Before World War I, aircraft were a novelty in West Virginia and most other places. The use of airplanes during the European war demonstrated the effectiveness of powered flight and brought legitimacy to aviation for commercial as well as military purposes. In 1921 three MB-2 twin-engine bombers and several smaller planes were brought to West Virginia from Langley, Virginia, to assist in putting down the Mine Wars. The planes landed on a makeshift grass airfield in Kanawha City, now a dense residential neighborhood of Charleston.
After 1920, aviation expanded rapidly in West Virginia. In 1922, the first Morgantown airport was built where the WVU Coliseum is now located. The present Morgantown Municipal Airport opened in 1939, three miles north of downtown. In 1923, Shepherd Field (now the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport) opened in Martinsburg. Then in 1927, Wertz Field near Institute was constructed to serve Charleston and the Kanawha Valley. The 1930s saw construction of numerous airports. Tri-County Airport, now the North Central West Virginia Airport at Bridgeport, began as a grass airstrip in 1935. By 1940 there were approximately 125 airfields in the state.
Wertz Field was closed during World War II to make room for a plant producing synthetic rubber for the war, and in 1947 Kanawha Airport was opened at Charleston. Three mountains were leveled to construct the airport, later renamed Yeager Airport for Gen. Chuck Yeager, who was the first person to pilot an aircraft faster than the speed of sound.
Today West Virginia has 32 airports, seven of which offer scheduled commercial air service. In addition to Morgantown, North Central West Virginia Airport, and Yeager, the commercial airports are Tri-State Airport in Huntington (1952), Raleigh County Memorial Airport near Beckley (1952), Wood County Airport near Parkersburg (1946), and the Greenbrier Valley Airport at Lewisburg (1968). General aviation airports are becoming increasingly important throughout the state.
In 1939 a small airplane, a Stinson Reliant owned by All American Aviation, took off from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, hooking a mailbag suspended from poles and flying on to a waiting crowd in Morgantown. This was the inaugural flight for rural airmail service. This system of picking up and dropping off mail bags in flight at many small airports was soon discontinued, but the airline went on to greater success. All American changed its name to Allegheny Airlines in 1953 and in 1997 to US Airways. Today US Airways serves Yeager and Tri-State.
West Virginia has had aircraft industries since early in the 20th century. In 1928, Fokker Aircraft of America opened in Glen Dale, Marshall County. Pioneer airplane designer and manufacturer Anthony H. G. Fokker operated the plant constructing the F-10A, a popular three-engine commercial aircraft that competed with the Ford Tri-motor. Fokker, a German firm, is best known as the builder of the famous Fokker Tri-plane used by the Red Baron, Baron Von Richtofen, in World War I.
Today, aviation manufacturing takes place at a number of locations in West Virginia. There is a thriving airport service industry at the Bridgeport airport, including Pratt & Whitney, Bombardier, and others. Lockheed Martin operates in nearby Clarksburg.
West Virginia’s best known aviators include Rose Agnes Rolls Cousins, a participant in the World War II pilot training program at West Virginia State College and one of the early black female civilian pilots. Cousins and fellow West Virginia State student George Spencer ‘‘Spanky’’ Roberts graduated through the 1939 Civilian Pilot Training Act. Roberts, William Lee Hill, and John Lyman Whitehead went on to become Tuskegee Airmen. A member of the 302nd Fighter Squadron, the nation’s first black flying unit, Roberts eventually became the commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron.
Another West Virginian, Gen. James K. McLaughlin, flew the B-17 bomber and led the raid over Schweinfurt, Germany. This was the largest Allied daytime bombing raid during World War II. He returned to Charleston after the war and organized the 167th Fighter Squadron, which became the West Virginia Air National Guard. The 167th moved to Martinsburg in 1955, leaving behind the newly created 130th Troop Carrier Squadron in Charleston.
Yeager, a P-51 Mustang fighter pilot during World War II, is the most famous West Virginia aviator. Breaking the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, he was immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s 1980 book, The Right Stuff, and the later movie of the same title. Other notable West Virginia aviators include Stephen Coonts, a navy pilot during the Vietnam War and bestselling author. Among Coonts’s books are Flight of the Intruder and The Cannibal Queen, the latter named for his 1942 Stearman open-cockpit biplane. Col. Ralph D. Albertazzi of Berkeley County flew Air Force One for President Nixon.
U.S. Sen. Jennings Randolph (1902–98), a flight enthusiast and true pioneer of aviation, sponsored the 1938 Civil Aeronautics Act, Federal Airport Act, and legislation creating the Civil Air Patrol, National Air and Space Museum, and National Aviation Day. Randolph’s sponsorship of the Airways Development Act creating the Airport Trust Fund led to the current grant system for expansion of the nation’s airports.
In 1978, Congress deregulated the airline industry and many government subsidies were eliminated. Airlines ceased operating unprofitable routes, including many flights to smaller cities. West Virginia airports have not fully recovered the commercial service resulting from these losses. West Virginia airports are served by the West Virginia Aeronautics Commission, which was formed by the legislature in 1947 to foster aviation. The Aeronautics Commission cooperates with Federal Aviation Administration officials on matters of concern to West Virginia aviation.
West Virginia’s aviation history includes several significant plane crashes. The worst crash in the state’s history took place on November 14, 1970, when a DC-9 airliner slammed into a hillside just short of Tri-State Airport near Ceredo, killing all 75 of the passengers and crew. Nearly all of the Marshall University football team was killed.
On July 1, 1942, a troop transport plane crashed on a mountainside near Premier, McDowell County, killing 21 members of the Army Air Corps. Twenty people were killed on April 14, 1945, when an commercial airplane on its way to Morgantown flew off course and crashed into the side of Cheat Mountain. On April 8, 1951, a C-47 transport plane crashed near Kanawha (now Yeager) Airport, killing 21 members of the Air National Guard. They were on their way to Charleston for the funeral of a Guard member who had been killed in training. To this day, Guard members wear a patch with 21 stars in memory of the crash victims. On August 10, 1968, a Piedmont Airlines plane was approaching Charleston in the fog when it crashed into a hillside overlooking Coonskin Park near Yeager Airport. Thirty-five of the 37 people on board were killed.
The state has also experienced a hijacking. On June 4, 1971, a former coal miner from Boone County hijacked a plane that had flown out of Charleston and demanded that the plane be flown to Israel. After the plane landed at Dulles Airport in Washington, the man allowed the passengers and flight attendant to get off the plane, but he held the pilots and flight engineer at gunpoint for hours before they disarmed him. The hijacker was later convicted and sent to prison.
One of the strangest events in the state’s history, the “pot plane” crash, occurred on June 6, 1979. An old Douglas DC-9 cargo plane carrying 12 tons of marijuana plummeted over a hillside at Kanawha Airport. Hundreds of bales of marijuana spewed from the plane before it caught fire. Onlookers looted the marijuana, and law enforcement officials struggled for days to dispose of it all. Nine people were charged in the pot plane case, and several of them were convicted after lengthy court battles.
This Article was written by David W. Bott
Last Revised on October 25, 2012
McLaughlin, J. Kemp. The Mighty Eighth in WWII: A Memoir. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000.
Yeager, Chuck & Leo Janos. Yeager: An Autobiography. New York: Bantam Books, 1985.
Bickley, Ancella R. Dubie, Spanky, and Mr. Death: West Virginia's Pioneering Black Airmen. Goldenseal, (Summer 1997).