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50 Years Of Flying In Leesburg, Part 2

© Leesburg Today - 09/24/2015

As Leesburg Executive Airport holds its annual airshow Saturday, it will close out its golden anniversary year. To mark this occasion, Leesburg Today and members of the Leesburg Airport Commission have developed a three-part history of the development of aviation in Loudoun County, focusing on the airports that have inhabited Leesburg.

Last week's installment examined the development of the original grass field in Leesburg that became Arthur Godfrey's ""International Cow Pasture,"" made famous on his radio shows. In today's piece, we look at the beginnings of the new airport, built in 1964 to replace the old grass runway.

On To The New Location

By the mid-1950s, Arthur Godfrey had obtained a Douglas DC-3 with oversized engines and used it to commute to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey every Sunday afternoon. The Leesburg Town Council found itself dealing with a number of complaints about noise and the rattling of windows as Godfrey took off and landed. The town and Godfrey jointly arranged to sell the 58-acre airport site, along with his adjacent land, as long as the town used the proceeds to build a bigger airport.

Initial Construction and Dedication

Stanley Caulkins, owner of Caulkins Jewelers, remembers making the deal. ""George Hammerly and I went over to Mr. Godfrey's house early on a Sunday afternoon before he headed for New York, and we explained the predicament. I was on the Town Council at the time, and it was a major topic of discussion every month. Mr. Godfrey agreed to the move, and we went forward with finding suitable land.""

Leesburg Mayor Frank Raflo presided over the controversial effort to build the airport, in partnership with council members Hammerly and Caulkins. The council contracted with an engineering firm in 1962 to find alternative sites for a replacement airport that would reduce noise complaints.

In the context of the 2005 controversy over developments around the airport, the selection of a 100-acre tract approximately two miles to the southeast of town seems short-sighted, but in the early 1960s, that part of the county was completely rural. In fact, the airport was so far out of town that most of it was in county territory, and a boundary line adjustment was required.

In the fall of 1962, the town purchased the Spitler and Chamblin farms along Sycolin Road, contingent on approval of the site by the FAA. The FAA provided a grant for land acquisition and construction of the new airport. The town had to match the federal grant, and Virginia Aviation contributed approximately 20 percent of the effort.

E.E. Lyons Construction Company of Vienna broke ground for the new airport in September of 1963, and the new airport opened Oct. 1, 1964. Press photos of the time show Mayor Frank Raflo, Arthur Godfrey and assembled guests listening to the Loudoun County High School band playing at the ceremony, which was the coldest day in anyone's memory. ""The cold was sort of forgotten when Mr. Godfrey missed the runway turnoff and got the nosewheel of his plane stuck in the mud on the side of the taxiway,"" said Dave Pearce, a longtime instructor at both airports. ""I didn't laugh too loud because the powers that be weren't too happy with me. The first airplane to land after the runway was paved was supposed to be the chairman of the Airport Committee, but I beat him by a couple of hours. I was in the doghouse for quite awhile after that.""

The new airport sported a 3,500-foot paved runway, a terminal building, and two hangar buildings, for a total price of $478,000. The FAA assigned the airport the three letter identifier W09, which would only last until the mid-1980s, when the airport was redesignated KJYO in accordance with international standards to support flights from other countries.

Godfrey Field did not did not prosper immediately, as town leaders had hoped. The town had difficulty finding a flight school operator, and numerous fixed-base operators (FBOs) came and went. Two additional T-hangar buildings were built in the early 1970s, but up until the 1980s, little development occurred at the field.

The Janelle Aviation Years

James M. Haynes, Jr., president of Janelle Aviation, took over management of the airport under contract to the town in 1981. Haynes, an aviation consultant by trade, quickly went to work to improve the airport to make it more attractive to the general aviation community.

Haynes' first task was to establish a reliable flight training operation, and for that he turned to Don Raab, who established Aviation Education, Inc. Raab, a retired Air Force colonel and test pilot with a doctorate in aerospace engineering, still runs his company at the field and has turned out thousands of qualified pilots.

The beginning days were not easy. As Raab tells the story, ""Jim got the contract as the FBO, and he and I went over to the field. We unlocked the door of the terminal building, which hadn't been occupied in several months, and while we were looking at the dust and such, someone shot at us from the woods across the runway.""

Things settled down after that, and business began to pick up.

Janelle's first order of business was to expand facilities, and to that end Haynes convinced the Airport Commission to build a new terminal building and extend the runway to 4,500 feet. He then set about improving the business climate at the field, with a vision that saw an expanded Leesburg Airport as an economic development tool to bring business people to Loudoun County.

Through the 1980s, Janelle Aviation provided the spark that would drive the airport's growth, making it a contributor to the local economy. Haynes spearheaded an effort by the town to attract the FAA as a tenant in the expanded terminal building, bringing the FAA flight-briefing center that was supposed to move to Manassas, but instead came to Leesburg. He also privately financed 50 small aircraft hangars and two large maintenance hangars. Haynes negotiated a business arrangement with the Beechcraft Corporation that made Godfrey Field a destination airport for aircraft owners all over the East Coast. By 1990, jet aircraft were a common sight on the newly extended 5,500-foot runway.

The economic downturn of the late 1980s took its toll, however, and by 1992 Janelle Aviation was in serious financial straits. Mayor Jim Clem was forced by the Town Council to terminate the Janelle Aviation lease in 1993.

The Town Takes Over

The town manager's office assumed direct operation of the airport in the spring of 1993, and for the first time in its history, a full-time town employee was on site. The Airport Commission was re-staffed after the 1992 election, and a new focus became clear-Godfrey Field couldn't succeed financially as a little country airport, and although Janelle Aviation was gone, Jim Haynes' vision remained: The focus of the airport should be on business aviation.

Next week: We'll examine the current status of Leesburg Executive Airport and look toward the future of the field.

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