This week, Southwest Airlines began service to my home airport, Richmond International Airport, or as anyone who has lived in Virginia more than 30 years would call it, Byrd Field.
This airport holds a special place in my heart, as it is where I first rode on an airplane (on Eastern Airlines in 1987) and also earned my private pilot license 95 years to the day of Orville & Wilbur’s first flight in 1903.
Byrd Field was named after Admiral Richard E. Byrd, a Naval Aviator and explorer who was named the youngest ever Admiral in the U.S. Navy, in recognition of his exploration of the continent of Antarctica. Admiral Byrd first journeyed to Antarctica in 1928 and also was the first to fly over both the North and South poles in his Ford Trimotor. The Byrd name is well known throughout the Commonwealth, as Admiral Byrd’s ancestor William Byrd is considered the founder of Richmond, and his brother Harry was the Governor.
Civil War era observation balloon*
Although Virginia was the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War, the area in the eastern side of Henrico County had been used as a staging area for tethered observation balloons for the army of both the North and the South. The servicemen who flew the balloons were known as “aeronauts,” and the area was officially established as an aerodrome about 100 yards away from where the modern terminal sits today.
Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis at Byrd Field*
On October 15, 1927, the airport was officially dedicated in Admiral Byrd’s name. In attendance was his close friend and national hero Charles Lindbergh, who few in on his Ryan Spirit of St. Louis, a little more than four months after his historic nonstop flight over the Atlantic. Airline service began in 1930 when Eastern Airlines flew a Trimotor from New York to Richmond. Co-pilot John Armstrong served as both the First Officer and Flight Attendant on the flight—shortly after taking off he got up from his seat to hand out sandwiches and coffee, almost burning himself along the way when the wax cups melted.
Admiral Byrd at 1950 dedication of new terminal*
Byrd Field has always had a significant military presence as well. During the Second World War, the airport began its largest expansion when the Army Air Corps converted the field into a base. Following the end of the war, the Virginia Air National Guard established its headquarters on the eastern side of the field, operating fighter jets such as the F-86 up to the F-16. During the attacks of September 11th, two F-16s were dispatched from Byrd Field to safely intercept and escort Attorney General John Ashcroft into Richmond.
History buffs (like I am) will appreciate that the “Gateway to Central Virginia” is also the gateway to chapter one of American history. Within about an hour’s drive you can visit Jamestown Colony, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and many other Revolutionary and Civil War sites.
In the early 2000s, a major modernization effort began to more than double the size of the passenger terminal. Two new parking garages were added, along with a second story to the ticketing/baggage claim area, and a new south concourse. Over three million passengers pass through one of the airport’s 23 gates annually. Southwest now operates a daily flight to Orlando, along with four AirTran flights to Atlanta. So, it appears that Virginia is not only for Lovers, it’s now also for LUVers.
*Credit for these historical photos: Virginia Aviation Museum/Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society