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Progress Plows Over Historic Airport

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Old aerial photograph of Raleigh Municipal Airport, looking west. In the bottom left of photo, the intersection of Wilmington Street and Tryon Road is visible.

RALEIGH--Time and progress often pushes aside places of historic value that once held memories. Long before the daily national and international flights in and out of RDU airport between Raleigh and Durham, there existed an airport on Raleigh’s southeast side known as the Raleigh Municipal Airport.  Thousands of people regularly pass by the remnants of that airport today on Wilmington Street without a second thought of the properties’ significance.

 

Located at the corner of Wilmington Street and Tyron Road, the Raleigh Municipal Airport once provided air service for the capital city.  Opened in 1929, the airport represented new and exciting air travel for the Wake County area and the forerunner of Eastern Airlines ran commercial flight service and mail service from the airport. The airport also received several notable dignitaries at various times, such as famed female aviator, Amelia Earhart who paid a visit in the early 1930’s.

 

With rapid growth of commercial air travel, it became apparent that the airport’s runways were too short (approximately 2500-2800 feet) and could not adequately serve commercial service much longer. In 1939, lawmakers set a plan into motion to replace the airport with a more modern facility that could be expanded to meet the growth of the air travel industry and RDU was opened in 1943 to commercial air traffic. Subsequently, after many years of private aircraft usage, the airport officially closed in 1972 and the property was soon sold for expected commercial and industrial development that never materialized fully.

 

Today, an old shopping center stands on what was once one the northeast corner of the airport’s most used runway. Behind the shopping center, a berm divides the commercial property from new homes and residential streets built on top of what was once the center of the airport property.

 

Up until just a few years ago, the old, weather-beaten runways were still visible from behind the shopping center running deep into the woods behind the property. Rising incidents of crime and vagrancy in the area, however, became a serious problem for the City of Raleigh. Financial opportunities to further develop the property, brought on the removal of the timber that had grown there for nearly three decades since the abandonment of the airport. Along with the timber, the asphalt runways were dug up; forever stripping the land of visible clues to what once existed there.

 

Three years ago, all that was left of the airport was a small section of the northeastern terminus of runway 14/32 that had somehow escaped removal from the premises. It was located to the left of the shopping center alongside Olympia Drive that runs around the perimeter. However, recently, a makeshift soccer field has been placed on the grassy area and what was left of runway 14/32 has been broken up into a rumble pile beside the street.

 

Progress took its toll upon Raleigh aviation history here. Motorist will continue their daily commute up and down Wilmington Street and homeowners there will discover their dreams of a comfortable residence, never likely realizing that nearly 80 years ago an exciting new age of air travel was enveloping Raleigh literally in their own backyards.