Grace Pugh, Vermont’s first female pilot.

The History of Burlington International Airport: The 1940s and World War II

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Thursday September 04, 2014

This is the third part of a series recapping the history of the Burlington International Airport.

World War II (1939-1945)

With nearly twenty years of aviation exposure under its belt, Burlington, Vt. was strongly invested in aviation training. Airport Manager Harold Pugh’s baby, the Fli-Rite Aviation School, was already well underway with high enrollment numbers. The program required 72 hours of ground instruction and 35-50 hours of flight training. Its proven national success landed it as a chosen participant of Congress’ Civilian Pilot Training Program.

Before long, a series of events ensued that sharply altered the role of the airport. One of those events was the bombing of Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.

The entrance of the US into World War II triggered a drastic change of operation for the airport. With the onset of the bombing, immediately, all pilot certificates were suspended. The government set up a defense zone that extended 150 miles inward from the east coast, furthering flight suspension. Just a short distance east of Burlington, the airspace remained quiet, but the Burlington Municipal Airport kept its skies filled with aircraft; Burlington was situated just outside the defense zone, and after the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) inspector validated pilot identification, aviation skyrocketed. Burlington took on more flight responsibilities and experienced a sharp rise in the number of Civilian Pilot Training Program student flying-time hours.

This change cued a domino effect: the demand for more flights meant there was a dire need for more runway space. An additional 304 acres later, the airport had expanded its runways and total acreage grew to 414.6 acres.

The airport was constantly on the move while airway traffic to the east remained quiet. The airport achieved extraordinary success during this period; notably, on August 14, 1942, the airport was one of the busiest airports in the country with world record statistics of 622 landings and an average of over 500 landings per day prior to that. Not even a year later, it broke those numbers with 793 landings.

Additionally, as a result of the 150 mile wide defense zone, Northeast Airlines relocated from Logan Airport to Burlington in 1943 and brought its pilot training school with it. The airline leased land, built a hangar, and sent up nearly two dozen planes including Lockheeds, Link Trainers and Stinsons. Even though the Northeast training program dissolved after a couple of years, the airline still maintained a strong relevance for the airport.

The airport’s evolution also extended with major implementations such as the Vermont Civil Air Patrol (CAP) and Air Traffic Control (ACT) in 1942. Over 150 Vermonters joined CAP to protect the home front, and ATC started out by using a light gun and a microphone. ATC eventually found its home in a traffic tower known as ‘Darby’s Folly,’ a tower built by CAA Inspector Bill Darby with access to four stations.

In the same year, the Air Force Indoctrination Program started up, and Burlington took charge of the 61st College Training Detachment which consisted of about 600 men. Each week they were required to log 37 hours of campus instruction, and 10 hours of flight time in the 32 government-owned planes—planes that student pilots collected over the course of six weeks in states all across the Northeast. When the students fulfilled their requirements, they were sent to the classification center where they would discover what their futures held. For some, the future pointed to becoming a pilot, for others, their assignment would be fulfilled as a bombardier or navigator .

2,600 students. 200 students at a time. 22,000 flight hours.

These were the accomplishments over the course of just over a year. In 1944, the students shipped out and the airport was left without monetary support from the government.

Airport activity dwindled following this period, but its effective training proved to be immensely supportive in this time of need, and airlines gained a bit of history at the war’s conclusion. South Burlington resident Ed Garvey, who started his career at the airport as a Colonial Airways employee, explains:

“During World War II many airliners were either commandeered by the military or used for special government needs. The American Airlines calendar for February, 1943 shows the Captain and First Officer observing their DC-3 being fully loaded by military personnel and the caption read ‘this used to be the 5:15’. After the war, airlines acquired many DC-3’s and DC-4’s from the military. One of the Colonial DC-4’s had flown the Burma Hump and was acquired from General Clair Chennault of Flying Tiger fame.”

With a quieted airport, Harold and Grace Pugh bid their farewells, handing over the torch to Dan Huffnail, the airport manager next-in-line. Activity was limited immediately after the war, but that lull would certainly not last for long.
A special thank you to Ed Garvey for providing historical information from personal recounts as well as from Burlington International Airport: A Pictorial History written by 1982 Airport Commissioners (Credited for Part 1). There is also historical documentation in a 2010 publication Burlington International Airport: A History 1920-2010 by James Tabor.

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent