Airports in the District of Columbia

On October 28, 2015 · 2 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.

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 the Steps

On March 1, 2015 · 5 Comments

I sat there cycling through television channels aimlessly the other day like I do when I’m bored. I came across a famous a scene from one of the Rocky movies where the hero Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) started running up the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (map). You know the scene I’m talking about.

Philadelphia Museum of Arts (Rocky steps)
Philadelphia Museum of Arts (Rocky steps) by Alonso Javier Torres, on Flickr (cc)

He’s climbing the steps triumphantly to a soundtrack of "Gonna Fly Now" and you know someone’s about to get a pounding. I didn’t stick around long enough to figure out which movie it was — apparently Stallone recreated the scene in just about every Rocky movie — although it did get me thinking. Movie locations aside(¹), were there any genuine historical events that happened on steps or stairs?

On the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial

The occurrence that came to mind immediately was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (map) in 1963. The site selected by Dr. King was highly symbolic, as it was the 100th anniversary year of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that trumpeted freedom for slaves living within Confederate states then in rebellion. He drew obvious parallels between the Lincoln of old and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, recognizing Lincoln’s achievements while signaling the struggle continued.

Those same steps featured prominently in another Civil Rights milestone a generation earlier when Marian Anderson sang from that spot in 1939. She’d already earned fame as a classical vocalist, a contralto. She performed on those steps because she’d been denied a performance hall in the city.

Marian Anderson was an international superstar in the 1930s—a singer possessed of what Arturo Toscanini called "a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years." But if race had been no impediment to her career abroad, there were still places in the United States where a black woman was simply not welcome, no matter how famous. What surprised Anderson and many other Americans was to discover in 1939 that one such place was a venue called Constitution Hall, owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the capital of a nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

The DAR refused to relent in spite of withering criticism. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization, writing "You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization failed."

Fifty thousand people showed up to hear Marian Anderson perform on the Lincoln Memorial steps; many times more than would have heard her at the indoor venue. The Daughters of the American Revolution deeply regretted it actions later and invited Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall several times beginning in 1943.

On the Steps of Aztec Temples

Templo mayor ruins, in the middle of Zocalo
Templo mayor ruins by Antoine Hubert, on Flickr (cc)

Many Mesoamerican societies practiced human sacrifice in the centuries preceding European contact. The Aztec of central México took the practice to an entirely new level. There were many varieties of ritual and sacrifice although it was human sacrifices particularly that attracted the most attention of armchair historians. Bloodletting reached its pinnacle at Templo Mayor, the Great Temple at Tenochtitlan, now in modern day Mexico City (map).

At the climax of the ceremony, prisoners of war were taken to the top of the steep steps of the pyramid leading to two shrines. Held down, the victims’ abdomens were sliced open by high priests wielding ceremonial knives, and their hearts – still beating – were raised to the spirits above and the crowd in the sacred precinct below. The lifeless bodies of those sacrificed were then kicked down the stairs, and as one followed another, these flowed with blood, bright red against the white of the temple walls. Over the four days of the opening ceremony, some 4,000 prisoners were killed to satisfy the Aztec gods.

That was hardly the only time in history where violence happened on stairways.

On the Steps of the Theatre of Pompey

Largo di Torre Argentina
Largo di Torre Argentina by Rodney, on Flickr (cc)

The Roman leader Julius Caesar met his demise on a set of steps at the Theatre of Pompey in Rome in 44 BCE, now at the Largo di Torre Argentina (map).

Caesar attempted to get away, but, blinded by blood, he tripped and fell; the men continued stabbing him as he lay defenseless on the lower steps of the portico. According to Eutropius, around 60 or more men participated in the assassination. Caesar was stabbed 23 times.

This was considered a triggering event. Afterwards the Roman Republic (with consuls elected by citizens) that had lasted for five hundred years transitioned into the Roman Empire (led by emperors).

Other noteworthy events

  • On the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building (map): Congressman William Taulbee was shot to death in 1890; and Congressman John Jenrette and his wife Rita consummated an adult relationship in the early 1980’s (although she now denies it), a sideshow to his bribery convictions.(²)
  • On the steps of the Versace Mansion in Miami Beach(map): A serial killer murdered famed fashion designer Gianni Versace on the steps of his South Beach mansion in 1997.
  • On the steps of the Avon Theater in Stratford, Ontario (map): Last prize goes to a set of stairs in Canada where Justin Bieber often sat busking for tips before he became famous.

I could probably find some more examples although that Justin Bieber thing discouraged me. I can hardly wait for all of the Bieber-related Google Ads that will now start popping onto my screen for the next month.

(¹) Otherwise I’d nominate the Exorcist Steps in Georgetown, Washington, DC (Street View).
(²) Inspiring the name of a local comedy troupe, The Capitol Steps.


On November 5, 2014 · 3 Comments

It dawned on me recently, as I drove around the Washington, DC area, that there seemed to be an inordinate number of reversible road lanes that switched directions on regular schedules. The occurrence that got me thinking about this was a one-block section of Washington Boulevard (map) on the western edge of Arlington’s Clarendon neighborhood

Reversible Road Lane
Washington Blvd., Arlington, Virginia, USA
via Google Street View, July 2014

I’ve driven through that slot a number of times and I never gave it much of a second thought. It seemed rather self-explanatory. Overhead lights with green arrows and red x’s denoted lanes that could be traversed depending on prevailing morning or evening traffic patterns. It made sense even if it lasted for such a short distance. It was the only three lane segment with four lanes radiating from either end. It saved on construction costs.

The variety of different types of reversible lanes also surprised me as I started ticking-off some nearby examples.

Overhead Lights

Stupid Young Driver on Cell Phone in Closed Lane on Chesapeake Bay Bridge!
Stupid Young Driver on Cell Phone in Closed Lane on Chesapeake Bay Bridge! by William Johns, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge (map) connecting Maryland’s eastern shore to the rest of the state provided yet another example of overhead lights signaling traffic flow. The bridge accommodated prevailing traffic to and from Atlantic Ocean resorts especially during the summertime. More lanes opened towards the beach on Fridays and pointed back towards home on Sundays, almost like the ebb and flow of tides.

Overhead lights exposed an inherit problem: people needed to understand that lanes could reverse and they also needed to know what the symbols meant. "Stupid Young Driver on Cell Phone" had obvious difficulties with one or both of those concepts.

Just a Sign

'Signs' -- Chain Bridge (VA) January 2014
'Signs' — Chain Bridge (VA) January 2014 by Ron Cogswell, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Chain Bridge (map) had three lanes stretching across the Potomac River between Arlington and Washington, with the middle lane reversible. Only a single sign told motorists about the unusual situation (Street View). Presumably daily commuters traveling over the bridge during critical hours would already understand the situation. Woe to the poor visitor who happened to cross the bridge at an inopportune time and not see the sign.

A Machine Does All the Work

Lane Mover
Roosevelt Bridge, Washington, DC, USA
via Google Street View, August 2014

Another Potomac River bridge between Arlington and Washington, the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge (map) offered a better solution. The reversible section had a concrete barrier to keep drivers from making a mistake. An odd little machine moved the barrier twice a day to accommodate commuters. This unusual arrangement was created by Lindsay Transportation Solutions.

The moveable barrier system enables the DOT to quickly reconfigure traffic lanes and directional capacity on the bridge in less than 15 minutes (the bridge is just under one mile in length). The Barrier Transfer Machine (BTM) safely transfers the barrier one or two traffic lanes at speeds from seven to ten miles per hour. A magnetic tape grooved into the pavement guides the BTM and ensures precise placement of the barrier wall.

That seemed a lot safer than signs or overhead lights.

Completely Reversible with a Sign

IMG_4012 by bankbryan, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Some of our local roads were completely reversible. The Rock Creek Parkway (map) — actually called the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway in official terms, which I didn’t know until a few minutes ago — operated with two lanes in both directions most of the time. However in the morning all four lanes headed towards Washington and all four lanes returned traffic to the suburbs in the evening. Monday through Friday. Except Federal holidays. Make an error reading a sign (Street View) and find oneself heading towards the wrong way on a four-lane highway.

I would stay away from here on Columbus Day. Federal government employees are about the only people who get the day off. Imagine everyone else forgetting about that quirk and thinking it was a normal Monday commute. Yikes!

Completely Reversible and Safer

Interstate 395 - Virginia
Interstate 395 – Virginia by Doug Kerr, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A stretch of Interstate 95 and Interstate 395 (map) from Northern Virginia into the District featured two High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes that switched directions for the morning and evening commutes, sandwiched between and completely separate from the regular highway lanes. These are being converted into High Occupancy/Toll (HOT) lanes although the concept will remain largely the same.

These seemed considerably safer. Barrier arms blocked access to ramps that led to these special lanes so that cars traveling in the "wrong" direction couldn’t make a mistake. The arms raised when the lanes reversed and it was safe to travel that direction again.

There were several more reversible lanes in the area that I didn’t have space to mention. Also Wikipedia had an entire article devoted to reversible lanes in other parts of the world so I imagined they were rather prevalent. It was funny how I’ve grown so used to seeing them that I never considered how weird they seemed conceptually.

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