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I dream of an airport museum

Posted: April 25, 2014 10:58 a.m.
Updated: April 28, 2014 5:00 a.m.

Recently, I took my sons on what we called the Cahn All-Boys 2014 Spring Break to see my father in Upper Marlboro, Md., about 30 minutes from downtown Washington, D.C.

We hung out with two of my sisters and some of their kids, went to the National Mall visiting some of the museums, and sat around doing nothing except watch TV on one rainy day.

On the last day, my father decided to treat us to something I would never have thought of: the College Park Aviation Museum. Some folks might know that College Park is home to the University of Maryland. What most might not know is that a short distance away is the airfield where Wilbur Wright -- after he and his brother, Orville, proved powered flight was possible -- came to train the country’s first military pilots in 1909.

There is so much history there, it’s astounding -- the first woman passenger to fly in the U.S. (Mrs. Ralph Van Deman, Oct. 1909); establishment of the first Army aviation school (1911); first testing of an airplane machine gun (1912); the first mile-high flight (Lt. “Hap” Arnold, 1912); regular U.S. Postal Air Mail Service (1918-21); first controlled helicopter flight (Emile and Henry Berliner, 1924).

During its 105 years, College Park has been home to both civilian and military aircraft firsts. It also helped spur industrial development, as Henry Berliner founded the Engineering and Research Corporation (ERCO) on 50 acres near the airport in the 1930s. I’m sure airplane enthusiasts will recognize the name “Ercoupe,” which included features making it safer to fly. The company also helped the military with products during World War II, before getting out of the business in 1947.

Then there’s George Brinckerhoff. He managed the airport from 1927 to 1959. He brought major airshows and air meets to College Park, drawing thousands of spectators. Not only were there stunt planes, air races and mock bombings, but the shows featured -- and encouraged -- female pilots, including Helen MacClosky, Edna Gardner and Helen Frigo.

Brickenhoff fell ill in 1959 and passed management of the field ot his son, Jeff. The airport began to deteriorate, but in 1966, a group called “Save the Airport” and others focused on preserving its history. Among those who helped was Paul Garber, curator of what would become the National Air and Space Museum.

In 1973, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission purchased the airport to maintain as both an operating airfield and historic site. Four years later, it became part of the National Register of Historic Places. Finally, in 1981, the Friends of College Park Airport worked with the commission to create the museum.

The current facility is remarkable, with a number of full-scale reproductions of famous aircraft, including one of the 1910 Wright Model B. There’s hands-on exhibits and simulators for kids and the young at heart.

Oh, and paper airplane contests. My older son took second place in the 13 and up division.

One interactive kiosk noted that, since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the number of aircraft at the field has decreased significantly with it being so close to D.C. There is hope, though, that one day, the airport will see a return to its higher numbers.

The entire experience reminded me that we have a remarkable airport of our own here in Kershaw County: Woodward Field. Woodward’s history begins nearly 20 years later than College Park’s, in 1926, when Ernest Woodward and his brother sold the Jell-O company. They used the proceeds to buy property in and around Camden (Woodward and his wife owned Holly Hedge, selling it to  Marion duPont Scott in 1944). In 1929, Woodward donated 160 acres of land to start the airport. At the time, it was touted as the most modern airfield in the Southeast

During World War II, specifically 1941 to 1944, Woodward became home to the Southern Aviation School (SAS), training American pilots in the Army Air Corps as well as British pilots from the Royal Air Force. Perhaps its most famous student was Robert K. Morgan, pilot of a certain B-17 called the Memphis Belle.

Most if not all of the SAS later became what is now Camden Military Academy, hence the two facilities being neighbors.

I spoke with Assistant Airport Manager Billy Holden on Friday morning. He reminded me that in the airport’s main building there is a 6-foot display cabinet and pictures of some of the airport’s history. He also told me that the field’s maintenance building -- the one with the star on it -- dates back to the earliest days before there were even paved runways.

Holden says the airport is now between 350 and 400 acres in size. It boasts two runways, one nearly 3,000 feet long, the other 5,000 feet in length. According to U.S. Federal Aviation Administration information I could find, Woodward had 38 aircraft based at the field in 2013 with average aircraft operations of 100 per day.  That translates into 36,500 aircraft operations per year.

Aside from the display case and pictures in the main building, the only other mark of the airport’s history is on that old maintenance hangar: a plaque dedicated to the Memphis Belle’s Bob Morgan.

Woodward Field’s history and my experience at the College Park Airport and museum got me thinking: why not here? Perhaps after Central Carolina Technical College’s expansion gets underway, the county, city and others could get together on making my dream of an airport museum in Kershaw County a reality.

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