College Park residents have lived in fear of things falling from the sky since 1909 when the Wright brothers arrived on the outskirts of their community to establish the world's first airport and send aeronauts soaring, and crashing, about the countryside eight miles from the nation's capital.
Now, beginning Monday, the wings of local pilots will be clipped somewhat under regulations designed to limit some of the soaring and, it is hoped, most of the crashing. The new rules will end novice flight instruction and plane rentals at the historic field as well as restrict the numbers and kinds of planes that can use it and the hours they can fly.
They were adopted recently as a "compromise" between those who ply the sky and those who live on the ground beneath them, by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which acquired the private airport in 1973 after one spectacular crash brought a crescendo of community complaints.
The main effect of the new rules will be to keep out the half dozen large corporate twin-engine planes that have been swooping downonto the field each week, because the airport is more convenient to them than National Airport, and to force at least 50 area pilots a week to go to other airports to rent planes. The fewer flights should mean less noise for grounddwellers.
Plane crashes around the College Park has been so common since 1909 that local residents have developed something of a Chicken-Little complex. In the early days "any landing you could walk away from was a good landing," according to one history of the airport. But there were so many bad landings that the federal government established the nation's first aerospace medical team in 1912 to be stationed full time at the field with an ambulance. And planes weren't the only things dropping from the heavens. In the early days, first live bombs and airbone machine guns were tested over College Park.
The quantity of crashes has since dwindled.The most recent calamity occurred in 1972 when two youths stole a plane from the field one night and were killed in a fiery crash on the sidewalk in front of a nearby University of Maryland sorority house. No residents were injured, but the crash and other less spectacular aeronautical misdaventures encouraged Prince George's County to buy the private airport for $1.5 million the following year.
Still located at the end of a hard-to-find dirt and beside the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks, the airport in recent years had attracted fewer visitors in a month than it did on a single weekend when Wilbur and Orville Wright and their gossamer-winged planes had to be protected from spectators by a cordon of U.S. Cavalry.
Only one early hangar remains today, a corrugated tin building built in 1919, and the oldest plane at the field now is only a 1939 Aeronca Chief, co-owned by the young airport manager, James Powell.
Most of the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission's plans to improve the airport have been shelved in a county-wide budget freeze, but "we're trying to get money to restore the airport and to recreate hangars like the six built here for the Wright brothers," says, Powell. Last year a new goup, the Friends of College Park Airport, was formed, Powell said. "It's like the Friends of the National Zoo . . . We hope they'll help."
The huge flat fields of grass and wild flowers that originally attracted the U.S. army to the site - a balloonist for the army picked out the field after spotting an aeroplane and small hanger there - have been replaced by industrial plants and housing subdivisions.
The plane and hangar belonged to Rex Smith and his Flying School, one of a number of barnyard flying outfits that sprang up in the early aviation craze. Smith co-existed with the Wright brothers' Army flying school for many years, which added to College Park's popularity.
But even Smith was not the first lighter-than-air experimeter on the College Park field. According to reports Alexander Graham Bell stopped there in 1907 to watch a man hanging 100 feet in the air from a 20-by-30 foot kite being drawn by a horse.
But the many officially recorded aviation firsts came later, between 1909 and the 1930s when U.S. pilots began experimenting with the first blind landing equipment for fog and bad weather.
Among the history first at College Park were: the first controlled helicopter flights; the first commercial air [PARAGRAPH ILLEGIBLE]
The new airport regulations willing limit the appearance of old and extermental (home-made planes) at the field. An antique and experimental plane fly-in will be held at the airport June 25, attracting aircraft from all over the East, but would-be pilots will have to go to other airfields to get their first flight instruction. The support last year held an aviation heritage day "and we were so crowded we couldn't move - people were ecstatle," said manager Powerll.
Since taking over the airport the park authority has built a new and realigned runway to steer planes even farther away from nearby homes, renovated the airport hangar and operations building, established a small museum and started an Air Explorer Post at the airport to work with young pilots.
In buying the airport the county also established a small first of its own, said airport-manager Powell. "This is the only airport in the country to be run by a park and recreation authority."