Past Times: Aviation grew with Raleigh

08/07/2014 5:13 PM

08/07/2014 8:19 PM

Marie Miller, who operated the Raleigh Municipal Airport in the 1930s and ’40s, wrote a column for The N&O about the local aviation scene. The tiny airport saw lots of activity, as the public, including a number of women, embraced the convenience and excitement of air travel.

Must be cold up North, for our southbound traffic has shown a considerable increase the past week. Opening the “Flying South” season was Miss Laura Ingels, who came through in a sleek little Ryan the day before election, stumping mightily for Wendell Wilkie by displaying a sign on the fuselage proclaiming she wanted “no third term.” Next, along came Russ Molderman flying the one-time Republican Presidential candidate, W.D. Gannett of the Gannett Publishing Company.

Arline Davis flew through also, en route from New York to Miami in a Spartan “executive.” This is a five-place, single engined ship, powered with a 400 horsepower Pratt and Whitney Wasp Jr. engine. Miss Davis has used the plane for the past two seasons for racing purposes, entering the New York-to-Miami race last January. She has flown in the Benidx Trophy during her racing career and is well known among the racing pilots. Her airplane has a maximum speed at sea level of 212 miles per hour and a cruising speed at 9600 feet of 200 miles per hour. It lands with flaps at 63 miles per hour – which indicates that Miss Davis really can handle her airplane! –The N&O, Nov. 10, 1940.

In 1931, Eastern Air Transport, the predecessor of Eastern Airlines, became the first commercial airline to offer air passenger service from Raleigh Municipal Airport. But as Raleigh and aviation began to grow, there was soon a need for a larger, more modern airport. In 1991, N&O reporter Dudley Price spoke with James W. Goodwin, who was Eastern’s station manager at RDU from 1940 to 1974.

By the late 1930s, business was outgrowing the old airport. Runways were only 2,100 feet long and could not be expanded, Goodwin said. Although the twin-engine DC-3 carried only 21 passengers, it could not take off fully loaded with passengers or cargo because the runway was too short.

In 1938, Eastern’s president, World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker, told Raleigh and Durham officials they should consider building a new airport.

At the urging of federal officials and with Durham residents tired of driving to Raleigh to catch flights, the municipalities agreed. In 1941, they paid $200,000 for 891 acres of scrub pine and farmland midway between the two cities, and started building an airport.

Construction did not hit high gear, however, until 1942, when the Army Air Corps decided the new airport would be a good base to train pilots. The corps leased the airport, bought another 949 acres and laid out three runways in a triangular arrangement, each 4,500 feet long and 150 feet wide. The airport opened in early spring 1943. On May 1, Eastern moved its operation from Raleigh Municipal to RDU.

RDU’s first terminal was “one little 20-by-40 foot wood frame building,” Goodwin said. “There were no seats in the waiting room at all, just a potbellied stove and small rest rooms for men and women.”

Next to the terminal was the control tower, a two-story wooden “box on stilts.” Controllers, who had no radar, used radios to communicate with pilots. But “with high winds they’d have to evacuate it,” Goodwin said.

Elizabeth C. Crassweller, a former Eastern flight attendant who grew up in Raleigh, remembers flying into Raleigh from Chicago on a four-engine Lockheed Electra in 1961.

“It was just that tiny little airport,” said Crassweller, who lives in Baltimore. “A one-story brick building with one entrance and exit and two gates.

“There was one ticket counter and restaurant. You just walked out the glass doors and were virtually ready to board the plane.”

Passengers, too, were different from today, Crassweller said. For many, an airplane flight was something new.

“It was a big experience, something people would talk about,” she said. “Passengers were always dressed up. You never saw anyone in blue jeans.”

W. Eddie Pegram, RDU’s assistant director for operations, said things hadn’t gotten much more sophisticated when he began working at the airport in 1966.

“There was no security to go through, and you could drive right out onto the field,” he said. “We had young boys come out and try to drag race on the runways and couples would sit right next to the runway and watch planes land.

“We had a farmer that planted the areas between the runways and taxiways with hay. It was a couple of hundred acres ... It was a service to us because he maintained the grounds.” –The N&O Dec. 29, 1991

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About Past Times

History fascinates us. We love to linger over old photographs or accounts of years long gone. Discovering our own personal histories can become an enjoyable pastime. This blog will provide some looks into that past. We'll look at NC history in general, and Triangle history in particular. We'll also try to give you the tips and tools (and connections) for looking at your own history.

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