Beacon Field Airport®

THE OFFICIAL WEBSITE for BEACON FIELD AIRPORT®



Elevation 249 feet, Fairfax County, Virginia          GPS 3846'20.40"N :  774'54.07"W
©Copyright 2012 Friends of Beacon Field Airport at City View and beaconfieldairport.com, no part of this website including sound or text content may be copied, reproduced or used for any other purpose without express written permission of the beaconfieldairport.com website owner.   Beacon Field Airport® is a registered trademark of the website owner.

 


     History of Beacon Field Airport®

The traditions of the past are cherished, and the inheritance bequeathed to us by former wise or valiant men becomes a rich estate to be enjoyed and used by all.   

 -- Winston Churchill's thoughts on "Civilization", 1938

 

 
Colonel Ed Nass, Civil Air Patrol, conducting preflight on Stinson Gull Wing. (courtesy Nass Family)
I.  Land History (1848 - present)

Beacon Field Airport was located on the City View land tract on Historic US Route 1.   On May 4, 1848Benjamin Barton II, an Alexandria businessman, jeweler and silversmith, purchased the original land tract as a country residence consisting of 74 acres (located on the high elevation west of Richmond Highway in southeast Fairfax County, 3.6 miles north of Mount Vernon, 3 miles south of Alexandria City) .  His brother George C. Barton already owned  208 acres directly across Richmond Highway (Route1).   The Benjamin Bartons built a country home here which they named City View.   This country home provided needed respite from his busy shop at 324 King Street, Alexandria and sanctuary from the Union occupied town during the Civil War .     City View was noted as a significant residence on an 1878 map produced by the Library of Congress1 (shown below).     City View is now  the site of modern day Lenclair Park, Target (old Memco), Beacon Center, Beacon Hill Apartments,  and City View III (fondly known as Muddy Manor).   For more information on the historical land records from 1706 to 1848 click here.

1878 Library of Congress Map
City View Mansion

The Bartons were silver craftsmen who immigrated to America in 1801.  Benjamin Barton II was also the President of the Alexandria Hydraulion Fire Company (209 N. Royal Street) for 45 years.   His grandson, W.F.P. Reid, by inheritance and acquisition, expanded the City View tract by the year 1910,  to 204 acres.   He built a stately 25 room antebellum mansion on the site.    W.F.P. Reid was first appointed to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in 1908 and then held the position as Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors from 1927 to 1939.      


In March 1920,  the Fairfax Herald reported that "Messrs L.A. Popkins, W.F.P. Reid, and Carroll Woolf, well-known residents of the Mt. Vernon District, have opened an up to date dairy in Alexandria".     City View was the site of this large scale dairy farm which operated under the name Mount Vernon Dairy that offered twice daily home delivery service.    The dairy also operated a ice cream shop, lunch counter,  and farm store at 900 Prince Street in Alexandria.      


During his service on the county board, Chairman Reid promoted the concept of an international regional airport to serve the Washington DC area.    The existing Hoover Field (established 1926),  located where the Pentagon is today, was too small to accommodate the next generation airliners and the requirement for a larger commercial public airport was obvious by 1930.    Beacon Field was not a candidate and Chairman Reid promoted the Hybla Valley Airport land tract as a suitable location (also on Historic Route 1) .    Utlimately,  Fairfax County lost the bid to the Gravelly Point site in Arlington, Virginia, after President    Franklin D. Roosevelt became impatient with Congress and mandated that the new airport be built on the swamp adjacent to the Potomac River.

W.F.P. Reid was an influential and generous individual in the early history of south Fairfax County.   His father, Franklin Pierce Reid, had donated land and stained glass windows for the St Mark's Episcopal Church (Historic Route 1 location) in 1903.   His grandfather Benjamin Barton,  had been a major supporter of the fire department. Following the tradition of his forefathers,  WFP Reid also supported the local Penn Daw Volunteer Fire Department by allowing and sponsoring horse shows and races, carnivals, motorcycle racing, and airshows on his property to benefit the fire department.  Several streets in the Groveton area were named for his family, Franklin Street and Pickett Street.

W.F.P. Reid frequently entertained local and international politicians, socialites, and dignitaries at his City View home. Judge George K. Pickett and Ulysses S. Grant II were frequent visitors. 

Beacon Field was strategically located on the west side of Historic Route 1, three miles south of Alexandria.    Before and after World War II,  US Route 1 was the major North-South Highway on the east coast.    Travel by motor car from New York to Daytona, from Philadelphia to Richmond,  meant passing by Beacon Field.  Adjacent motels, restaurants, and gas stations catered to the high volume of traffic.  

II.  Flying Field Early Era --  The Golden Age (1926 - 1942) :


1928 Airmail Stamp -- Beacon Tower
Initially the airfield was named Groveton Flying Field and was used for recreational flying and U.S. Air Mail pilots.   The exact date of airport establishment is not known as Reid owned the pasture land on which a light tower, a beacon for US Air Mail pilots, was installed by the US Government in the late 1920s.    The beacon was designated Airway Beacon No. 55 on Mt. Vernon Highway.   At elevation of 249 feet, the area commanded one of the highest points in Fairfax County.   

The Coast and Geodetic Survey described the beacon station:  "...on a high hill overlooking Alexandria, on the W side of U.S. Highway 1.   The light is atop a skeleton steel light structure built over a large concrete arrow which is flush with the surface of the ground.  The station is over the approximate center of the arrow"2.
  
Airway Beacon No. 55
was on the 763 mile New York-to-Atlanta Airway (Contract Air Mail CAM-19 established May 1, 1928)  and upon completion had 78 rotating beacons placed about 10 miles apart to facilitate night flying 3.  These beacons were installed, maintained and operated by the Department of Commerce, while the mail service was contracted to private carriers after June 30, 1927.   Pitcairn Aviation Inc. (Philadephia, PA) bid and won the contract for CAM-19.    Pitcairn charged $3.00 per pound. 

For more information on the evolution of airway lights and navigational aids visit US Government website on the Centennial of Flight.

1929 AIRWAY Mail Route Map
Aubrey Burdette served as the early proprietor of the Groveton Flying Field until 1930.  In 1931,  W.F.P. Reid officially devoted 45 acres of City View, with its panoramic view of Washington and Alexandria, to the creation of a general aviation airport, Beacon Field, the name originating from the federal government’s nationwide navigational beacon program.   Local Washingtonian, George E. Cornell, President of the Beacon Flying Club, leased the 45 acres  and submitted an application to the Virginia State Corporation Commission in November 1931 to operate a flying club landing field and instruction facility.

Beacon Field Airport was granted an airport license April 11, 1932 by the Virginia State Corporation Commission.



From the Ashburn Family Collection
In the early 1930's there were several flying services on the field.   One notable organization was Jordan Flying Service, operated by Lyle Jordan.     Jordan Flying Service Instructor, Cecil "Cy" Coppage, reported 12 students in 1932 with more prospects in line.     Coppage used the Command-Air biplane for student training with an $8 hour rate for solo or dual.
 
The Fairfax Herald reported that Bob and Betty Ashburn had established Beacon Field Incorporated to perform all aspects of Beacon Field Airport operations management (Fixed Based Operator, FBO).      
Both Bob and Betty were avid pilots and proud of their record at press time (in 1938) that "no one ever {had} been killed or injured in one of the Beacon planes". Additionally, Betty Ashburn was one of only two women airport operators in the United States in the 1930's.    

Parachuting, gliding (sailplaning), and air derby events were also a part of Beacon Field activity in the golden age.    The Washington Post cited the winner of Washington's  First Air Treasure Hunt (October 22, 1933) as Mrs. Genevieve Savage who located the prize in advance of all the other men pilots.    National Aviation Days were celebrated on the anniversary of Orville Wright's birthday (August 19) offering flights over Washington for 50 cents.

 
Courtesy NOAA Office of Coast Survey Historical Map & Chart Collection
This 1935 Department of Commerce Washington Sectional Map shows Beacon Field as a Commercial Airport with Airway Rotating Light Beacon, Marker 55, (arrows indicate course lights),    indicated blinking light pattern.    Beacon Field was the only northern Virginia airport with a rotating beacon in 1935.  Washington National Airport was not yet in existence and there were no airports to the east in Maryland.    WJSV (now WTOP) Radio Station in Alexandria was in close proximity to Beacon.
Beacon Field mid 1930's from Left to Right: Franklin Reid, Frank Morris Jr., Harry J. Lehman, Ike Garth, and unknown others (Courtesy John Coppage Family Collection)
The 1938 Federal Civilian Pilot Traning Program (CPTP) became a significant part of the Beacon Field operations {courtesy Norma Pendleton}.    CPTP prepared men and women for  service with the Army and Navy.   With the likelihood of US entry into the second world war,  the program activity was accelerated in an effort to ensure that the cadets completed flight training and were ready for military service. The cost to train a CPTP private pilot  was just $375, and a secondary pilot $870 additional. 

Many notable personalities and pilots frequented Beacon Field. For example: Arthur Godfrey (WJSV radio personality),  Frank Blair (newscaster), Alfred Andersen and Noble D. Butler (early African American pilots), Alice Rogers Hager (Aviation Journalist),  Frank Reid, Jr. (Eastern Airlines DC-3 Captain), Harry John Lehman (Wing Commander Royal Air Force for training of WWII United Kingdom Pilots).   See Beacon Field Famous folks webpage on this site.

Seasoned newscaster, Frank Blair,  wrote of his first flying lesson at Beacon Field (November 2, 1939) in his memoir Let's Be Frank About It : 
 "Bob Ashburn was exactly as Arthur Godfrey had described him when he talked about him on his morning radio program.  Bob looked like a flier, and talked and acted like a man who knew a lot about flying."4
Frank Blair also hosted a WOL radio program "So You Want to Fly?"  that addressed the new air preparedness operations by the United States.   Bob Ashburn and Jimmy Millan of Beacon Field appeared with Frank on the premier June 13, 1940, radio program, to discuss the new training initiatives5.

Jimmy Millan and Bob Ashburn

Arthur Godfrey was a frequent patron of Beacon Field.   A windstorm flattened a hangar and demolished one of Godfrey's planes in April 1934.  Despite this incident,  Godfrey continued to hangar his planes at Beacon until buying his own "Old Cow Pasture" in Leesburg in the early 1950's.    He had a standing room reserved on the third floor of City View.

Godfrey was a strong supporter of aviation and joined with Beacon Airport and The Washington Post in sponsoring an Aero Contest leading to flight training for five Washington area residents under the CPTP.


April 25, 1934-- Radio Announcer Arthur Godfrey surveys the damage to the hangars and his plane at Beacon Field Airport where a sudden storm flattened the structures. In the far left, photographers and curious by standers climbed the beacon tower for a better view. {courtesy ACME photos}
 
 
III.   World War II Years (1942-1944)


The Army ordered a halt to all private flying on the East Coast August 15, 1942, in response to the US entry into WWII.   This order facilitated the efforts of the Army airplane spotters who used listening devices to detect enemy airplanes approaching the coastlines.

Beacon Field temporarily moved its operations to Calverton, Virginia.   
For 18 months,  the Ashburns leased 30 acres and conducted aviation training on a 2000 foot sod strip.

The Ashburns eventually moved their Flying Service one and half miles south to the larger commercial Hybla Valley Airport in an effort to establish executive air service to southern Fairfax County.   

During the war years, equestrian events gained in popularity and frequency at Beacon Field Airport.   Many horse shows were held to benefit community organizations including the Penn Daw Volunteer Fire Department, Lions Club, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.      There were several skilled horsemen living in the area, Earl Popkins, Bill Viar, and Clyde Profitt, who helped the PDVFD organize five horse shows to benefit the fire department.{courtesy Mr. Oscar "Slade" Barnes, founding member of PDVFD}   Another Fairfax County local and renowned horsewoman, Liz Whitney, provided judging for the events which continued through the early 1950's.


AERO Motor Company (later known as AERO CHEVROLET) of Alexandria, Virginia, leased several hangars in 1942 for automobile storage and repair.


 
IV.  Post WWII and the GI Bill (1944-1959)

Matchbook cover promoting Piper training
After WWII,  thousands of GIs were eager to pursue training to enhance skill levels to get better jobs and salaries.   Beacon Field benefited greatly from this unprecedented phenomenon. 

W.F.P. Reid, Sr. (President)
, Harry J. Lehman (Vice-President), and Franklin Reid Jr. (Secretary-Treasurer)  formed a large commercial aviation training program (Alexandria-Virginia Airport, Incorporated, certificated 13 October 1944), in support of the post WWII GI Bill and later the Korean War GI Bill. A large percentage of these students became commercial and airline pilots for the major air transport companies including Eastern, Allegheny, American, Capitol, and United. For more information on the WWII GI Bill and aviation, visit the National Park Service Aviation in American History site.

Alexandria-Virginia Airport, Inc. performed all aspects of the FBO operations at Beacon Field Airport: gas and oil sales, hangar and tie-down rentals, airplane rentals, flight instruction, charter services, major repairs, surplus aircraft conversion, airport and facility maintenance.

In 1946 the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) established their Region One AVIATION SAFETY DISTRICT OFFICE Headquarters at Beacon Field. The Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 had transferred the federal civil aviation responsibilities from the Commerce Department to a new independent agency, the Civil Aeronautics Authority. CAA was responsible for Air Traffic Control (ATC), airman and aircraft certification, safety enforcement, and airway development.    The CAA's presence increased visibility and activity at Beacon where seasoned and student pilots in Region One came to take their flight exams. Mr. Bob Bell served as the CAA Safety Administrator until Beacon closed.

The Lehman and Reid training facility included a LINK TRAINER Simulator (ANT-18BIT) located in the masonry building next to the Beacon Field Office.   The Link Trainer was used extensively as a safer way to teach pilots flying under instrument conditions.   
 
Link Trainer Simulator at Beacon Field
One important activity conducted at Beacon was the Civil Air Patrol (CAP).    Originating in World War II, the CAP was a volunteer force that provided homeland defense by surveying coasts and borders for enemy submarines and aircraft and performing downed aircraft search operations.    Experienced military, novice pilots, average citizens, the young and old,  joined the Civil Air Patrol.     

In the post World War II years,  Beacon Field provided the CAP with an office and radio building.     Uniformed cadets received training in aviation, radio operation, parade ground drilling and preparedness.   The CAP afforded the opportunity for many young people to gain exposure to airplanes, airports, flying, and military discipline.   

Civil Air Patrol today boasts the largest fleet of Cessna aircraft outfitted to carry on non-military search operations.

US Postage AirMail 1749-1949 Alexandria VA Bicentennial
In 1949,  the United States Postal Service issued a 6 cent Air Mail stamp commemorating the Bicentennial of Alexandria to recognize the City of Alexandria's enthusiasm and support for the expansion of aviation activity.   The stamp featured the Carlyle House, Gadsby's Tavern, Air Mail Wings, and Alexandria Corporation Seal.   The port city of Alexandria was bounded on 3 sides by airports:  National Airport to the north,   Bailey's Crossroads to the west, and Beacon Field Airport to the south.   The rotating beacon at Beacon Field Airport could easily be seen.  

Beacon Field hosted many charity event carnivals and air shows partnering with the Penn-Daw Fire Department.   

Air shows featured stunt and precision flying, parachute jumps, aviation record holders, aviation displays, and latest aircraft .     The May 7, 1950, Langley Day Air Show was attended by more than 5,000 people.    Glider meets were also frequent events.

Courtesy Arther C. "Joe" Brown Family
Some of the many airplanes that hangared or touched down at Beacon include: Navy Grumman Hellcat, DC-3, Burnelli, AT-6, Ford Tri-Motor, Aeronca, Beechcraft, Ercoupe, Stearman, Stinson, Waco, Cessna, Hiller "306" Helicopter, Fulton Airphibian (flying automobile).     When the Navy Hellcat landed at the runway end leaving two dents from the main gear in the macadum, hardly anyone noticed the damage due to the excitement.

The beacon station was recovered by the US Government in 1957.   The rotating beacon had become obsolete due to the emergence of radio and radar.    

Beacon Field Airport's popularity was diminishing by the late 1950's mainly due to the end of the GI Bill and the growth of suburbia (see Vanishing Airfields tab).  The Lehmans and Reids as well as the neighboring community very much wanted a viable economic engine to replace what was likely to be an unsustainable small airport business.   The rezoning effort was tortuous, colorful, and resulted in a favorable decision from the Virginia Supreme Court to allow the family to repurpose the airport land into the modern day Beacon Mall Center.

The Reid and Lehman families closed the airport October 1, 1959, and large white "X"s were placed at the end of each runway.   City View  was torn down in a day in the fall of 1959. Before the airport closed, one of the masonry buildings that had housed the LINK TRAINER Flight Simulator was moved to adjacent family land and remains intact today.   






V.  After 1959:   Where did the planes go ?
Beacon Field Airport: The famous Burnelli CBY-3 Loadmaster sitting in front of Zimmer's hangar October 1959. (image courtesy of FLIKR)
The exotic and rare BURNELLI CBY-3 Loadmaster (N17N) remained on the airport after it closed.     It was one of the last airplanes to depart Beacon Field in late 1959.    Pilot Paul Zimmer was doing taxi test runs and one of which resulted in the aircraft lifting off:

"I just hauled back a little to see how she felt and it was in the air before I knew it.   I decided I was already up there so I might as well go on".

Indeed he did and flew the CBY-3 to its new home at Friendship Airport in Baltimore.     

Harry and Mary Lewis Lehman continued flight training operations under the new business name, Beacon Flying Service, at Hyde Field (W32) in Maryland without delay in 1959.   Many Beacon customers resumed training and transported their airplanes to hangars and tiedowns at W32.     Beacon Flying Service also assumed the W32 Fixed Based Operator and Airport Manager responsibilities which included gas and oil concessions, primary training, and airport maintenance. 

Harry J. Lehman commuted by air to W32 from his Virginia residence using the North-South runway at Beacon.    During this time, the Beacon Mall shopping center construction was underway with the flagship GIANT Food Store being completed.  

Harry retired in 1990 after 30 years at Hyde Field and a total of over 45 years as a Fixed Based Operator.

1960 HYDE FIELD (W32), Prince Georges County, MD, Photo by H.J.Burrows
©Copyright 2012 Friends of Beacon Field Airport at City View and beaconfieldairport.com, no part of this website including sound or text content may be copied, reproduced or used for any other purpose without express written permission of the beaconfieldairport.com website owner.   Beacon Field Airport® is a registered trademark of the website owner.