Flying High – The History of Aviation in the Winchester Area Is A Chronicle of Continuing Growth and Progress

Flying High
The History of Aviation in the Winchester Area Is A Chronicle of Continuing
Growth and Progress
By Laura Arenschield
The Winchester Star

Nearly nine years after Orville and Wilbur Wrights historic first flight
in December 1903, motorized air travel made its way to Winchester.

Aviation started in Winchester the 18th of April, 1912, said Robert O.
Noyer, a local aviation writer. That was the day the first airplane visited
Winchester. It was a Curtiss Model 12. It looked a lot like the Wright
brothers-type of airplane the biplane except the guy was sitting up
instead of lying down.

That first plane was flown by Charles F. Walsh, a Curtiss aviator, who had
come to the area specifically to show local residents what this new
invention could do.

Noyers research shows that Walshs five-minute flight was made at 3:45 p.m.

People had never seen an airplane, Noyer said. And … after the Wright
brothers made some rounds, other people came around seeking much acclaim,
because this was really a great thing, that you could fly through the air.

Since that first flight, Winchesters aviation sector has blossomed.

In the past 75 years, the area has had continuous air service, which has
been used to advance the areas economic development and to further aviation
as a hobby.

Winchesters first airport, Bowles Field, was established in 1927.

According to Noyers research, it was a typical grass field with a mowed
runway, a small hangar, and a farmhouse on the airfield.

The airstrip was just east of Winchester and slightly west of the current
intersection of Interstate 81, U.S. 522, and U.S. 50, near the site now
occupied by the Cracker Barrel restaurant.

On Jan. 21, 1931, Bowles Field was renamed Admiral Byrd Field, in honor of
polar explorer Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd, a Winchester native and brother
of Virginia governor and U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd Sr.

On May 9, 1926, Admiral Byrd, then 37, flew over the North Pole, gaining him
acclaim and notoriety as an explorer and aviator.

On Nov. 29, 1929, Byrd became the first person to fly to the South Pole. He
would return to Antarctica three more times in 1930, 1947, and 1955.

During the 1930 trip, he spent six months alone in an advance camp near the
South Pole, surviving temperatures as low as 80 degrees below zero and
weathering a malfunctioning engine vent that poisoned him with carbon
monoxide fumes.

Soon after Admiral Byrd Field opened and shortly after the adventurers famed
1930 expedition to the South Pole, two New York barnstormers, George Scheder
and Charles Duke Douglas, came to the airfield, liked the Winchester area,
and, Noyer said, decided to make it their home base.

In 1931, Scheder and Douglas staged one of their first air shows at the
Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, according to Noyers research.

By 1932, Scheder had taken over Byrd Fields management.

The Winchester Regional Airport Commission, formed in 1963, was created to
oversee the airports operations and to act as an adviser to the City of
Winchester, which owned the facility.

On July 1, 1987, the Winchester Municipal Airport officially became the
Winchester Regional Airport, and the Winchester Regional Airport Authority,
the airports current governing body, was created.

Paul Anderson Jr. was chairman of the Airport Commission when Winchester
Municipal Airport became Winchester Regional Airport. He has been flying out
of the airport since 1959.

When I started flying, the airport was all grass, he said.

Anderson became chairman of the Airport Authority after the airport switched
names, serving as a representative from Frederick County.

Winchester Regional Airport serves the city and Frederick, Clarke, Shenandoah,
and Warren counties.

Anderson said the Airport Authority was created because, quite frankly, the
City of Winchester couldnt afford to fix the airport up anymore.

The airport was becoming key to the areas economic development.

And you had … industries who wanted to locate here and wouldnt, because
the airport wasnt adequate …, Anderson said. The commission soon realized
that the only way the airport could be upgraded and the funds acquired was to
form a regional airport authority.

The Airport Authority created two plans for airport improvements, to be
implemented in five- and 10-year increments, Anderson said.

It hired Delco Associates, a consulting firm, to look at the areas growth and
what the airport needed to become to accommodate and encourage that growth.

We took [the plan] to all agencies involved local, state, and federal and
they all concurred with it, Anderson said. We were able to get funds and
start major construction on the airport.

The 10-year plan was finished in less than six years, Anderson said, and
included a terminal building, a longer runway, and hangars.

Today, the airport is a 24-hour, all-weather operation.

It has a 5,500-foot runway, a full instrument landing system, two
12,000-square-foot public hangars, three private hangars, 52 T-hangars, and
75 tie-down spaces.

Its proposed operating budget for fiscal year 2004 is $1.38 million, most of
which will be raised through fuel sales, hangar rentals, and other private
income sources.

Many people who have used the airport are hobby aviators, but those recreational
flyers were not the original reason for the upgrades, Anderson said.

All the improvements were made for enhancements to economic development and to
improve quality of industry here, he said. If youve got good transportation,
you can be selective about what industry comes here.

By having an adequate transportation network, the airports going to be an asset
to the community rather than a liability.

In 1994, the old terminal building burned down and a new one had to be built,
said David Foley, operations supervisor at the airport.

He also said improvements to the facility have again been made in the interest of
the areas economic development.

Over $17 million since 1987 has been invested in the airport by the Commonwealth
of Virginia Department of Aviation, the [Federal Aviation Administration], the
Airport Authority, and the [participating] jurisdictions, Foley said.

One of the goals of the Airport Authority was to turn the airport into an
economic development tool and still accommodate the recreational flyer.

In 1934, Scheder and Douglas obtained contracts for a federal civilian air mail
program, kicking Winchesters aviation position into high gear.

By 1936, Admiral Byrd Field had become too small to handle the larger aircraft
that had begun to use it.

According to Noyers research, Scheder requested financial and property aid from
Winchester officials, who agreed to lease him a larger plot of land about one and
a half miles from Byrd Field.

The new airport, to be named Winchester Municipal Airport, operated at the site
of the current Winchester Regional Airport.

The total cost for the 1936 facility was $2,700, hangars included, Noyers
research states.

On Dec. 2, 1937, Virginia officially recognized Winchester Municipal Airport as a
licensed commercial airport.

In the following 66 years, the airport would undergo many changes.

Anderson said his interest in the airport has stemmed from his love of flight.

When Im flying, thats one time that Im completely and totally relaxed, he
said. Its my form of recreation and my form of relaxation.

His favorite memory is the first time he flew alone out of Winchester Municipal
Airport.

Its hard to describe, Anderson said. Its just a great feeling the feeling
of freedom. Here I had the chance to go out and fly by myself. Its a feeling you
just cant describe.