It is probably fitting that tiny College Park Airport, the place where the Wright Brothers taught others to fly, is best viewed from the air.
The airport is wedged onto an 80-acre triangle of land about a mile from the University of Maryland's sprawling complex of Georgian brick buildings.
Tucked away as the airport is between busy Calvert Road and the Paint Branch Stream Valley Park, commuters can drive right past the landing strip and not know it's there.
From the air, the dozens of light planes lined up wing to wing stand out in an area that is otherwise dominated by industry and park land.
The single 2,740-foot runway is an improvement over the grassy strip that the Orville and Wilbur Wright used for practice in 1909. But planners now say that it could stand to be widened another 20 feet and have its low intensity lights upgraded.
These safety features and other improvements planned for the College Park field would, if approved by the county planning board, be the most significant changes ever made to the airport, which has been owned and operated for the past seven years by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
It is the world's oldest continually operating airfield, running daily since Wilbur Wright and his students first soared aloft in Miss Columbia, the Army's first airplane.
General manager John Barney, 27, started out washing planes there when he was 12, and says he learned to fly before he learned to drive. Now he is the airport's chief defender.
"People are concerned that if you improve the facility, it will attract more people and increase the chances of noise problems or accidents," Barney said.
But he noted that there have been no fatal accidents at the airport in recent years and only "two incidents" of note on or near the airport grounds in the past year.
Last November, on election night, a four-seater plane crashed in a yard in Riverdale, a short distance from the airport.
The previous May, a pilot and copilot were severely injured when their plane crashed shortly after takeoff about a half mile from the field.
However, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said that there are no reports on file about accidents at the airport and that it is generally considered to have an excellent safety record.
While it is a modest facility as airports go -- there is no tower, just a few low buildings, including a museum -- it is the only small nonmilitary airport within the Beltway and is convenient for pilots who have business in Washington.
The Metro's planned Green Line extension will make the airport even more accessible to fly-in commuters.
The proposed $50 million College Park Metro station is scheduled to open in 1992.
The construction would wipe out Frank Scott Drive, the airport's only access road from Calvert Road.
Airport planners are hoping to relocate buildings and build a new road at the opposite end of the airport.
Planners say that the airport improvements are being proposed because demand at the facility is expected to grow gradually over a 20-year period.
Walter Starling, a WCLY radio traffic reporter who is chairman of the Friends of College Park Airport, said that his group hopes to see the tiny field become "a living museum" featuring memorabilia and other documents.
But there are problems, such as the corrugated metal air mail hangar, circa 1918, that is still used for maintenance.
"It leaks and it floods the floor," said Starling, who flies out of the airport every day and lives nearby.
"It's hard to heat in the wintertime and hotter than hell in the summertime," he said.
The planning board is scheduled to consider the new airport master plan Sept. 19.
If approved, that plan will be sent to the Federal Aviation Administration in the form of a funding request.
Improvements, which will be paid for by federal, state and local authorities, would cost nearly $4 million over 20 years.
Park and planning commission spokesman Steve Davis said that the bicounty agency lost about $40,000 running the airport last year, in part because its ability to expand has been limited.
College Park Mayor Alvin J. Kushner said that most city residents don't mind the airport's presence, particularly in the seven years since the commission has owned it.
"Some can remember when the airport wasn't a terribly good neighbor," Kushner said. "It was a noisy neighbor."
Now, mostly, pilots and neighbors alike would like to see the airport preserve one vital element of its history. The grass.
"The historic nature of the field is not one of an urban airport where you find the whole thing covered with pavement everywhere you look," said Chester Joy, a College Park City Council member who is also a pilot.
And from the air, the little green triangle looks like a pleasant place to land.