October 08, 2005

ORH Turned 78

Little late but on October 3rd, ORH turned 78.

...in 1927, two runways and two hangars opened for business at the new Worcester Airport. A week later, more than 30,000 people flocked to the official dedication. Stunt flyers, parachutists, and military pilots entertained. Built on a hill in North Grafton, this small field was the only airport Worcester was to have for the next 19 years. By 1940, Worcester was the largest city in the country without regular passenger air service. In 1944, ground was broken for a new airport closer to downtown, and two years later, commercial service began. The next 50 years brought good times and bad. No commercial flights have operated in or out of Worcester Airport since February 2003 but will restart December 2005 with Allegiant.

In the 1920s, flying was an adventure. For the Whittall brothers of central Massachusetts, the years after World War I were spent testing their skill and luck by flying canvas covered biplanes over the fields and villages of Worcester County. But the Whittalls, like other local pilots, faced a serious obstacle: there was no airport in Worcester. Farm fields provided a bumpy alternative for recreational flyers, but commercial passenger planes and mail carriers needed the improved runways available at a real airport.

In 1925, an informal group of Worcester businessmen and flying enthusiasts began to scout potential sites for an airport in Worcester County. But, as often happens when committees are involved, the plans stagnated. Finally, Whitin' Whittall grew impatient with the delays. He used his own money to hire engineers to survey possible sites. Inches Farm field in North Grafton came up at the top of the list. He took out options to purchase the land, then drummed up excitement and support from Worcester businessmen. Within three weeks, the group had the funds to incorporate, and by October 3, 1927, two runways and two hangers were open for business. Whittall Field became Worcester's first airport.

Whitin Whittal succeeded not only in getting the airport built, but also in spreading his excitement about flying. On October 12, 1927, the day the airport was dedicated, roads around the airport were jammed for miles. A huge crowd turned out to witness the opening ceremonies and flight demonstrations, including daring maneuvers performed by a female German pilot. A festival atmosphere prevailed, in spite of endless speeches by politicians and dignitaries.

For 18 years, Whittall Field was one of the busiest spots in Worcester County. Until 1945, the field hosted airplanes such as Jennies, Robins, Wacos, Fords, Stearmans, Cubs, and Taylorcraft; special charters brought visiting performers and dignitaries, and pioneers such as Wiley Post made stopovers on around-the-world flights. In the years leading up to World War II, the field was especially busy with the Civil Pilots Training program.

World War II brought major advances in aircraft design, and it became clear that the old farm fields would soon be too small for modern aircraft. On May 4, 1946, a new Worcester Airport was dedicated; commercial service to New York City began a week later. The site on Tatnuck Hill, which rises over 1,000 feet above sea level, often experienced troublesome fog and bad weather, causing serious problems for the airlines. The old Whittall Field was sold for a housing development in 1951.
Once Told Tales of Worcester County, by Albert Southwick (Worcester Telegram and Gazette, 1985).

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