The world's oldest continuously operating airport was founded by the Wright Brothers in College Park, Maryland.
After making the first sustained, controlled flight of a heavier-than-air vehicle in 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made repeated attempts to negotiate a contract with the U.S. Department of War. The military men, at first, were slow to grasp the battlefield applications of airplanes, however, and it wasn't until 1909 that they took the Wright Brothers up on their pitch.
After a few test flights with the Army at Fort Meyer in Virginia, it was determined that a facility specifically designed for aircraft was needed. Wilbur Wright oversaw the construction of the College Park Airport in 1909.
It was here that Wilbur schooled Lieutenants Frederic Humphreys and Frank Lahm on how to fly their airplanes, leading the two to become the first official military pilots. In 1911, civilians began flying airplanes from College Park Airport, and it has operated ever since.
The ‘Cradle of Aviation’
The airport has been nicknamed the “cradle of aviation” and is home to many aviation firsts. The first female passenger in an airplane, Irene Van Deman, flew here in 1909, and in 1912 Bernetta Adams Miller became the first female pilot to fly a military aircraft. In 1911 and 1912, bombsights and machine guns were fitted onto airplanes and tested for the first time. In 1912, Lieutenant Henry Arnold became the first pilot to reach a mile in altitude. In 1918, the Post Office began its airmail service here, expediting mail delivery between Washington, Philadelphia, and New York City. In 1920, Emile and Henry Berliner made the first vertical take-off here, pioneering the development of the helicopter. In 1927, the Bureau of Standards began testing the use of radio navigation to assist pilots flying in bad weather.
A museum opened adjacent to the airport in 1981, and after a partnership with the Smithsonian Institute and heavy renovation, was reopened in 1998. Its exhibits educate visitors on the history of aviation in general, as well as how the College Park Airport was integral to the industry's early evolution.
On display in the museum are numerous original and replica aircraft and other artifacts, including a Wright Brothers glider and Wright Brothers Model B aircraft, one of the original planes used for mail service by the Post Office, the Berliner aircraft that is now considered the first helicopter, and a recreation of what the interior of the College Park Airport hangar looked like circa 1909. One wall of the museum is adjacent to the airport's runway and entirely windowed. If you're lucky, you may see a plane taking off or landing during your visit.
Know Before You Go
The museum is only a short walk through an industrial area from the College Park metro station. There is also ample parking. It's open daily (except for major holidays) from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Content originally created for Atlas Obscura.