Then & Now: Aviation in Cleveland
The history of aviation in The Land
By Kelsey O'Donnell
Ever wonder why your Ohio license plate says "Birthplace of Aviation"? Most people think it's because Ohio was the birthplace of astronauts John Glenn and Neil Armstrong and home to aerospace pioneers the Wright brothers (and they're not wrong). But few people also know that the Cleveland area specifically made contributions toward aviation advancements. So here's a little humblebrag.
On Aug. 31, 1910, pioneering aviator Glenn Curtiss took off from Euclid Beach Park for a 60-mile flight to Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio. His one hour and 18-minute flight set a world record for distance flown over water and drew a crowd of more than 18,000 spectators to the shore of Lake Erie to catch a glimpse of his plane flying overhead. As famous Clevelander Kid Cudi would say, he was "up, up and away."
Just eight years after Glenn Curtiss made his historic flight, Cleveland gained recognition for advances in aviation yet again. Cleveland took a lead role in air transportation when it was chosen as a principal stop in the first transcontinental airmail delivery system. So basically, you can thank the CLE for facilitating your Amazon Prime two-day shipping. You're welcome.
The success of the transcontinental airmail system called for improvements to be made for air travel in Cleveland. The city approved a $1.25 million purchase of land for a new municipal airport. In 1925, the large piece of property at Brookpark Rd. and Riverside Dr. became home to the Cleveland Municipal Airport, now Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.
With a brand new airport, Cleveland welcomed the National Air Races in 1929. The event hosted various flying-related competitions including closed-course races, cross-country races and races that involved flying five laps around a 10-mile circuit. There were also blimp rides, parachuting competitions and military demonstrations at the event to entertain the crowds.
The National Air Races started off incredibly successful, and created a legacy. The Races continued from 1931-39, and then 1946-49. But then after a series of accidents (like a plane crashing into a house in Berea), nearby Cleveland cities began to ban the races from being held in their airspace. Understandably. Eventually, the races came to an end completely.
The air races not only brought attention to aviation in Cleveland, they also provided an opportunity for advancements in aircraft technology. Cleveland quickly became a hub for aviation research.
In 1940, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) opened an aircraft engine laboratory in Cleveland. The research lab investigated B-29 engines that were being assembled here by GM during World War II and then jet engine technology after the war. After 18 years, the lab became a part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and started working on the space program. So you could say it is fitting that the first man on the moon was also from Ohio.
Aircraft production has subsided here in Cleveland, but there is still a large airplane parts manufacturing and aerospace research and development presence in the region. Globally, Cleveland is one of the top suppliers for Airbus and Boeing. Locally, Cleveland is home to aerospace corporations like Lockheed Martin, Parker Hannifin and NASA Glenn. On top of that, Cleveland Hopkins Airport is going strong. Listed as the 47th busiest airport for flights and 45th busiest in passengers in the nation, like the airport’s slogan says, CLE really is going places.
Burke Lakefront Airport is still operating as well. When it was built in 1947, it was the first downtown airport in Cleveland and it was named after Thomas A. Burke, Cleveland's mayor at the time. The airport was home to a modest 2,000-foot dirt runway and a small hanger. Today, it is just getting better with age. Renovations have improved the runway and added a terminal, control tower and concourses.
The lakefront airport hosts the Cleveland National Air Show annually. The Labor Day weekend tradition has been one of the oldest and most established air shows in the country since it started in 1964. It draws more than 100,000 spectators a year and it never disappoints. Nothing says Labor Day in Cleveland like the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds or Blue Angels roaring overhead while you're downing a corn dog below.