Today, Portland International Airport is among the busiest air terminals in the West.

Every day, an average of 44,000 passengers pass through PDX, which is served by nearly 20 airlines that connect Portland with cities all over the world. 

While that’s hardly news in 2015, it’s an image that would likely have stunned the pilots and air mechanics who were first trying to establish aviation and aviation commerce in the Portland area as early as 1905.

That was a time when men – and a few women – dressed in heavily lined jackets, donned leather helmets and goggles and climbed into rickety wooden aircraft that took off and landed at makeshift fields with little more than a windsock to aid their comings and goings.

Those early aviators couldn’t have known exactly what was coming but they were excited about bringing aviation – for fun and commerce – to the Rose City area.

Key to that development was places to safely take off and land. A number of airports appeared and disappeared during the first four decades of the 20th century. At one time, in the early 1930s, The Oregonian reported nine airports were operating in the metro area.

Eventually, the number was whittled down, with PDX far and away the biggest and busiest survivor.   It is the 10th busiest airport in the western states and the 30th busiest in the nation. But all of the local airports past and present, and the people who developed them, played a role in bringing the new science and commerce of aviation to Portland.  Among them, in chronological order:

Pearson Field (1905): The oldest of all still survives.  Pearson Field in Vancouver welcomed its first aircraft – a dirigible – in 1905 and its first airplane in 1911. It has been in continuous operation ever since and is the oldest airport in the Pacific Northwest.  It’s been a military field as well as a civil aviation operation.  And while it has faded in importance, it still marks the birthplace of aviation in the area.

Broomfield Aviation Field (1919):  While most sources point to Swan Island (see below) as Portland’s first municipal airport, you could argue that Bloomfield should have that honor.

Broomfield became home to early flying and air mechanic schools and several aircraft were based there from about 1918 to the early 1920s.  An undated draft of a city ordinance established various fees for those using the field ($30 a month to store an airplane in a hanger at the field, for example).

1919 airplane crash

One of the first fatal airplane crashes in Portland took place in June of 1919. Two men were killed when their craft plunged into the ground near the Southeast Portland airfield that would be named Broomfield Aviation Field in October of that year. Read about an effort to learn more about that incident.

Its exact location is a little hard to pin down.  Stories in The Oregonian about its naming in October of 1919 place it in Eastmoreland, but other sources place it in neighboring Westmoreland.

It was also significant because it was named after the only Portlander killed in air combat during World War I.  Hugh Broomfield moved to Portland with his parents in the pre-war days and was attending Reed College when the war broke out.  He volunteered and ended up in the Signal Corps.  He and his crewmate were killed just weeks before the war ended.  

Lewis and Clark Field (c1920):  This early airport apparently operated in the Linnton neighborhood about the same time as Broomfield was operating in Southeast Portland.  It appears to have been home, at least briefly, to the Oregon-Washington-Idaho Airplane Company, which had been at Broomfield Field.

Rankin Field (c1925):  This field was in the area just northeast of east Delta Park.  It was mostly a flying school, operated by Tex Rankin, who was a famous stunt pilot at the time.  Rankin gained part of his fleet by buying the defunct Oregon-Washington-Idaho Airplane Company. He later moved his school to California.

Swan Island Airport (1926): This was Portland’s first modern airfield and for a time was seen as the “most beautiful airport in the nation,” according to a story in the May 8, 1932, edition of The Sunday Oregonian.  The city built a three-story permanent air terminal and hangers on the site, and Portland’s first regular airline service began at Swan Island when Varney Airlines (later United Airlines) began service between Portland and Pasco, Boise and Salt Lake City.

The field was dedicated with great fanfare by Charles Lindberg in 1927, but what no one realized at the time was that the need for bigger airports that could handle thousands of passengers on hundreds of flights a day would quickly outpace the field.

In fact, by early 1930s, it had become obvious that the runways at Swan Island were too short, there wasn’t enough space for hangers and other buildings, and the new St. Johns Bridge–built in 1931 – presented a navigation hazard for flights.  The city purchased land for a new airport along the Columbia River in 1936, but it wasn’t finished until 1940.

Swan Island continued to operate as an airport until after World War II, but it was eventually converted to a dry dock and other uses.

Watts Field (c1926) Bernard’s Airport (1928): These two private fields were both in the Beaverton area.  Watts was built on land near what is now Erickson and Fifth Avenue, just south of Beaverton High School.  The property once had been occupied by Premium Picture Productions, a motion picture studio, and Bernard’s was built just a half mile north of Watts.  Watts operated until the late 1930s and Bernard’s closed in 1969.  Cedar Hills Crossing shopping center now occupies the land where the airport used to be.

Hillsboro Airport (1928):  This is the second-busiest airport in the Portland area and is often mentioned as a possible backup for Portland International.  It is home base for many company business jets and each year plays host to the Oregon International Airshow, which draws thousands.  It started out as a private field, and was used as a backup to the Portland-Columbia airport during extensive flooding in 1948.  

Christofferson Airport (1931), Boyd Airport (c1932), Burbee Airport (c1932):  All three of these fields were in the area near where Portland and Gresham meet, north of Division Street and south of the Columbia River.  Christofferson, the busiest of the three, was possibly named after Silas Christofferson, an Oregon aviation pioneer.  He was perhaps best known for flying an airplane of the roof of the Multnomah Hotel in downtown Portland in 1912.  He died in an airplane crash in Californian in 1916.

Portland-Columbia Super Airport (1940): Fewer than 10 years after Swan Island was operational, the city and Port of Portland were looking for land for a new airport.  But 1936, the city bought the land on which it the Portland-Columbia Super Airport, now known as Portland International Airport.

Troutdale Airport (1942):  Officially known as the Portland-Troutdale Airport, this field is owned by the Port of Portland is mostly used by private aviation today, but it played a key role in Portland air travel in 1948, when the Portland-Columbia airport was flooded in May of that year.  It handled many of the area’s aviation needs for weeks.

Aurora State Airport (1943): This general aviation field started out as a backup field for military operations running out of the Portland-Columbia airport.  It still operates just northwest of the town of Aurora.   It is owned by the Oregon Department of Aviation

Trok’s Skyport (c1948):  From photos, this field may have been a reincarnation of the Boyd airport.  It was due north of Powell Butte, probably near what is now the intersection of Southeast Lincoln Street and 162nd Avenue.

Portland International Airport (1940/1952): The Portland-Columbia Super Airport was absorbed by Portland International Airport in the early 1950s.  With the coming of the bigger airliners and the jet age, airplanes needed longer runways.  And with the area’s population and the number of air travelers both increasing, a bigger terminal and more parking space were required.   Bigger, longer runways were added in 1955 and 1965. 

PDX has gone through at least two major renovations since.  About the only remnant of the Portland-Columbia Super Airport appears to be the runway 2/20, the “crosswind” runway at PDX.

The current airport has a 266-foot control tower looking out over three runways, the longest of which is more than two miles in length.  Skybridges connect a huge parking garage to the terminal, a special light-rail line ferries passengers and employees to and from the airport and for those who prefer to drive to PDX for their flights, there are acres of long-term parking .

— John Killen

[email protected]

503-221-8538; @johnkillen

Sources:  The Oregonian, Portland Archives and Records Center, Wikipedia, Oregon State Archives

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