Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

County’s first black-owned airport becomes training ground

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Christopher Anderson⁄The Gazette
Herbert Jones stands on the site of the Columbia Air Center in Upper Marlboro, which was among the first African-American-owned airports in the United States. Jones trained his students to fly airplanes when theairport operated from 1941 to 1959.
Today, broken corn stalks are scattered across a field in Croom that decades ago became Maryland’s first black-owned and operated airport.

Sixty-six years ago, a group of black pilots from Washington, D.C. started the Columbia Air Center ‘‘out of necessity,” said Herbert J. Jones Jr., who taught pilots at the airport and helped run it before it closed in 1958. ‘‘Back then the opportunities for blacks to fly were almost non-existent.”

The pilots, members of a local aviation organization called the Cloud Club, had recently been kicked off a white-controlled airport in Virginia, so in 1941 they began leasing for $50 a month the 450-acre lot along the Patuxent River. Historical records show that it was among the first black-operated airports in the nation.

The Cloud Club pilots, which included black aviation pioneer John W. Greene Jr., eventually set up five runways and three hangars on the property, and flew about 10 planes. The center became home to a school for young pilots and a training facility for a local, all-black squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, the civilian auxiliary to the Air Force.

Over time, they added charter services and facilities for repairing planes.

‘‘What they decided to do, because they kept getting booted off other fields, was to start their own, which was a pretty drastic thing to do at that time,” said Cathy Allen, director of the College Park Aviation Museum.

Greene had a particular passion for teaching aviation to local teenagers, Allen said.

The airport might have started because blacks could not fly at most local airports, but its staff did not exclude whites who wanted to fly, the 84-year-old Jones said. In 1946, about half the students at the aviation school were white.

‘‘Anybody who wanted to learn to fly could come down there and learn to fly, whether they were white, green or yellow,” said Jones, who lives in Fort Washington and 20 years ago founded the Cloud Club II, based in Clinton.

One of the Croom airport’s students was Fred Pitcher, who learned to fly there in the late 1940s before earning his civilian pilot’s licenses.

Pitcher, who still works as a flight instructor in Los Angeles, was 16 when he started taking lessons at the Columbia Air Center, which he paid for through part-time jobs delivering newspapers and telegrams in Washington, D.C. He went on to become the first black pilot for Western Airlines, a major commercial airline that was bought by Delta Air Lines in the 1980s.

Pitcher said he remembered meeting Greene, who taught aviation mechanics at a D.C. high school, through a friend. Greene had a second-hand military flight simulator in his living room and would invite students over to train on it, Pitcher said in a phone interview.

On weekends, members of the Civil Air Patrol squadron would truck Pitcher and other students from the District to the airport to teach them about flying, aviation mechanics and electrical engineering.

Many of the trainers, including Jones, had been Tuskegee Airmen and enjoyed working with students, Pitcher recalled.

In 1949, Pitcher took his first solo flight at the airstrip in a 1946 Aeronca Champ. ‘‘It was great,” he said. ‘‘You get up there and you can see everything around you.”

The airport was one of Prince George’s County’s busiest by 1950, but at times it struggled to make a profit.

‘‘It was an adventure. But in most cases it wasn’t a big financial success,” said Jones, who took over management of the airport with another pilot, Charlie Wren, in the 1950s.

Jones remembered that the airport staff started a fire in the field one day in order to clear out overgrown brush. The fire quickly got out of control, but they managed to contain it at the bank of the Patuxent River. ‘‘If it had not been for the river down there, I don’t know what would have happened,” Pitcher said.

In its 17 years of operation, the airport only experienced one serious crash. Dr. C.M. Gill, who helped support the airport financially, and another man went out for a spin one December evening when ice began forming in the plane’s equipment, Jones recalled.

‘‘They crashed on the field and both were in serious shape,” Jones said. The men survived after one of them managed to break into the office and phone for help.

As the 1950s wore on, activity began to drop off at the airport, partly because of increased vandalism. People would sneak onto the grounds at night and damage equipment, Jones said.

The airport closed in 1958 because the property owner decided not to renew the pilots’ lease. The next year, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission bought the land and turned it into the first segment of the Patuxent River Watershed Park.

Even though the airport and its operators today have a place in black aviation history and local history — Greene, who died in 1989, is in the Prince George’s County Hall of Fame — the pilots and students of the Columbia Air Center didn’t think of themselves at the time as trailblazers, Pitcher said.

‘‘We were interested in what was going on” with aviation, Pitcher said. ‘‘We didn’t think about being pioneers.”