By Phil James
Those seemingly winged horses observed each spring and fall at the Foxfield Races on Garth Road are not the first beings that have taken to the air above that storied acreage. A half-century before the popular Albemarle County steeplechase event was inaugurated in 1978, steeds of another pedigree were bent hard to the task of leveling the bumps and dips and installing drainage on the former Fretwell, and later, Wilhoit, farm land.
Workmen with the aid of tractors and 40 or so mules busily graded runways in preparation for central Virginia’s first commercial airfield. Edward Sturhahn, president of newly minted Dixie Flying Service Inc., secured a deed in May 1929 for the 145-acre tract from Hugh Garth who had taken possession of the property less than three years earlier.
Sturhahn and his peers had come of age during an era of rapid industrial advancements. Rail service that radically altered lifestyles in the 19th century was, by the 1920s, shedding business to private trucks and automobiles. The early 20th century saw important advancements with experimental aircraft being tested by dreamers and bicycle mechanics. The Curtiss Exhibition Company, sponsored by the U.Va. Aero Club, performed above Lambeth Field in 1912. The most successful of those aviation pioneers saw their innovations fill the skies over World War I battlefields.
In 1917, German planes shot down former U.Va. student James R. McConnell during an aerial dogfight. A statue to his memory, crafted by Gutzon Borglum and titled “The Aviator,” was installed on University grounds in 1919.
Months after McConnell’s untimely passing, another U.Va. student, 20-year-old Charlottesville resident Robert H. “Buck” Wood Jr., entered the flying corps. Scarcely a year later on August 13, 1918, his youthful spark was quenched when his observation plane crashed along the French front. First Lieutenant Wood’s remains are interred in St. Mihiel American Cemetery at Thiaucourt, France. A stone originally erected to his memory by comrades at Issoudun, France, was brought to Charlottesville and placed in his family’s section in Riverview Cemetery.
Some of the daring military aviators fortunate enough to return home after the war embraced another exciting, albeit dangerous, career. The curious public thronged to open spaces to witness amazing feats executed by those winged war heroes. Tragic accidents were commonplace, but did little to stem the tide of barnstorming aerial exhibitionists or their awestruck spectators.
During the next several years, the sight and sound of machines flying overhead in Central Virginia became more common. Howardsville residents on the James River marveled at their first airship sighting in 1918. Charlottesville Aerial Motor Corporation advanced plans for a flying field off Rio Road in 1920. Flyers from Lynchburg stopped over in Charlottesville to give rides and advertise their Curtiss Aeroplanes. One Saturday afternoon, local businessman W.P. Mertens dropped 1,000 advertising circulars from the sky over the city. In 1921, an airplane crashed on U.Va.’s Massie Field in front of 2,000 spectators attending a track and field meet. Amazingly, the two operators, gashed and shaken, survived.
Problems of a different sort occurred at Crozet in 1922 when only two paying customers showed up for an exhibition. A Daily Progress pundit described that day thusly:
“The air ship came to Crozet
But didn’t get the “biz,”
With their dollar a minute
Bird flights o’er the town;
For tho’ we’d like to go up,
To where the sunshine is,
We’ll wait until the prices have come down.”
In June of ’29, Dixie Flying signed a contract for the construction of a 60×60’ steel hangar. Local contractors Failes & Burrage built a Spanish-style clubhouse. That centerpiece of the airfield included a large main floor meeting room for flight classes and social functions, a private dining room and kitchen, chart room, and restrooms. The basement contained dressing rooms and showers. A rooftop observation tower allowed an unobstructed view of the field’s three landing strips. Boxwoods adorned the grounds surrounding the clubhouse.
Dixie Flying’s vice-president Capt. Malcolm Robinson piloted the service’s first official passenger, Columbus C. Wells, owner of New Dominion Book Shop at Jarman’s Inc., on a nonstop hop to New York City on August 21. Within weeks, a decision was made to name the airport Wood Field in honor of WWI aviator Buck Wood.
At the close of 1929, Dixie Flying Service at Wood Field was numbered among the state’s 31 airports. Each of its three landing strips was in service; the clubhouse had an able manager; and its active Aviation Club had 50 members.
The airport officially was christened Wood Field on Memorial Day 1930. Charlottesville-Albemarle Post 74, American Legion, organized the event. Dignitaries participated alongside the Monticello Guard and VFW. Charlottesville’s Municipal Band performed, and a bronze tablet memorializing 1st Lt. R.H. “Buck” Wood Jr. was unveiled at the airport’s entrance by his sister, Mrs. Isabelle Wood Holt.
General William L. “Billy” Mitchell, who had been in charge of the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F) air forces during WWI, delivered the keynote address. Mitchell, who would come to be recognized by many as the father of the U.S. Air Force, noted, “When ‘Young Wood’ entered the service, there were hardly fifty American aviators. He was therefore one of the forerunners of a new force.”
During the Great Depression, Dixie Flying Service Inc. inaugurated regularly scheduled air service up and down the east coast. They also acquired Byrd Field at Richmond and the municipal airport at Danville.
Two devastating storms struck Wood Field a month apart in 1931. Fierce winds tore planes from their moorings, tossing them like toys across the field and onto the highway, while lightning struck another. Two burst into flames that reduced them to tangled ruins. Hailstones riddled fabric-covered wings and perforated metal fuselages. During the first storm, the hangar was unroofed and damaged beyond repair. The next storm damaged more planes plus the replacement hangar that was still under construction. Losses not covered by insurance added to the burden of the economic times.
Another company office was opened at White Sulphur Springs, WV. The Cavalier Daily noted in November ’32 a new plane purchased by the Flying Club. The club’s optimistic yet dwindling membership reflected realities of that day.
In March 1933, Dixie Flying Service was dissolved by its stockholders. Its landing strips were left available for emergency landings, sans liability. Only an occasional air show during the ensuing years, along with the empty replacement hangar, reminded passersby of the lofty dreams, and dreamers, that had taken flight at that special place.
Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2017 Phil James