airport managers we talked to said the security procedures work smoothly and have evolved to be less difficult to get if not less onerous, Wartofsky believes the day is not far off when they’ll be relaxed more, if not entirely eliminated.
“What’s the best way to defend something from air attack?” he asks, answering himself: “Point defenses.” In the dozen years since the 9/11 attacks, the federal government has thrown vast sums of money at both anti-terrorism and national-capitol defense. Wartofsky believes between aircraft, missiles and well-disguised close-in systems, the White House and other government buildings can be defended against anything hostile coming out of the DC-3 airports. Although an attack on the White House by a small aircraft did happen once in 1994, the likelihood of it occurring again seems remote, given the defenses in place.
Wartofsky is clearly bullish on flight operations within the FRZ and even if procedures aren’t relaxed or eliminated, pilots have grown so accustomed to them that they’ve become barely noticeable. So much so, in fact, that Potomac has two operating flight schools and may be about to get a third. Timothy Poole, who runs GT Air at Potomac, told me the location is a good one for flight training, despite the close proximity of Washington Reagan Airport and Joint Base Andrews. He says the FRZ security procedures are easily integrated into daily training.
So what’s the outlook for these three airports? Potomac would appear to be the most economically viable. It has plenty of based aircraft and is convenient for transients and Wartofsky appears willing to continue his investments in it. He doesn’t believe the airport’s existence is threatened by the Secret Service, TSA or any other government agency.
Hyde is similarly well located, but until the owner is satisfied that it has a future free of government threat, it’s unlikely to see significant investment. College Park is under the national capitol government umbrella and thus faces little economic pressure.
“One thing we can always fall back on is our historic significance,” says manager Lee Schiek. “I don’t know of any movement, like back in the 70s and 80s, to close the airport. I sense none of that.”
In a world where airports are under siege almost everywhere, that counts as a major victory.