Time to create a ‘National Aviation Heritage Area’ in the Pacific Northwest?

Sep 13, 2023, 12:28 PM | Updated: 1:06 pm

aviation heritage...

There have been a total of three aviation facilities in Seattle called Boeing Field; this 1940 image shows what remained of a 1920s airfield along West Marginal Way on the west side of the Duwamish River. A plaque (inset) was dedicated there in 1966. (Courtesy Lee Corbin)

(Courtesy Lee Corbin)

The countdown is on to mark the centennial in 2024 of the Around-The-World Flight that began and ended at what’s now Magnuson Park on Lake Washington. A local group will produce a series of one-time special events next year to mark the occasion, but what about devising a more permanent way to commemorate Northwest aviation history beyond the centennial of a single achievement?

The centennial is a good time to consider what might be possible with a broader and longer-term approach to commemorating aviation history with an eye toward boosting tourism as well as fostering a deeper understanding of the people and places who made the Northwest a center of aviation in the 20th century.

In May 1954, Bertha Boeing, wife of company founder Bill Boeing, christened the Dash 80 prototype – the jet that birthed both the commercial 707 jetliner and the KC-135 tanker.

“I christen thee the airplane of tomorrow,” Bertha Boeing said and then helped strike the nose of the new jet with a bottle of champagne.

That particular moment – the significance of which is hard to overstate – was only made possible by the previous 40 years of Pacific Northwest aviation history, a history which is dispersed across a wide variety of locations throughout the region and which is not exactly easy to find.

The landmark global flight left from what is now Magnuson Park in April 1924 and returned there in September 1924. A monument at the park entrance is the most visible commemoration of the flight, but it’s easy to miss.

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Magnuson Park is the former site of Sand Point Naval Air Station, which was a busy military installation and airport and seaplane port from the 1930s to the early 1970s.  Before that, in the 1920s, it was the center of the growing aviation industry in the Northwest, and so it made perfect sense for the around-the-world flight to leave from Sand Point in April 1924 and return there in September 1924.

To raise the profile of the landmark 1924 flight, the non-profit group Friends of Magnuson Park secured significant funding from the State of Washington to commemorate the centennial. The group will officially launch that celebration later this month with a new website and a media blitz. Next year, there will be a big public celebration in September at Magnuson Park and at the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field.

KIRO Newsradio spoke earlier this week to one of the co-chairs of the project, a retired Air Force pilot named Frank Goodell. Goodell says the 1924 flight consisted of four U.S. Army “Douglas World Cruisers” built in Santa Monica. They flew to Seattle and landed on wheels at Sand Point, but then were fitted with floats by Boeing workers for the journey north and west through Alaska and across the Pacific to Asia.

The Army and Navy joined forces to make the flight happen

The flight was officially a U.S. Army project, but they had a lot of help from the Navy, from foreign governments along the way, and from Douglas Aircraft and Boeing. A total of four planes left Sand Point on April 6, 1924 and headed north through Washington, British Columbia and Alaska territory.

“The more I read, it’s a miracle that two made it,” Goodell said, reflecting on the long odds the flight faced in order to succeed, and noting that only half of the original group of four planes made it completely around the globe.

Goodell said those two surviving World Cruisers landed back at Sand Point on September 28, 1924, which became the occasion for one of the biggest celebrations Seattle had ever seen.

And what was the secret to the success of those two planes and the total of four crewmembers who made it all the way back to Seattle?

“Logistics, good logistics,” Goodell said. “For example, simple things like when they packed spare engines, the boxes were made out of Sitka spruce. Well, Sitka spruce is the best wood to [repair] wooden airplanes. [And] the oil was pre-stationed in 55-gallon drums on a bunch of ships and located all around the world.”

“So, little things like that,” Goodell said.

Goodell said the flight used a total of about 27,000 gallons of fuel and about 2,700 gallons of oil – or a 10-to-1 ratio of fuel to oil consumption (which reminds a certain radio historian of a Ford Pinto he drove in high school).

Along with smart logistics – and lots of oil – navigation was also key to the success of the flight. This was especially true in Alaska, said Frank Goodell, where heavy fog in the Aleutian Islands meant flying just 50 to 100 feet off the water, and looking for visual clues as to where to go.

“The mountains were all covered with snow because this was April, and it’s still cold in Alaska,” Goodell said. “Well, the waves would wash up and take the snow away for about 15 feet up the [side of the] mountain [or island].”

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“With the fog above the waters below, they used the contrast of that black rock with the white snow above it,” Goodell said. “That’s how they navigated.”

Was there any way the Army pilots of the Douglas World Cruisers could’ve trained for what they faced in Alaska or on other legs of the around-the-world flight?

“Nope,” Goodell said. “It was ‘OJT.’ On-the-job training.”

The Museum of Flight at Boeing Field and Magnuson Park are, of course, the ideal places to celebrate the centennial.

But what about the other aviation-related history places around Puget Sound? Might those somehow be woven together for tourism purposes on a more permanent basis beyond 2024, perhaps by creating a federally-sanctioned “National Heritage Area” devoted to Northwest aviation history?

When Bertha Boeing christened the Dash 80, it was a huge milestone for the company and for the region.

But that christening didn’t take place at Boeing Field. Instead, that legendary aircraft was built and rolled out at Boeing’s Renton plant. That facility opened in 1941 as America’s entry into World War II was imminent. In Renton, Boeing workers first built seaplanes and then later B-29s for the war effort. Eventually, passenger airliners including 727s, 737s and 757s were built there. And, it’s worth noting that the plant is on the shores of Lake Washington, where, during the Seafair hydroplane races in 1955, Boeing test pilot Tex Johnston executed a breathtaking “barrel roll” with that same Dash 80.

Along with the Renton plant – where the 737 MAX is currently built – there’s also the site of “Boeing Plant 2” along the Duwamish River. That facility was demolished, but it was home to the B-17 production line during World War II, and famously had a fake neighborhood on its roof as camouflage.  There’s also the Everett plant at Paine Field where the 747 and other widebody jets including the 767, 777 and 787 were built.

Lee Corbin, aviation historian, researcher and great friend of Seattle’s Morning News, shared a list of other places he would include in a National Heritage Area devoted to Northwest aviation history.

First, Corbin said, it’s not just about Boeing. He mentioned the historic shellhouse at the UW, which was built as a Navy seaplane hangar for the sprawling training complex created on campus during World War I. And, Corbin says, Jefferson Park Golf Course on Beacon Hill should really be considered Seattle’s first non-floatplane airport for the number of aircraft and aviation-related events that took place there in the teens and early 1920s.

Boeing, of course, said Corbin, made its mark here, and Boeing Field is most emblematic of the company’s impact on aviation. But which Boeing Field?

“Basically, what I’ve come down to is that there were three Boeing Fields, three individual Boeing Fields over the years,” Corbin said.

Three Boeing Fields?

In 1921, Corbin said, Boeing got a contract to build 200 planes for the U.S. Army. The airfield at Sand Point wasn’t ready yet and wasn’t likely to be for several months. Boeing couldn’t wait that long.

“So they found a piece of property just across the river, just across the Duwamish there between First Avenue and East Marginal Way,” Corbin said, describing a location on the east side of the river. It was “bordered on the north and south by South Dawson and Diagonal Avenue, and they put in an airfield there,” he said.

“Now, how long it lasted I haven’t quite determined yet,” Corbin said.

And where was the second Boeing Field?

“At some point, there was another airfield built just north of the Boeing plant there along the Duwamish,” on the west side of the river, Corbin said, “just south of Kellogg Island.”

“I’m not sure when this one was initiated and, really, why it was initiated, but at some point that became Boeing Field for a while, at least as what the newspapers were calling it,” Corbin said. “That’s where the Lafarge cement plant is today” and where Corbin recently confirmed a monument to the airfield, dedicated in 1966, still stands.

“That field is noted for the fact that it was the first field where the commercial airmail service for Seattle came in,” Corbin continued. “That was in September of 1926 when Pacific Air Express was using it.”

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“And then finally, the Boeing Field we know today, which was dedicated in July of 2008, was named Boeing Field in June of 1928,” Corbin said.

“I suppose if you wanted to include Lake Union,” Corbin continued, “you could say there were four” Boeing Fields.

It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that Lake Union is, really, Seattle’s first airport.

Long before any airfields were designated on land, planes with floats were landing and taking off from Lake Union as early as the early teens. Then, in late 1915, Bill Boeing and his business partner Conrad Westervelt built their first hangar on Lake Union at the foot of Roanoke Street, just west of Eastlake Avenue.

Boeing and Westervelt pretty much invented their business there – assembling and testing planes for military and civilian use, and inaugurating international air mail service to Canada. Flying air mail routes ultimately led to Boeing’s involvement with domestic air mail and to the creation of what became United Airlines. The hangar was demolished sometime around 1971, but a plaque was dedicated at a small park there.

Corbin points out that aviation history didn’t just happen in Seattle. Military air bases sprung up around the state in the 1930s, in places as far away as Pasco, and the Army had a significant aviation presence beginning in the 1920s at what’s now Fort Vancouver National Historic Park. During World War II, Corbin says, Boeing farmed out assembly work for B-17 components and other elements of airplane manufacturing to small factories in places like Tacoma and Vancouver, BC.

“And then, of course, there were ones out like in Hoquiam and places like that,” Corbin said. “They were just scattered all around the state, or at least the Puget Sound area because we didn’t have the housing for the workers.”

“So they figured we’ll just move the plants to where the workers are instead of having to workers move to us,” Corbin said.

Options for year-round celebrations

If Lee Corbin isn’t available to lead personal guided tours or answer questions by phone, how could all this history be shared year-round with interested parties?

One option for uniting these places and stories that might be worth exploring is the creation of a National Heritage Area, which is a federal program that fosters cooperation between organizations and entities to develop storylines and signage and maps or apps that connect the dots.  A maritime version of this was for Western Washington just launched in the last year or so, and another is in the works for the Mountains to Sound Greenway (both took years of planning, and an act of Congress to be officially created).

The goal would be a cohesive and coherent storyline that’s easy for locals and visitors to access and engage with. If managed properly, a National Heritage Area can galvanize local communities to work together to generate tourism activity and help museums and historic sites gain more relevance.

Preserving history is important. Once it is preserved, it’s even more important to harness this history, these historic landmarks and this region’s distinctive stories for a purpose – to put history and heritage to work for tourism, education and economic development.

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When next year’s Around-The-World Flight centennial celebration comes to a close, it would be gratifying to know it wasn’t just the end of a party, but the start of a permanent effort to commemorate our region’s unique aviation history.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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