It was after the Second World War that “President Eisenhower decided to plunk down an airport in the middle of a cow field in Loudoun County,” in the words of the late Loudoun mover and shaker B. Powell Harrison. That decision by the administration and Congress to construct a second airport for the capital area led to the opening in 1962 of one of the most beautiful airports in the world.
Washington National Airport, built in 1941, was increasingly unable to handle the ever-growing air traffic. The Second Washington Airport Act of 1950 authorized the construction of an additional airport in the capital area.
Eero Saarinen & Associates of Hamden, CT, was selected as architect for the project, with Ammann & Whitney of New York as prime contractor. Construction began Sept. 2, 1958.
From the beginning, Saarinen wanted to create an airport with soul. He was not alone in thinking it was “the best thing I’ve ever done,” as passengers from the first moment the airport opened in 1962 to today speak reverently of the soaring sweep and simple elegance of the building, topped by its distinctive, 193-foot-high glass enclosed control tower.
Named after Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, the airport was unlike any other in America, or indeed anywhere in the world. Saarinen designed the 600-foot-long by 200-foot-wide structure to accommodate an expansion of up to 320 feet at either end—a design that was completed seamlessly 34 years later in 1996.
Construction began in 1958 at the 10,000-acre site assembled from a number of farms straddled on either side of the Fairfax/Loudoun line. It was the first airport designed to accommodate commercial jets in the country.
Not only beautiful but also revolutionary in concept, by the time construction was complete, 11.5 million cubic yards of earth had been excavated and two north-south parallel runways 11,500 feet long and 150 feet wide and a third, 10,000-foot long northwest-southwest runway built.
Now being phased out, Dulles’ mobile lounges that ferried passengers to the planes were unique in 1962. The lounge buses could carry 102 passengers and made the airport very user friendly. From the terminal doors to the lounges, passengers had only to walk 200 feet—a far cry from today’s much longer distance to the outer terminals.
And for passengers landing at Dulles, the slow ride to the terminal allowed the wonder of the majestic building to sink ever deeper into their consciousness. Some have likened their sense of awe to that experienced by the first sight of a great medieval cathedral.
There is one man in Loudoun who was there almost “at the creation” and who championed its needs in the crucial early period. Former Loudoun Supervisor and State Sen. Charles L. Waddell, then an employee with American Airlines, was transferred from National Airport to Dulles just four months after its dedication Nov. 17, 1962.
The 80-year-old Waddell, who retired in 2002 from his last public service stint as Virginia Secretary of Transportation, recalled being there when President John F. Kennedy officially opened the airport, with Eisenhower, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, FAA Administrator “Jeeb” Halaby and Virginia Gov. Albertis Harrison, along with a host of other dignitaries.
After handling all aspects of the airline’s operations at Dulles, including as passenger service manager, Waddell entered public service in 1967, first as a county supervisor, then as a state senator. Waddell would play prominent roles in helping shape crucial land use decisions and ensuring the financial support was there to increase traffic at Dulles. After being elected to the Virginia Senate in 1971, Waddell was put on the transportation committee, thereby “enhancing my ability to champion needs at Dulles.”
The Sterling-Chantilly site was not the first choice for the new airport—Burke was. But in the end, the die was cast for Loudoun and Northern Virginia.
Its distance from Washington, DC, left Dulles isolated at first, with most Northern Virginia travelers wanting to use National. One seasoned international traveler complained, “Who would ever drive 26 miles out there to the middle of nowhere to catch an airplane?”
Growth was slow. “We tried everything. The Loudoun Chamber of Commerce used bumper stickers: “Follow me to Dulles; let’s create a traffic jam,” Waddell recalled. In another ploy, American Airlines flew a Boeing 707 down each morning from New York. For $5, passengers could take a sightseeing roundtrip to familiarize themselves with Northern Virginia before flying on further south. “People loved it,” he said.
It was not until control for both Dulles and National airports was transferred to the new Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority in the 1980s that Dulles began to hit its stride. It then could seek access to funding for major improvements that had not been possible before, Waddell said.
Along with former Del. Carrington Williams and other local political and business leaders, Waddell established the Washington Dulles Task Force with the goal of providing private sector funding improvements at Dulles until the airports authority could organize the issuance of development and construction bonds.
With General Assembly support, financial and staffing support was put in place to allow MWAA and WATF to operate until resources became available. The 1978 federal deregulation of airlines also eventually facilitated a speedier growth of air traffic to Dulles.
Congressional help for Dulles, whose improvements were opposed by Baltimore Friendship Airport—another player with a stake to protect—came in the early 1970s from Sen. Bill Spong and Congressman Joe Fisher.
When Waddell became chairman of the Virginia Senate Transportation Committee in the mid-1980s and in the early 1990s landed a seat on the Finance Committee, “I was then in a better position to help Dulles,” he said.
Later that decade, help came from Congressman Frank Wolf and Sens. John Warner and Chuck Robb. In the 1990s and 2000s, successive Virginia governors from Jerry Baliles to Tim Kaine also supported those efforts.
Getting to Dulles was not easy. At first there was only the access road from Washington, DC. It was not until the 1980s that the Dulles Toll Road was built. Nor was there a Rt. 267. And “there was no Rt. 28 in the original plan,” Waddell said, noting Herndon was the nearest point of access for Loudouners; it was Harrison who led the Rt. 28 push to establish access from Loudoun.
In 1987 Waddell sponsored the Rt. 28 Transportation Tax District Bill, with the support and commitment of the business community, that converted the earlier, congested two-lane country road with at-grade crossings to a modern highway. He also sponsored legislation in 1988 for a private toll road—today’s Dulles Greenway—to provide direct access from Leesburg to the airport.
For his long support and activism on behalf of Dulles International Airport, in 1988 the Committee for Dulles honored Waddell with the Tower of Dulles award.
Waddell has good memories of his time at Dulles. In the early years, with only a few flights, Dulles was “dead during the day.” To add a bit of spice, two of the airline’s agents—former college and high school track stars—used the concourse for a “100-yard dash” contest—cheered on appreciatively by passengers.
Another time, he was in the midfield operations area with others one afternoon when they saw a pickup truck and trailer with West Virginia tags approaching across an active runway. The driver asked: “Hey, mister, can you tell us how to get to Chantilly?” Waddell politely gave him directions—not the reaction from the control tower, which was a bit more apoplectic.
He also has a poignant memory. Mary Jane Booth, a much loved 42-year-old American Airlines employee who was secretary to its general manager at Dulles, died on American Airlines Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.
Today, that “middle of nowhere” has played a direct role in Loudoun’s Rt. 28 being dubbed the Silicon Valley of the East and the county’s status as the nation’s wealthiest county.