San Diego’s Airport Woes Have Long History
Monday, November 6, 2006
Originally aired March 27, 2006
The debate on where to put the airport has raged almost since the first plane landed near downtown in the 1920s. Pat Finn looked into the history of the San Diego International Airport to find out how it got where it is and why it stays there.
Flying into San Diego’s Lindbergh Field can be breathtaking, day or night. The airport is right in the heart of downtown, and right on the bay. And that’s the problem. It’s boxed in by the ocean, commercial buildings and military property. It’s noisy. And many believe its downtown location is downright dangerous. So one wonders just how it got here and why it stays here.
Lindbergh Field began life as Dutch Flats, a smelly, insect-infested tidal marsh on San Diego Bay. William Kettner, an influential congressman whose house overlooked this eyesore, was in a position to do something about it. In 1919, he convinced Major General Joseph Pendleton that Dutch Flats was the perfect location for the Marine Corps Advance Base Force.
T. Claude Ryan thought Dutch Flats was perfect, too, and he moved his Ryan Flying School next to the Marines.
Dutch Flats looked good to the Chamber of Commerce, which urged the city to build a municipal airport there. The Marines agreed, and so did city planners. They all had the same reasons: it was close to downtown, the post office and the train station. Nevertheless, in 1925, the City Council ordered the very first known study of alternative airport locations. The study approved Dutch Flats.
T. Claude Ryan had switched to building aircraft. In 1927, a special order came in, and in just 60 days, Ryan built a plane for a young St. Louis pilot named Charles A. Lindbergh. Days after Lindbergh made his historic solo flight from New York to Paris, the Chamber of Commerce named San Diego’s new airport after him. When it was dedicated in 1928, San Diego Municipal Airport – Lindbergh Field was the first federally-approved airport in the United States.
San Diego was added to the U.S. airmail route, and by 1934, Lindbergh Field was getting crowded: the Coast Guard’s new air station found room among United, American and Western Airlines, two flying schools, Ryan Aircraft and the Marines.
Newcomer Reuben H. Fleet and his Consolidated Aircraft company didn’t mind the crowd, because the price was right. He leased land on Pacific Highway from the city for $1 a year.
During World War II, the Army Air Corps took over Lindbergh Field. The seaplanes and air transports built by Consolidated were so large and heavy that a new 8750-foot runway was built. It was long enough to handle commercial jet travel, had there been any, and it is basically the runway Lindbergh uses to this day.
Kenneth Friedkin, the owner of a San Diego flight school, dove headfirst into commercial aviation after the war. With more panache than truth, he named his one leased DC-3 Pacific Southwest Airlines. PSA’s first flight to Burbank on May 6 cost $5.65.
In the 50s, officials began to worry that Lindbergh Field would soon reach capacity. From this point forward, the history of Lindbergh Field became a cacophony of consultant groups and a blizzard of studies and recommendations. In the next five decades, multiple sites were studied multiple times. Montgomery Field in Kearney Mesa, the Silver Strand in Coronado, North Island Naval Air Station and Miramar Naval Air Station were all proposed by the city and rejected by the Navy. Several city and county studies recommended Brown Field on Otay Mesa. But others noted problems negotiating the terrain and Mexican airspace near the Tijuana Airport.
In 1962, Lindbergh Field got a new operator: the San Diego Unified Port District. Losing no time, the Port commissioned another airport study.
In 1967, Governor Ronald Reagan dedicated the new East Terminal. The day it opened for business, it handled much larger aircraft and many more passengers than anticipated.
PSA, San Diego’s home-grown airline, had become a very successful regional carrier. On September 25 at 9 a.m., the unthinkable happened. A PSA 727 on approach to Lindbergh Field was hit mid-air by a Cessna 172. The jet crashed into North Park, killing 144 people and destroying 22 homes. Concerns about Lindbergh Field’s downtown location became more urgent. Nevertheless, the $15 million Terminal 2 opened the following year.
In 1994, San Diegans voted on whether the airport should move to Miramar Naval Air station if the Navy moved out. Fifty-two percent of voters said yes. But when the Navy did move out, the Marines moved in. By the end of the decade, it was obvious that the biggest obstacle to moving the airport was public opinion. San Diegans liked Lindbergh Field small and they liked it where it was, thank you very much.
Today, Lindbergh Field is the busiest single-runway commercial airport in the country. By most measures, it manages 29 carriers and over 200,000 flights a year very well. The question is, how long until airport gridlock or another tragedy? In 2003, the state legislature attempted to break the stalemate by creating the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority to operate Lindbergh Field and recommend a place – any place -- to put a new airport for the November 2006 ballot. The Authority hopes voters will be persuaded that having a smallish airport right downtown is both dangerous and short-sighted. That could happen. Or it’s possible San Diegans may vote to do nothing and hope for the best.