Bennett H. Griffin, 82, an aviation pioneer who set transatlantic flight records, was once arrested in Russia as a spy, and was director of Washington National Airport for more than 10 years, died of congestive heart failure at his Washington home.
During his directorship from 1947 to 1957, the airport continued its phenomenal growth and began to prepare for the "jet age" that started for commercial aircraft in 1958.
Mr. Griffin was pilot of the first official landing at National in 1940. The airport opened to commercial traffic a year later, replacing the old Washington-Hoover Airport that is now part of the Pentagon north parking lot. Of Washington-Hoover, Wiley Post once groused, "I've seen better landing fields in Siberia."
National Airport handled 77,348 take-offs and landings in 1942, its first complete year of operation.
In 1947, after Mr. Griffin took over, National handled 1,140,495 passengers on 159,690 flights. These figures grew to 4,463,227 passengers and 276,717 flights a year during his last full year as director. Last year, National had 13,258,200 passengers and 355,452 flights.
After retiring as airport director, Mr. Griffin became a Washington based consultant to a New York engineering firm.
In 1917, Mr. Griffin began a flying career in which he flew "everything from jennies to jets." In those darevil times records were constantly broken. It was in this spirit, on July 5, 1932, that he an Jimmie Mattern took off from New York Floyd Bennett Field at 5:01 a.m. in a single-engine Lockheed Vega, to try to break the round-the-record set the year before by Wiley Post and Harold Gatty.
By the time Mr. Griffin and Mattern landed in Berlin they had flown about 4,000 miles in 29 hours and 30 minutes, and were three hours a head of the record time of Post and Gatty.
Impatient to be off, the pilots did not wait for officials Soviet papers giving them permission to fly over Russian. They took off a short while after landing in Berlin . . . next stop, Moscow.
In Moscow, a brightly lighted airport and the world's press awaited Mr. Griffin and Mattern. But two days were to pass before word reached the city on the fate of the fliers.
Their plane had been forced to land in a peat bog near Borisov, Russian, and both Mr. Grffin and Mattern were arrested by a Red Army general and held far two days as spies.
Word finally reached Moscow that two American fliers, without papers, had been captured in Borisov. Reporters in Moscow knew the men could only be Mr. Griffin and Mattern, and sped to Borisov, where they persuaded the Soviet general to send the flyers to Moscow.
After a two - day trial before six judges, the pilots were told by the presiding judge that they were freeto go.
"That's when the tables really turned," according to Mr. Griffin. "They let us look in on their aircraft installations, and even put us on a plane to fly back to Berlin." By this time it was mid-July, and the race was abandoned.
Mr. Griffin was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his Atlantic flight.
After returning from his European adventure he joined the old Bureau of Air Commerce in 1933 as an aeronautical inspector. He latter was put in charge of development work on instrument flying and runaway lighting.
Mr. Griffin helped organize the old Civil Aeronautics Administration's first Link instrument flight school, instructed CAA personnel in advanced instrument multiengine flight techniques, and was director of the CAA standardiration center in the Houston when World War II began.
At the outbreak of the war he was commissioned a major in the Army Air Forces and in 1943 was assigned to Air Transport Command headquarters here. He drafted the air inspection system for the command. He retired from the Air Force Reserve as a colonel.
A native of Barton, Miss., he earned a bachelors' degree from the University of Oklahoma.
Mr. Griffin first came toWashington in the early 1930s, and lived here since 1947.
When he retired from his consulting work in 1973, he was named a "Distinguished Elder Statesman of American Aviation" by the National Aeronautics Association.
He is survived by a sister, Alma Forbes, of Oklahoma City.