Seventy-five years ago, thousands of people stood under the October sun and listened as Norfolk’s new airport was lauded as a “tribute to the great strength of our democracy.”
George W. Burgess, assistant to the assistant secretary of commerce in Washington, D.C., spoke the words during the dedication of the airport, on Oct. 23, 1944.
Burgess also recognized Congressman Karl Stefan for his role in making the improvements to the airport a reality.
“Those of us who know and work with him in Washington have long appreciated his character, ability and sincerity,” Burgess said of Stefan.
When the airport was dedicated, the country was still fighting the war, and the need for trained fliers was great, which is why local airports were important.
But by then, Norfolk had already written its name in aviation history.
In fact, the first flying machine came to town in 1912, nine years after the Wright Brothers took their famous flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., according to an article written by the late Robert Carlisle that appeared in the centennial edition of the Daily News.
Then “barnstormers” put on shows, often landing on local golf courses, race tracks and other flat places around town.
When World War I ended, two local pilots, Lt. Don Mapes and Lt. C. Millard South, returned to Norfolk, built a hangar and also barnstormed around the area.
But Andy Risser’s name is most often associated with early aviation in Norfolk. In 1928, the Wisner native started Norfolk’s first flying school and established Norfolk’s first airport.
Situated on a sod field, the “airfield” offered one hangar, an office and wind sock and “Risser’s sage advice,” Carlisle wrote.
In 1934, Risser moved his airfield to 160 acres south on Highway 81, which is the airport’s current location.
When the winds of war started blowing in Europe, the government initiated its Civilian Pilot Training Program, which trained pilots who could serve in the military.
It was Stefan who secured federal funding to expand the airport. Under the congressman’s watch, the terminal building and hangars were constructed, milelong runways and 2 miles of taxiways were built to handle the bombers training in Sioux City. In 2001, the terminal building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Around 20,000 people attended the airport dedication on Oct. 22, 1944. Risser made the first official landing on the new runways. B-17s, B-29s and C-47s made demonstration flights.
But all did not go as planned. During the flying demonstrations, a P-47 Thunderbolt crashed, barely missing cars on the highway and telephone lines. Miraculously, the pilot survived, but the plane was demolished.
At the close of World War II, after prodding by Stefan, the federal government authorized continued funding for the airport.
After the war, several air services and flying schools operated out of the airport. In 1946, the U.S. Weather Bureau opened an office in the administration building. The bureau provided weather information to pilots and to the community.
The office included a weather-warning radar, a VHF-FM radio transmission capability for disaster warning, a mini-computer that could replay weather information on a TV-like screen and a gust recorder to measure wind speed.
The airport also played an important role in relief efforts during the winter of 1948 and 1949, when, using ski-equipped airplanes, pilots delivered food and fuel to marooned farmers and evacuated the sick.
In 1955, the facility’s name was changed to Karl Stefan Memorial Airport in honor of the congressman, who died in 1951.
Gen. Alfred Gruenther, supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, was the featured speaker at that ceremony.
Through the years, the airport hosted a number of flying services and commercial airlines. Commuter service has since been eliminated, but the airport serves private and corporate pilots.
A few years ago, it was renamed Norfolk Regional Airport, Karl Stefan Field.