Nearly 100 years after the
first plane took off from Langley Field, it can be hard to see this busy
stretch of land along Hampton’s Back River as anything other than one of
the most important hubs of American air power on the planet.
Lightning-fast F-22 Raptors from the 1st Fighter Wing carve up the skies
overhead, patrolling the air with a stealthy, all-weather fighter
unmatched by any foreign aircraft.
Air Combat Command works tirelessly in many of the buildings below,
managing a vast legion of battle-ready Air Force units with a lethal
But when the first officers from the fledgling Aviation Section of the
Army Signal Corps came to evaluate what is now Langley Air Force Base in
late 1916, what they saw was not a highly developed complex of airplane
hangars and runways but rather a back-country expanse of fields, woods
and old plantation homes.
Only in their imaginations could they envision the pioneering military
aviation center that — despite almost closing following the turbulent
days of World War I — would play an indispensable role in defining the
potential of air power and the importance of a separate, wholly
independent Air Force.
Few Army strategists of the day saw the promise of an invention still
widely regarded as a novel reconnaissance tool rather than a combat
So when Lt. Col. George Owen Squier and his selection board — including
the Army’s first rated pilot — recommended the 1,659-acre tract as the
site of the service’s first purpose-built air field, they were betting
their futures on a revolutionary gamble.
“Aviation was still so new that there was a lot of resistance— even from
the chief of the Signal Corps,” Deputy Command Historian William M.
“But Squier was very forward thinking when it came to the airplane’s
potential. He saw them doing things that the planes of the day still
An 1887 graduate of West
Point, Squier was as much a scientist, engineer and inventor as a
So impressive was his grasp of mathematics, physics and ballistics that
the Army sent him to Johns Hopkins University, where in 1893 he became
the first officer to earn a Ph.D.
Following a tour of duty as an artillery instructor at Fort Monroe,
Squier transferred to the Signal Corps, where he studied the emerging
field of radio with pioneering Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi.
“Squier was this rare combination of scholar, soldier and visionary,”
says aviation historian Amy Waters Yarsinske, author of “Flyboys Over
Hampton Roads: Glenn Curtiss’s Southern Experiment.” “That made him a
powerhouse in the early history of military aviation.”
After founding the Signal Corps School in 1905, Squier became a champion
of aeronautics, spurring the creation of the Army’s first aviation
entity — the “Aeronautical Division” — in 1907.
A year later he completed a nationally influential paper on the military
potential of aircraft — then bought the Corps’ first airplane.
Soon Squier had allied with the Smithsonian Institution to propose a
national advisory committee for aviation, historians Paul W. Clark and
Lawrence A. Lyons note in their 2014 book “George Owen Squier: U.S. Army
Major General, Inventor, Aviation Pioneer, Founder of Muzak.”
He was still pressing Congress for support when World War I broke out in
Europe, leading him to a secret mission and a first-hand look at the
revolutionary military aviation innovations cropping up with
breathtaking speed on the Western Front.
Returning in May 1916, Squier’s report spurred approval for a “permanent
experimental and inspection station” designed to help America catch up.
Such a place had never been built before, but it was “an absolute and
immediate necessity for the proper and rapid development of Army
aviation,” he wrote.
“Squier was a moving force,” Butler says, “a key figure in the Army’s
aviation aspirations at a time when the program was still very undefined
and very small.”
Exactly how some of Hampton’s first citizens discovered the Army’s plans
may never be unraveled.
Among them was Clerk of Court Harry Holt Sr., who may have learned of
the Signal Corps’ search for a likely site from his powerful patron —
Virginia Sen. Thomas S. Martin — who chaired the Appropriations
Another leader was merchant Hunter R. Booker, whose niece had married an
officer on the Corps’ selection committee, known as the Aerodrome Board.
The gregarious Holt may have known Squier previously, too, because of
the frequent dinner invitations he extended to officers at Fort Monroe,
his grandson Wythe Holt Jr. recalls.
Then there’s the link with the Curtiss Flying School in nearby Newport
News, where aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss and his manager — famed
balloonist Thomas Baldwin — were not only exploring property near
Hampton to expand but also past instructors at the Corps’ aviation
Another possible source is Maj. Billy Mitchell — a former Signal Corps
instructor and a member of Squier’s Washington, D.C. staff.
Every weekend during the fall of 1916 he traveled to the Curtiss School
in order to take flying lessons and earn his pilot’s license.
He also went gunning for ducks on the local rivers, the Daily Press
“This was a very tight group. They all gravitated to each other and knew
each other’s business — and they knew this was the place to be,”
Yarsinske says, citing Curtiss’ previous choice of Newport News and his
participation in the Army’s visits to the Back River.
“The climate was great for
flying. It was in the middle of the East Coast. It was right on the
water. It was close to Washington. It had everything they needed and
Still, spurred by worries over Virginia’s looming prohibition law and
its impact on the Old Point Comfort resort business, the Hampton men
sweetened what became an irresistible offer.
In addition to obtaining options on more than 1,650 acres of relatively
flat waterfront land, they secured the right of way to build a bridge
and a street car line from Hampton.
They also promised electricity and water.
Though the property appears to have been favored from the start, the
Army inspected it several times, including a Nov. 18 visit in which
Squier brought the Secretary of the Navy, the head of the Smithsonian
and other members of the newly formed National Advisory Committee for
Aeronautics, who had agreed to share the site.
“Mammoth Army aviation school and experimental station will be located
on Back River near Hampton,” the Dec. 17, 1916 Daily Press reported
after the $290,000 deal was announced. “The people of Hampton, Phoebus
and Elizabeth City County have been given a wonderful Christmas gift.”
Even before the contract was signed on Dec. 30, 1916, Squier and his
partners at NACA — which later became NASA — had big ideas for the new
“This was going to be the first place built expressly as a military
airfield — and they wanted to make a statement,” retired Air Force
historian Edward G. Longacre says.
“They wanted it to be the end-all and be-all of military bases. They
wanted it to be a place like no other.”
Traveling to Squier’s home state of Michigan in November, the group met
with automobile magnate Henry Ford, who recommended Albert Kahn of
Detroit as the architect.
As seen in such landmark industrial structures as the 1903 Packard Motor
Car plant and the giant Ford assembly plant started in Highland Park in
1909, Kahn had made a name for himself by taking on commissions for
buildings that were the first of their kind.
So he seemed like the perfect choice for the ground-breaking aviation
station that — as early as a Dec. 17 editorial in the Daily Press — was
already being referred to as the namesake of the late Smithsonian
president and flight pioneer Samuel P. Langley.
“This was the sort of thing Kahn had cut his teeth on,” University of
Michigan architectural historian Claire Zimmerman says. “From the master
plan to the smallest details, he did these sorts of unprecedented
projects really well.”
Setting to work in February 1917 — the same month the Army opened
Langley’s first offices in a downtown Hampton bank building — Kahn and
his staff quickly confirmed their reputations, sketching out ideas for
an innovative complex that was part college campus and aeronautical
village as well as a model airfield.
But in addition to laying out the master plan, buildings and roads, they
went far beyond the utilitarian requirements of the project, paying
close attention to how the structures articulated their founders’
ambitions for aviation’s future.
Decorative brickwork and iconographical emblems abounded, including such
tell-tale touches as the shields, stars, propellers, gears, winged
eagles and pilot’s badges that embellished the most prominent facades
But even such inconspicuous features as the manhole covers — which bore
the crossed-flag insignia of the Signal Corps — were recruited as
heralds of Langley’s higher purpose.
“Squier gave Kahn carte blanche — and he threw his whole heart and soul
into the project.” Longacre says. “You have to marvel at how much work
he put into these grandiose buildings. But everything changed when the
Two months after Kahn began, the United States entered World War I,
creating an immediate clash between the urgency of the war effort and
his design and construction timeline of three to four years.
Even before then the project had bogged down, however, because of the
unexpected difficulty of clearing, filling and grading the mostly
wooded, low-lying site.
“Look at the photos of the surveyors. Look at their feet,” says John V.
Quarstein, author of “World War I on the Virginia Peninsula.” “Two guys
have waders on. The others have tall boots. And all of them are covered
So demanding was the job of remaking the land that — over the course of
a year — the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific Co. deposited 1.8-million cubic
meters of fill dredged from the Back River at a cost of $500,000, writes
James R. Hansen in “Engineer in Charge: A History of the Langley
But the water table was still so high and land so susceptible to
flooding during heavy rain and high tides that the J.G. White
Engineering Corp. had to construct a subsoil drainage system using
“Nature’s greatest ambition was to produce in this, her cesspool, the
muddiest mud, the weediest weeds, the dustiest dust and the most
ferocious mosquitoes the world has ever known,” wrote one of the first
soldiers assigned to the field.
“Her plans were so well formulated and adhered to that she far surpassed
her wildest hopes and desires.”
Wartime labor and material shortages slowed the work still more,
Longacre says, forcing the Army to begin erecting temporary
corrugated-metal aircraft hangars and tarpaper barracks while waiting
for Kahn to finish designing the permanent structures.
The officers in charge brought in prefabricated bungalows as a stopgap
measure, too, providing the growing number of soldiers with not only
housing but also offices and storage.
Adding to the confusion was the arrival of scores of British, French and
Italian airmen, as well as boatloads of Allied planes sent to Langley
Then there was the mounting friction between the contractor and the
Quartermaster Corps’ superintendent of construction — who also clashed
continuously with the field’s commander.
By late fall, Squier was ready to write Langley off as “the bottleneck
of the aircraft program.”
That’s when the Army moved its experimental aviation mission to McCook
Field in Ohio, which had already installed the dynamometer needed to
test the new Liberty engine.
“That should have been one of the first things Langley did,” Longacre
says, “but due to the war they were trying to make the field operational
at the same time they were building it. It was chaos.”
This was going to be the first place built expressly as a military
airfield -- and they wanted to make a statement. — Retired Air Force
historian Edward G. Longacre
Though stripped of one of its primary reasons for being, Langley served
throughout the war as one of the principal fields for evaluating both
foreign and domestic planes.
So numerous were the flights of British de Havillands, French Nieuports
and Italian Capronis over Hampton that the Daily Press regularly covered
the exploits of the “foreign colony,” who vied to set the latest speed,
endurance and altitude records.
“The Europeans were far more advanced than us when it came to aircraft,”
Yarsinske says. “We brought them here to teach us.”
The pressing need for aerial reconnaissance filled Langley’s hangars and
barracks, too, after the School of Aerial Photography opened in October
By January it had sent its first graduates to the front, and it
continued to oversee the final stages of training after the bulk of
instruction moved to the Eastman Kodak Co. in New York.
Still, after spending
more than $4 million, Langley had only one complete permanent structure.
And though two others were finished by the war’s end on Nov. 11, 1918,
the Army seemed ready to retrench.
“Everything was half-finished. It was a mess,” Longacre says, “and it
looked like it all was going to come to a stop.”
With hundreds of wartime bases being shuttered, Langley nearly closed,
But by early 1919,
the stop-work order had been lifted — and the Army was spending nearly
$1 million to finish what it had started.
Many factors contributed to this new lease on life, including new
peacetime missions housing lighter-than-air dirigibles as well as aerial
coastal defense and observation units linked closely to the artillery
command at Fort Monroe.
The bombing range at nearby Plumtree Island also gave the newly arrived
2nd Bombardment Group a vast and virtually unrestricted place in which
to conduct training that would later prove historic.
“In the end, Langley not only survived but grew,” Butler says.
“And that’s because the things that made it so attractive in the first
place still applied.”
Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783.
"The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian; while on the
other hand, arms, like law, discourage and keep the invader and the
plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property …
for while avarice and ambition have a place in the heart of man, the
weak will become a prey to the strong.” Thomas Paine, 1775
Thank you, Wayne!