Airports in the District of Columbia

On October 28, 2015 · 3 Comments

I mentioned that no airport existed within the physical boundaries of the District of Columbia in the recently posted Airport Visits article. That would block me from ever traveling through airports in every state/territory/district in the United States. I wanted to put a little asterisk next to the claim. That certainly held true for commercial aviation, whether general aviation or scheduled airline service. It also applied to fixed wing aircraft. It might be possible if the President ever invited me along for a ride on Marine One and we landed at Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling by helicopter. I didn’t think the influence of Twelve Mile Circle would ever grow strong enough to make that happen so it remained an elusive goal.



Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport

It shouldn’t have been that way. National Airport (later renamed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport) really should have been part of the District of Columbia. Even the airport itself noted the inherent contradiction.

Was the airport located in Virginia or the District of Columbia? The District "owned" the Potomac River to Virginia, claiming the boundary had been set in 1846 at the high water mark along the shoreline. But since the airport was built on a fill, a new eastern shoreline was created. The question arose as to whether the District’s authority ended at the new shore or the original one. The problem went unresolved until 1945 when Congress approved a bill that fixed the airport boundary at the mean high water mark, regardless of changes, which placed the airport in Virginia.

Certainly the original boundaries would have been preserved had airport construction taken place along a border between two states instead of a state and a Federal district. Open hostilities would have erupted if any state ever attempted such a blatant land grab against another, and it would have been overturned by the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, the District of Columbia didn’t have the power to fight back and National Airport became a part of Virginia. In a sense I feel like I’ve landed at an airport in DC a couple of hundred times although the law says I’ve actually landed in Arlington, Virginia.

I wondered if the feat might have been possible during the early days of flight. I couldn’t find a single reference to a commercial airport operating within the borders of the District of Columbia (other than the early ambiguity of National Airport). Perhaps nobody in the entire history of aviation ever took a scheduled airline flight into or out of an airport within the physical boundaries of Washington, DC.


Military flights, well, that was a completely different story.



Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling

There was a long history of fixed wing aircraft flights into and out of Naval Support Facility Anacostia and Bolling Field, now joined together as Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling. There were two separate airstrips constructed on the drained mudflats along the eastern side of the Anacostia/Potomac River confluence, very much within the borders of the District. Only a short taxiway separated the two airfields so they were essentially conjoined, although they were operated separately by the Navy and the Army (later the Air Force). I mentioned the situation briefly in More Oddities in Washington, DC back in 2010. I said at the time that "I’ve done some additional research on this topic and I expect to post an in-depth article someday in the future." Well, five years passed and I finally got around to it. I never claimed that 12MC was prompt or efficient.


54-2808 C-131D SAMARITAN CONVAIR USAF RIV MARCH FIELD MUSEUM
54-2808 C-131D SAMARITAN CONVAIR USAF RIV MARCH FIELD MUSEUM by ERIC SALARD via Flickr (cc)
This plane was listed as stationed at Bolling Field in 1954

I found a great resource that discussed aviation history at both facilities, Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields: Washington, DC. It included tons of photographs and maps for those who might be interested in the details. Apparently from about 1917 until 1962, fixed wing military aircraft landed routinely at both sites. During the World War II, as the source stated, Anacostia even became "a primary training base for naval aviation." The party ended on July 1, 1962 when "the last fixed-wing flight departed Bolling AFB, a C-54 carrying 33 passengers & 6 crew members, bound for nearby Andrews AFB." The runways had to close for two primary reasons: they were too short for jet aircraft and National Airport stood directly across the river with some of the busiest commercial runways in the nation. The likelihood of a collision between military and civilian aircraft only increased as the years passed until it became an unmanageable risk.


The "Super Moon" rises over Reagan National Airport
The "Super Moon" rises over Reagan National Airport by Joseph Gruber via Flickr (cc)
Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling and its tower can be seen in the background

Fear not, aviation continued even after runway removal at Anacostia and Bolling. The focus shifted from airplanes to helicopters. The military constructed a control tower and hangers still used today, clearly visible along the banks of the river opposite from National Airport. For many years "Marine One," the helicopter that transported the President of the United States on short trips, used Anacostia as its base.


Sikorsky VH-3 Sea King Helicopter
Sikorsky VH-3 Sea King Helicopter by Mr.TinDC via Flickr (cc)
Using Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling

Marine Helicopter Squadron One now operates out of of Quantico in Virginia although it continues to maintain a detachment at Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling. One can still see helicopters landing and lifting off from their facility within the District of Columbia regularly.

A handful of civilian flights actually landed in the District within the last few decades although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. The latest involved a small gyrocopter landing on the grounds of the Capitol in April 2015 as a protest in support of campaign finance reform. Authorities arrested the perpetrator immediately. As the Federal Aviation Administration warned,

The airspace around Washington, D.C. is more restricted than in any other part of the country. Rules put in place after the 9/11 attacks establish "national defense airspace" over the area and limit aircraft operations to those with an FAA and Transportation Security Administration authorization. Violators face stiff fines and criminal penalties.

Even drones were prohibited "within a 30-mile radius of Ronald-Reagan Washington National Airport." That’s right, I’m prohibited by law from flying a drone anywhere near my own home! Sadly, I believe it would be statistically impossible for me to ever fly into the District in any manner, and even more unlikely to arrive within its borders on a scheduled airline service. Loyal Reader "Peter" mentioned that the state of Delaware lacked any scheduled airline service too, albeit its largest city, Wilmington had been served in the past. There might be some hope that service could return to Delaware someday. I don’t think that will ever happen in the District of Columbia, though.

On October 28, 2015 · 3 Comments

3 Responses to “Airports in the District of Columbia”

  1. Doug R. says:

    On a satellite image (such as google maps) you can see what appears to be a very short runway at 38.853972, -77.012076… is this a part of Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling? And if so, I wonder what it’s function is?

    Perhaps is it used by Osprey type helicopters that can do a very-short takeoff?

    If anybody can find out 12MC can!

  2. Scott says:

    I use OpenFlights to track every flight I have ever been on – it’s a great site and easy to use. You can do all sorts of analyses on the data, and export it to an Excel spreadsheet or Google Earth. Here’s mine: openflights.org/user/scottsinct

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