According to local old-timers, a flying field was set up prior to 1913 in a farmer’s pasture about a mile south of Blacksburg between the old Christiansburg Road and the Huckleberry railroad tracks.
During the last week of July 1929, the engineers of the Virginia Highway Department started work on the VPI Airport, located about 1.5 miles from the campus. College engineering personnel had surveyed the field, which was wide enough to afford runways in four directions.
By the end of 1929, the Virginia Highway Department was putting finishing touches on the construction of the new VPI Airport. The runways were large enough to accommodate what were considered to be large aircraft of that day. Already two aviation companies were negotiating to secure concessions to conduct flying instruction at the field and to operate charter-flying service there.
The Virginia Tech Airport officially opened in 1931, with the hangar built in 1940. Just prior to World War II, greater attention was afforded to the development of the Airport when the value of training University cadets at a pre-flight training facility was recognized. The Airport’s existence has changed from training cadets to mainly serving the community and corporate jets.
History of the Virginia Tech Airport in Four Parts (PDF)
(from VAHS Virginia Eagles newsletter)
1939 Aerial Survey (PDF)
(survey excerpt from VAHS book )
Hokie Hangar Historical Structures Report (PDF)
HISTORY OF THE VIRGINIA TECH AIRPORT
The Virginia Tech Airport, located just south of and adjacent to the main university campus consists of 310 acres and has been in existence since 1929. Initial planning in the fall of 1929 resulted in the construction of a single grass strip in the present location of runway 8-26. The land was furnished by the university; the construction costs were shared 50/50 with the state.
This was during the time of the establishment of long haul airlines for transporting mail and passengers. The Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) was directed by Congress to establish a National Airways System, designating certain routes between major cities of the United States. Ons such route was from Washington, DC, to Nashville, TN. Blacksburg, VA lay directly under
In those days nearly all flying was done VFR, that is, in visual flight conditions. The engines then were not as reliable as today’s engines and the greatest concern was to find a safe place to land in case of engine failure. Therefore, the plan was to establish emergency landing fields beneath the designated routes at approximately twenty- five air-mile intervals.
The Virginia Tech Airport was originally on such a field. The next field to the northeast was Roanoke Airport and to the southwest was another grass strip adjacent to the town of Pulaski, each approximately twenty-five miles away from Blacksburg.
Prior to the construction of the “VPI Airport” small planes visiting Blacksburg landed on the Tech drill field. One frequent visitor was the son of Professor W. D. “Buttermilk” Saunders, then head of the Dairy Science Department who lived in the faculty home known as “Solitude”. Saunders son, a U. S. Marine Corps pilot would land on the drill field and taxi right up and park at his family’s back door. This created quite a sensation!
Permission to operate the airport was granted by the Civil Aeronautics Board and the State Corporation Commission on August 5, 1931.
No services were offered by the Airport but it did receive much use by transients and “Barnstormers” who would take locals for airplane rides. Some offered flight instruction. A pilot out of Roanoke taught a class of approximately fifteen students in the spring of 1937. Bill Byrne, who would later become airport manager, took his first flying lesson in May of 1937 from the “VPI Airport”.
In 1939 the Defense Department established a program called the Civilian Pilot Training Program, (CPTP). VPI was selected to operate such a program. The present 66 x 120-foot hanger was completed in 1940 at a cost of $67,820. Additional offices, classrooms, and shops were completed in 1942 at a cost of $48,864.
The period 1940-1942 the airport operated approximately fifteen aircraft, providing flight training through Commercial Pilot Training as well as Navigator training. Many different aircraft were used during this period such as a Howard DGA-8 with a 450 HP P&W R-985 engine used for executive transportation. Another Howard with a 330 HP Jacobs engine was used for
Navigation training. Three Waco UPF-7s with 220 HP Continental engines, Seven Fleet model 7 trainers with 125 HP Warner engines, a Travelair model 12W also with a Warner engine, a Fairchild model 24 with a Warner engine, two Interstate Cadet Model S-1A-90F with 90 HP Franklin engines made up the balance of the fleet.
During this same period, a program to train aviation mechanics was established. The National Youth Administration (NYA) recruited High School graduates to live on the airport for the duration of their training. Temporary barracks were built to house approximately one hundred students. The facility included a dining hall, an infirmary, and a resident nurse. There were twenty-five to thirty people on the staff during the war years, including instructor pilots, instructor mechanics, and office personnel. Approximately seven hundred fifty mechanics were trained.
In the spring of 1940 construction was started on a paved runway, 2850 feet long. The heavy use of the training planes had destroyed the sod and the resulting mud and rocks were damaging the aircraft and propellers. The paved runway built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was completed in 1941 at a cost of $309,142.
During the war years and since the airport has provided fuel and aircraft maintenance for university-owned and private aircraft.
Subsequent to the departure of the Navy, the War Training Service operated
approximately twenty-five Piper J3 type aircraft for initial flight training to student pilots prior to entry into the Army Air Force Primary flight training.
As would be expected after the way the (NYA) mechanics program was terminated and flight training decreased considerably, however, the university continues to offer flight instruction to anyone including veterans training under the GI bill, whereby the Government paid for approximately ninety percent of the student’s flight training. The university was very active in this program during the years of 1946-1952 operating several Piper J3 aircraft.
The airport had several managers during the war years, however, in 1947 Mr. Fred Broce, an airport employee since 1940 was named manager and rendered valuable service until his retirement in 1977.
Activity levels at the airport began to increase with the advent of a new flight training program begun in 1957 by the United States Military. During the Korean and Vietnam wars, the university contracted with the Defense Department to provide flight training for thirty-five to forty VPI senior ROTC Cadets each academic year. The numbers enrolled in the program have fluctuated through the years since.
A different type of activity was begun during the administration of Dr. T. Marshall Hahn. In April of 1965, the university acquired its first executive aircraft, a Beechcraft model D18 to be used for university faculty and staff transportation. This endeavor has provided safe and efficient transportation throughout its existence, although newer and more efficient aircraft are now
Throughout its existence airport managers and pilots were aware that the original runway (8-26) was not properly oriented to the prevailing wind and was rather short at 2850′ for the larger aircraft beginning to use the airport. Consideration was given to lengthen the original runway but was discarded in favor of building a new runway (30-12) more oriented to the prevailing wind and 4200′ in length with provisions for additional length at a future date. This
new runway was completed in 1966. Runway lighting with approach lights was added to the new runway the following year.
The construction of the new lighted runway attracted pilot owners with more expensive aircraft to base on the airport. The more expensive aircraft equipped with sophisticated and expensive radio equipment brought requests from pilot-owners for shelter for their aircraft. Consequently, during 1971 an eight-bay T hanger was constructed and all units were immediately rented. Construction costs amounted to $50,228. There is a never-ending demand for T hanger space. At present, there is a waiting list for T hanger space. Also in 1969 the State Corporation Commission, Division of Aeronautics authorized the construction of the TEC radio beacon. This facility is used by pilots as a homing beacon for locating the Virginia Tech Airport, as well as providing a non-precision instrument approach for the airport. Except for some physical plant labor to build antenna poles and to provide electrical power to the site this navigation facility was installed and maintained by the state.
In 1973 one additional executive type T hanger was constructed to shelter one aircraft. The cost of construction was $8,859. Through a grant from the FAA a master plan study of the airport was completed in 1975 by the University Department of Civil Engineering. The estimated amount of the grant was $35,000.
In 1979 there were two improvements to the airport facility, the addition of approach lights to runway 12. The cost of materials was furnished by the State Department of Aviation, with the physical plant providing the labor. Secondly, an FAA-approved wind speed and direction indicator was installed at a cost of $4,290.
During 1980 an apron overlay project with improved surface drainage adjacent to the hanger was completed at a total cost of $112,536.
In 1982 the airport purchased three brand new C152 trainers for the flight school. These were used for flight instruction as well as aircraft rental. The cost of the trainers was $33,000 each.
In 1985 the old runway, 8-26 was closed and converted to resident and transient tie-down parking.
In 1988 a parallel taxiway was constructed for runway 12-30. This taxiway allows pilots to taxi out to the end of the takeoff runway without having to enter the runway and provides for safer and more efficient surface operations at the airport.
In 1989 a localizer instrument approach was installed for runway 12 allowing approaches to be completed in much lower weather conditions than the beacon approach. The approach was first flown in May of that year. In 1993 distance measuring equipment (DME) was added to the localizer system, further increasing its accuracy and convenience.
In 1990 a new state of the art Automated Weather Observation System (AWOS) was installed. This system transmits weather conditions to pilots through a radio frequency, and also is transmitted via a satellite uplink to weather reporting computers all over the country. This system provides pilots with real-time current weather conditions as well as weather trends to pilots approaching the airport and also to pilots getting ready to leave their departure airport with Virginia Tech Airport as their destination. This system precludes the need to have a weather observer on duty at the airport.
In 1992 a runway extension was added to runway 12. The new length is 4550′
Construction of a new terminal building was completed in December of 1995 at a cost of 1.6 million, of which the Federal Government paid 90 percent. This new facility became the main base of operations and houses a passenger lobby, a pilot’s lounge, board room, as well as office space.
In 1997 a new Global Position System (GPS) approach was added to serve runway 12. This system provides pilots that are equipped with the most modern equipment another option of approaching the runway to land in inclement weather.
In 1999 the TEC radio beacon as well as a portion of the parallel taxiway was relocated in order to meet the more stringent design requirements of modern airports. The cost of the relocation was approximately 1 million.
In 2002 Virginia Tech decided to discontinue operating the airport as well as the flight school and aircraft maintenance shop. The trainers were sold using a closed bid procedure. An airport authority was formed to oversee the operation of the airport. The authority consists of a board with one representative member each from Blacksburg, Christiansburg, Montgomery County, and Virginia Tech, with an additional member at large.
In 2005 an apron rehabilitation project was completed to allow the ramp to support heavier aircraft. Medium intensity taxiway lighting was installed. The PLASI light system was replaced with a new PAPI system. The system provides pilots with a visual approach light system to guide them down final approach at a precise 3-degree glide slope.
In 2008 west ramp expansion at 14,500 square yards. Cost of expansion- $2.3 million.
In 2008 corporate hanger site preparation was completed at a cost of $896,000.
In 2009 A GPS 30 instrument approach was added along with RNAV departures for both runways.
In 2010 the South Blacksburg/ Airport fire station opened adjacent to the runway.
In 2011 runway reconstruction was done. This included a six-foot buildup in the middle of the runway to eliminate much of the midfield dip. The runway was completely repaved and grooving was added for the first time to better dissipate rainwater. Construction time was six months, during which the runway was operational, but at reduced lengths. The cost of runway
reconstruction was $5.95 million.
In 2013 Virginia Tech sold 26 acres to the airport for a future runway extension. The cost of the land was $9.4 million. The costs were split at 90% FAA, 8% state of Virginia, and 2% by the airport.
In the fall of 2015 construction began on a new Virginia Tech built corporate hangar. The construction was complete in May and first used on June 6, 2016, with office space, a new Lektro tug, along with a new Jet Go diesel GPU. Cost $1.3 M. The hangar is owned and operated by Virginia Tech for its corporate aircraft.
A second corporate hangar was completed in 2018. It was built and occupied by the Shelor Automotive group, a Christiansburg business.
During most of 2018 work continued for the runway extension, with filling and grading the area to the northwest. Delays due to a vein of rock and inclement weather did not allow the contractors to complete the project by the scheduled fall estimate.
For the first time in 45 years, new T hangar construction began in October of 2018. Located on the south side of the airport and consisting of 12 units. The project was completed by mid-January. All units were rented out by the end of the month. The cost of construction was approximately $1.1 million.
During 2019 grading and filling continued for the runway extension project. The farm fencing on the west side of the airport was replaced with a high chain-link fence. This high fence completely encloses the airport for the first time.
In 2020 the final work for the long-anticipated runway extension was completed. New drainage was installed for the entire runway. The pavement for the first 1000 feet of the 30 end of the runway and taxiway were removed and returned to grass. This was done to relocate the 30 runway threshold further to the northwest and provide more clearance with terrain on the approach. 2000 feet of new pavement was added so the net length will now be 5500 feet. The runway was closed from early May until early August. In addition, the runway numbers were changed from 30/12 to 31/13 to better align with the current magnetic headings.
*Information provided by Bill Byrne through 1982, Richard Humphreys 1982 through 2020