During World War II, Charleston’s airport, Wertz Field, closed when the airport’s approaches were blocked by the federal government building a synthetic rubber plant next to the airport. There were already plans for a new Charleston airport.
The city started construction in 1944; the airport opened November 3, 1947 as Kanawha Airport and American Airlines flights started in December. A terminal was built in 1950, designed by Tucker & Silling. In 1985 the airport was named for then-Brigadier General Chuck Yeager, a native of nearby Lincoln County who piloted the world’s first supersonic flight in the Bell X-1. In 1986 the terminal was renovated. Concourse C, designed by L. Robert Kimball and Associates and costing $2.8 million, was completed in 2001.
From West Virginia Archives and History:
Dedication of Kanawha Airport
Airport History Of Kanawha County
Moving Mountains To Build Kanawha Airport
1929 – City of Charleston purchased site at Institute, W. Va., six miles downriver from city limits, named it Wertz Field.
1930 – City lacked funds to develop and operate field so leased tract to group of business men who formed West Virginia Airways, Inc. West Virginia Airways, Inc., was able to provide aviation facilities for the next 12 years.
July 4, Wertz Field was dedicated. Later, with help of federal funds, a large administration building was completed.
1933 – West Virginia up to this time was one of but two states which did not have airmail services. In October American Airlines was awarded an airmail contract route, and opened passenger service between Washington and Chicago, via Charleston, serving intermediate cities of Elkins, Huntington, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis.
1935 – Pennsylvania Central Airlines (now Capital Airlines) established a branch route passenger service between Charleston and Pittsburgh.
1937 – Larger passenger planes having been put into service by air carriers, Wertz Field began showing its inadequacy. American Airlines notified City of Charleston that it would be forced to discontinue service because Wertz Field was too limited for landing of larger planes. City’s aviation enthusiasts prevailed on American Airlines to continue service, using smaller DC-2 planes.
Leaders in Charleston Chamber of Commerce realized that site for a new airport must be found. Committee appointed consisted of D. M. Giltinan, D. N. Mohler, D. C. Kennedy, Charles E. Hodges, Fred Alley, J. B. Pierce. This committee was asked to make survey of airport needs and to study all possible airport sites within 25-mile radius.
1938 – After a year examining on foot, by car and topographical maps every possible site, committee reported that the valley floor offered no suitable site large enough to meet area’s growing needs. Even Wertz Field did not permit expansion. Committee decided that “We must build on the hilltops.”
1940 – Harry Campbell, City Engineer, and Fred Alley, a committee member and airport manager for West Virginia Airways at Institute, suggested site known as “Coonskin Ridge,” a series of hills not far from Charleston’s city limits. Fred Alley, after studying topographic maps, had made the first visit to the location on Saturday, September 12. From this visit all later developments stemmed. Committee approved location after examining it, and requested preliminary surveys and sketches to show possibilities. Sketches were made by Louis Hark, assistant city engineer; aviation consultants were called in for consultation. The “upstairs” airport met with general approval, though all agreed that the undertaking would be expensive.
City engineers prepared plans for construction of three 4,000-foot runways, and a fourth of 3,400 feet, submitted them to WPA, with the proposal that the site would be provided by the City of Charleston, the building costs be borne by the WPA. The offer was rejected because the contribution of the City was disproportionate to the estimated cost.
Because Charleston had no levies to support a bond issue, the Charleston Chamber of Commerce proposed to the County Court of Kanawha County that the project be made a county project. The County Court agreed to the proposal.
1941 – Bond issue of $1,000,000 was ratified by overwhelming majority. (This issue, however, was never used.) An active program to enlist Federal Aid was begun. Federal government, however, was engaged in huge national defense program, and aid was restricted to projects certified as essential to national defense. Pearl Harbor intensified this situation.
1942 – Charleston lost its airport on May 12, 1942, when Wertz Field, after 12 years of operation, was closed when approaches were blocked by the erection of the government’s synthetic rubber plant. Efforts to obtain federal aid were continued.
1943 – The president of the County Court, W. T. Brotherton, proposed a new bond issue of $3,000,000, which would enable the project to go ahead without waiting for federal assistance. Charleston and Kanawha County had become a highly important defense area, and air transportation was needed greatly.
In November the larger bond issue was approved by an overwhelming ratio of 22 to 1. The firm of Whitman, Requardt & Associates, Baltimore, was retained to prepare a master plan. The County Court proceeded in ensuing months to acquire by negotiation and condemnation the title to the Coonskin Ridge area.
1944 – In June of this year the bonds were sold, bids were advertised for such portion of the work within available funds. Bids were opened in Sep- tember and the “first stage” contract was awarded to Harrison Construction Co., of Pittsburgh. This “first stage” included approximately five-eighths of the total grading, sufficient to permit two runways and their completion to a point where commercial air service could be resumed.
On October 18, ground for the construction of Kanawha Airport was broken, and work proceeded continuously thereafter until grading was completed in May 1947.
1945 – Charleston Chamber of Commerce representatives appeared before a U. S. Senate Appropriations sub-committee, and with able assistance from its two senators, Harley Kilgore and Chapman Revercomb, obtained a recommendation for an appropriation of $2,750,000 to supplement money raised by Kanawha Countians. This appropriation was subsequently approved by Congress and the remainder of the original contract for grading added to the original contract awarded the Harrison Company. The government’s contribution was based on the fact that Charleston’s airport had been made useless by the erection of a synthetic rubber plant, which, during the war years, was the nation’s largest producer of that essential product.
1947 – In January the 167th Fighter Squadron, West Virginia National Guard, was established, activated three months later. This squadron began with 13 officers and 30 enlisted men. Col. James K. McLaughlin, commanding officer. The 167th made an outstanding record as a fighter group in World War II.
Kanawha Airport was formally dedicated on November 3. President Truman sent his plane, the “Independence,” the presidents of all the participating airlines were on hand and many governmental officials. Though a cold, rainy day, the event was attended by thousands. Kanawha Airport was presented ready to go, representing one of the most unusual construction jobs in aviation history. The first night landing at the port was made shortly after 10 the evening before by the president of American Airlines.
On December 1 Kanawha Airport began operations with 10 daily scheduled flights.
1948 – In March an additional $1,100,000 in bonds was voted by Kanawha County citizens for the completion of the airport, including the administration building, paving remainder of taxi strips, and so forth. Approximately $800,000 of federal matching funds was obtained to supplement the local financing.
Kanawha Airport at the end of its first calendar year of operation handled a total of 98,733 passengers, 179,029 pounds of airmail, 325,154 pounds of air express and 459,099 pounds of air freight, and operated within its own income.
Ground for the new administration building was broken July 7.
1949 – Kanawha Airport is awarded the Haire trophy as the outstanding airport in the U. S. for the year 1948.
National Guard hangar is completed.
By the end of the year Kanawha Airport had broken its first year’s amazing records. From January 1 through December 31, 132,932 passengers were handled, 223,384 pounds of airmail, 417,191 pounds of air express, 808,435 pounds of air freight, again operating within its own income.
1950 – On June 27-28 “Operation Coonskin” transformed the area to the southeast of the airport into a public park. The total area is 850 acres. This outstanding operation, detailed elsewhere in this booklet, was carried out as a public service by the cooperative enterprise of scores of individuals and firms who constructed roads, shelters, game areas, ponds, picnic sites, and other appointments. This work supplemented $200,000 in bond funds voted by the Kanawha County citizens to provide a recreational park in the lower areas of the airport site.
The federal government made a grant of $370,000 for the construction of an administration-operations building, and a warehouse for the 167th Fighter Squadron.
In September, the beautiful new administration building was visited by thousands, and formally dedicated.
From WV Archives:
Dedication of Kanawha Airport
The Kanawha Valley Airport
The Nation’s Heaviest Airport Grading Project
In October 1944, in Charleston, W. Va., the contract for the Nation’s Heaviest Airport Grading Job was awarded to Harrison Construction Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania by the Kanawha County Court. The citizens of Kanawha County voted a $3,000,000 bond issue for the construction of a Modern Air Terminal, located approximately two and one-quarter miles northeast of the city of Charleston, and four and two-tenths miles by road from the business section of the town. Later Congress appropriated $2,750,000 to supplement the County fund to assure the completion of the Airport.
To complete the airport will require the moving of approximately 9 million yards of material of which 40% is rock. The maximum cuts of 130 feet and fills lowing out as much as 209 feet below the elevation of the airport. The airport is located on a series of ridges, whose area and direction make it ideal for the construction of three runways projecting into the maximum wind quadrants. The length of the runways will be. No. 1 6,000 feet; No. 2 5,000 feet; and No. 3 5,200 feet.
The site presents a very rugged terrain involving extensive grading operations, however, no other site within a reasonable distance of the city presents less difficult terrain. A mountain top site has been selected because any site available in the valley is unsuitable for the development of more than one runway of adequate length and with proper clearances in the required approach trapezoids. In addition, valley sites will be covered with mist and fog much more frequently than will a mountain top site. For all other sites investigated, the topography was such that the construction of runways of adequate length was impractical or land damages excessive.
In the early stages shovels worked on ledges that were 300 feet or more above the lowest ravine filling levels. Due to layers of pan materials between stone strata there was little opportunity for scrapers to load downhill. Early stage haul roads for both stone and dirt were among the steepest ever encountered by Harrison’s men. Temporary roads up to 40% descending grades for scrapers and 25% for dump trucks. Main haul roads, those which could serve for several weeks between main cut and fill areas, are contoured to hold grades below 15% to 20% in order to save wear and tear on equipment.
The rock excavation was hauled by nine 1 3/4 yard to 2 1/2 yard shovels loading a fleet of twenty- three 10-yard rear dump trucks and eight 11-yard and 12-yard bottom dump trailers. The earth excavation was handled by ten 25-yard tractor-drawn scrapers and sixteen 12-yard scrapers. Seven pushers with the help of four rooters served the scrapers. With this equipment the contractor averaged from 20,000 to 27,000 cubic yards of earth and rock a day.
Alternate rock and shale layers created a situation favorable to horizontal drilling and blasting. This method is being used for all but small special pockets, where six wagon drills are employed, powered by five 365 cu. ft. compressors. Horizontal shooting has proven very successful with excellent fragmentation by this method, which also leaves the broken mass in convenient position for efficient shovel loading.
Two horizontal power drills are employed, one fitted with automatic feed. The procedure is to go into the hillside or face with parallel six-inch holes, spaced generally from 10 to 20 feet apart and carried from 40 to 60 feet back into the shale. The idea is to lift some 20 to 40 feet thickness of material at a shot.
Dynamite used is mostly 40% although some 60% has been tried. A typical blast consists of 2,500 pounds of dynamite placed in nine parallel 45 foot holes. There has been approximately 1,000,000 pounds of dynamite used to date.
For the bulk of the filling to within 20 to 40 feet of the embankment edge, run of shovel stone and scraper material are dumped on the grade mixed and spread by bulldozers, and rolled in 2-foot layers by 10-ton rollers. Individual stones too large for such layers are broken by a 4,000 pound skull cracker mounted on a crawler-crane.
To maintain all this equipment a large field shop was erected wherein hundreds of overhaul jobs have been turned out by repairmen, which at the present consists of 40 mechanics.
The airport was designed originally by Whitman, Reguardt and Associate Engineers of Baltimore, Maryland, and the paving and drainage was designed by Civil Aeronautics Administration.