First plane lands at the new Arlington airport on June 13, 1934.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 10/12/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8324

On June 13, 1934, the first airplane lands at the new Arlington airport. After a slow start in the 1930s, the airport expands dramatically during World War II, and is used as a base by both the Army and Navy. It becomes the U.S. Naval Auxiliary Air Station in June 1943. After the end of World War II the field is returned to civilian control. Automobile drag races are held at the airport in the 1950s and 1960s, but later in the twentieth century the airport becomes a preferred site for gliders and ultralight aircraft.

Depression-era Airport

The Arlington airport, located about a mile and a half southwest of the city of Arlington, can trace its beginnings to the formation of the Civil Works Administration (CWA) on November 9, 1933. The CWA was a government program created as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (1882-1945) New Deal to help the American economy recover from the Great Depression. Soon after its formation, President Roosevelt announced that funding was available through the CWA for the construction of new airports throughout the United States.

Arlington citizens and city officials quickly went to work to secure funding and a location for an airport. By February 1934 the City had secured funding from the CWA (the only airport in Snohomish County to receive funding from this particular program) and had obtained a five-year lease, at $100 a year, to build the airport on property owned by M. Birckenmeier. In early March work began on preparing a strip of land for a runway; the runway, 4,000 feet long and 400 feet wide, lay in a northeast to southwest direction. Eighty-six men were hired for the job. By the end of March the runway was about 40 percent complete.

But the CWA had been intended to be only a short-term relief program, and late in March the program ended. Funding for the airport stopped and work was suspended -- but only temporarily. By early May the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the CWA’s successor, was in place. Its local counterpart, the Washington Emergency Relief Administration (WERA), authorized a further appropriation, and work quickly resumed. The first airplane touched down at the airport on June 13, while several hundred feet of runway on the southwestern end remained to be graded. The runway was completed on June 23, at a cost of about $14,000.

For Fun and Fighting Fires

But the airport’s true inauguration (though it was not a formal dedication) came on Sunday, July 1, when three biplanes staged an "air circus" at the airport, taking between 75 to 100 passengers up into the skies for a per-ride price of $1.50 for adults and $1.00 for children. Festivities were topped off late in the afternoon by a parachute jump staged by Dick DeLong of Tacoma.

For the next few years local flyers as well as flyers passing through Western Washington used the airport. The airport was also a popular draw for air circuses and was used by the Forest Service to ferry supplies to firefighters fighting fires in remote areas.

In December 1935 another New Deal program, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), approved funding for a cross-runway 2000 feet long and 400 feet wide to be located near the southern end of the original runway. Construction was expected to start in early 1936, but this did not occur. When the lease expired in 1939, the City renegotiated its lease with Birckenmeier, who lowered the term to two years and upped the price to $150 a year. He also offered an option to purchase the land, but the City could not afford to buy it.

Air Defense

As early as the spring of 1934, while construction on the original runway was still under way, there had been talk of using the airport as part of an air defense program for the West Coast. The first step toward making that a reality occurred in the autumn of 1940 when the Navy leased the airstrip from the City to supplement training facilities in Seattle. Some improvements were completed quickly and the pace accelerated in 1942 after the United States entered World War II. That year the Navy allowed the Army to develop the field as a base for medium-range bombers to repel Japan's invasion of the Aleutian Islands. The Army bought additional land, quadrupling the size of the airport to 1,162 acres. The Army also built two 5,000 by 150 foot asphalt runways, a control tower, and approximately 30 new buildings, including barracks.

The Navy resumed control of the field early in 1943. On June 26, 1943, the airport was officially designated "U.S. Naval Auxiliary Air Station, Arlington, Washington," and between 2,000 and 3,000 people attended the dedication ceremony that day. The airport continued to grow as the war continued, and a third runway was finished in August 1945, just as the war ended. After the war the air station quickly "stood down," and in December 1946 the City received an interim use permit to operate the airport for commercial and civilian flying. The City assumed actual ownership of the airport in February 1959.

Drag Racing and Ultralight Landings

Drag racing began at the airport in 1953, and for a number of years the airport was a popular site for drag racers from miles around. Racing was initially held on two runways, but this was reduced to one runway in 1964, and in 1969 racing at the airport ended entirely. As the end of the twentieth century approached, the Arlington airport became a preferred landing and takeoff site for gliders and ultralight aircraft (those weighing under 254 pounds), and a new runway for ultralights opened at the airport in 2000.

In October 1996 the Arlington City Council approved the Arlington Municipal Airport Master Plan, which contains detailed plans for development of the airport for the next 20 years. The airport continues to operate under this plan today (2007). Construction of a 115-acre business park on airport property is planned by the early 2010s and will provide small shops, offices, and light industrial uses.


Sources: David Cameron, Charles LeWarne, M. Allen May, Jack O’Donnell, Lawrence O’Donnell, An Illustrated History of Snohomish County (Index, WA:  Kelcema Books, 2005), 253, 263, 273-275;  “Airport Project Submitted; Location Highly Praised,” The Arlington Times, February 15, 1934, p. 1; “Airport Gets Final Okeh,” Ibid., March 1, 1934, p. 1; “Work On Airport Progressing Nicely,” Ibid., March 8, 1934, p. 1; “Temporary Lull In Airport Work,” Ibid., April 5, 1934, p. 1; “Airport Has Defense Angle,” Ibid., May 3, 1934, p. 1; “Work Resumed On Airport,” Ibid., May 10, 1934, p. 1;  “Plan Hangar For Airport,” Ibid., June 28, 1934, p. 1; “Air Circus Entertains,” Ibid., July 5, 1934, p. 1;  “Essay: The Civil Works Administration,” undated, University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections, website accessed October 6, 2007, (http://content.lib.washington.edu/civilworksweb/essay.html);  “Airport History,” City of Arlington (WA) website accessed October 7, 2007 (http://www.ci.arlington.wa.us);  The Arlington Flyer, January, 1997, p. 1; Ibid., April 2000, p. 4, City of Arlington(WA) website accessed October 7, 2007 (http://www.ci.arlington.wa.us).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You