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Searching for traces of Bellevue’s phantom airfield

LISTEN: Searching for traces of Bellevue’s phantom airfield

Like so many stories about local history, this one begins with something visible through the windshield.

Heading toward Bellevue’s Eastgate neighborhood, and taking the exit from I-90 to 148th, there are about a half-dozen distinct utility poles lining the NE 150th Street overpass and flyover ramps.

These poles are different from pretty much any others in the region. They’re painted red and white, and they’re topped with flashing red lights – though the lights haven’t flashed for decades.

This collection of roadside artifacts is special because it’s a reminder of the old Bellevue Airfield that shut down for good 35 years ago on May 2, 1983.

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The Bellevue Airfield opened in 1945 at the end of World War II. Bellevue was not even an incorporated city back then, and all over the area, pieces of infrastructure were already getting too crowded by the post-war economic boom.

Chuck Nordhoff

Chuck Nordhoff is a native Seattleite with deep connections to the city and the region. In 1890, his ancestors founded what became the Bon Marché department store. Chuck’s family also created Bellevue Airfield.

“My grandfather Arthur Nordhoff purchased property in the very early 1940s with the idea of making an airport,” Nordhoff said. “What I understand from my father and cousins is that way back then, Boeing Field was getting just too crowded for general aviation purposes because Sea-Tac hadn’t been built yet, and Boeing Field was the Seattle area’s primary airport.”

Chuck’s grandfather Arthur had flown in World War I. He also saw to it that all three of his kids learned to fly; his daughter Nancy even flew in the WASPS during World War II, ferrying planes from the East Coast to the West Coast.

“My grandfather owned and operated it pretty much on his own until his son-in-law, Nancy’s husband Jim, came home from the war and then he began working there,” Nordhoff said.

“And my father as a teenager helped with the construction. And when he returned home from the Korean War in the mid 1950s, he joined the management also. So my grandfather was the president, my Uncle Jim was the vice-president, [and] my father was the secretary of the company that owned it,” Nordhoff said. “The formal name was Puget Sound Air Service but they did business as Bellevue Airfield.”

A different era of aviation

Bellevue Airfield was a fairly simple operation, Nordhoff says, with an asphalt runway roughly 2,500 feet long. It was suitable only for small planes, like other now forgotten airfields in Issaquah, and Kenmore.

“Folksy might be a good word for it,” Nordhoff said. “There was no control tower, but it was on all the aviation maps and there was an FAA-licensed aircraft repair facility there, you could buy gasoline, you could rent a place to either tie down your airplane outside or store it in a hangar.”

It was also a different era of aviation, when it was a more accessible – and affordable – pursuit, for World War II vets and anyone with an interest in taking to the skies.

“Flying was relatively inexpensive,” Nordhoff said. “Insurance hadn’t gotten so expensive, and there were surplus aircraft, and so it was a popular thing for hobbyists to do, not just commercial people.”

Chuck’s father and uncle ran the airport all throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but by the 1970s, it was clear that the neighborhood – and the business – had changed.

“Back in the early 40s, there was nothing there, but as the Seattle area grew, particularly with the floating bridge opening up, there were houses and a shopping center and I-90 – well, US 10 became I-90 – and just development occurred,” Nordhoff said. “And what was a perfect spot for an airport in the 1940s became unsuitable, just because of the noise and the potential safety concerns.”

Speaking of safety concerns, there were plenty of little mishaps at Bellevue Airfield over the years. And there was one notable near-tragedy on July 31, 1976 when a pilot returning from Bellingham crashed his Cessna into the front of the Safeway store at Eastgate. A few people in the store were injured by broken glass, and the pilot survived with only a hurt elbow and still lives in the area.

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“Those kind of things made the airport just unsuitable for being in the middle of the city,” Chuck Nordhoff said.

Airfield artifacts

Searching around the site of the old airfield this week, it was hard to find any evidence of a runway or a taxiway or, really, anything aviation-related.

Chuck Nordhoff has done that same search himself in the not-too distant past.

“I haven’t been out to the far north end [of where the runway once was] for five or ten years, but the last time I was out there, I found a little tiny patch of asphalt which had some markings on it that looked like it was left over from a runway or a taxiway, or perhaps a helicopter landing pad,” Nordhoff said.

“It looked like it was being used for a basketball court or something like that,” he said. “It was maybe 50 feet square.”

But there is at least one other thing still plainly visible, besides those striped utility poles, that hearkens back to the area’s forgotten aviation history.

It turns out that back in 1975 a veterinarian named Dr. Donald Kalps had taken over a vet clinic across the street from the airfield. In 1976, he decided to give the clinic a new and clever name in honor of its location between the airport and a well-known nearby neighborhood.

“I decided I would take something from the airport and something from Robinswood and I incorporated the two,” Dr. Kalps said on Tuesday. “In my spelling, I spelled ‘aero’ a-e-r-o,’ and then ‘wood’ – ‘Aerowood Animal Hospital.’ That would identify me as being located somewhat near the airport, I should have thought.”

“Aerowood” is a brilliant name for that neighborhood, and it’s a shame it didn’t catch on beyond more than just the vet clinic (which is still in business).

But, about that “should have thought part.”

Dr. Kalps, who retired and sold the practice many years ago, says that it was just a few years after renaming the clinic when a big change happened.

The end of Bellevue Airfield

In late 1978, the Nordhoff family sold the airport land to a developer from Boston called Cabot, Cabot & Forbes who planned a major business park.

The airport didn’t shut down right away because the Nordhoff’s leased back the land and kept operating it for another few years while gradually shutting things down. It was clear that the airport’s flying days would soon be coming to an end.

The 1970s were tough for local private aviators. It was a few years before Bellevue Airfield was sold that the runways at the old Sand Point Naval Air Station – now Seattle’s Magnuson Park – were demolished rather than be converted to a public airfield, as some aviators had lobbied for.

But though things were winding down at Bellevue Airfield, you have to admire Dr. Kalps’ pluck. He, too, thought highly of the “Aerowood” name — so much so, that he went and talked to the local representative of Cabot, Cabot & Forbes.

“I told [him] the name and suggested he might want to use that for the airport property because at the least it would help attract people to my veterinary clinic, simply because of the name association,” Dr. Kalps said.

How did that go?

“Well, he didn’t want to have anything to do with that because he was with Cabot, Cabot & Forbes and they were too much of bigshots, I guess, from the East Coast, to do something along those lines. They wanted things for themselves.”

The name that Cabot, Cabot & Forbes went with for the new development was . . . wait for it . . . “I-90/Bellevue Business Park.”

Were Chuck Nordhoff’s father and uncle sad to see Bellevue Airfield replaced with an office park?

“I think not. They were both approaching retirement age and as the city grew up around the airport there were more and more people complaining. ‘Where the hell did all those airplanes come from? I bought my house here and it was nice and quiet and now there are planes all over the place,’” Nordhoff said.

“Of course, the airport had been there since 1945 and people just hadn’t noticed,” he said.

Along with complaints from neighbors, Nordhoff says that the economics had started to not quite pencil out, too, whether from property taxes on the dozens of acres, or from surface water drainage assessment.

“So it was not a money-making operation at the end,” Nordhoff said.

And when the end finally came for Bellevue Airfield on May 2, 1983, it landed with something of a whimper.

“I asked my dad about how he felt about the closure of the airport and he said it was just sort of matter-of-fact,” Chuck Nordhoff said. “There was nothing nostalgic or anything like that, so I doubt they had any sort of celebration or wake or commemoration of the closure of the field. He’s not the kind of guy who would’ve done something like that.”

Airfield auction

One thing that did happen after the closure of Bellevue Airfield was the inevitable auction.

It was billed as a giant “garage sale” and took place on May 21, 1983, just a few weeks after the airfield closed. Items up for bid included a Quonset hut, plus hangars and other airfield assets, ready to be disassembled, cast to the winds, and then bolted back together someplace else.

If you know where any of the hangars or other pieces ended up, please comment below or send an email.

With plans to build a public park on part of the old site, those striped utility poles and that vet clinic can’t be the only things still standing from Bellevue Airfield’s 38 years of takeoffs and landings.

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