Hybla Valley Airport

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Helium....Hydrogen...Hybla Valley History !


Dr. Eckener Praises Hybla Valley as Dirigible Airport Site.  
{front page Headline, The Washington Post, May 12, 1936}

Dr. Eckener, Zeppelin Designer
Ticker tape parade for Dr. Eckener and crew Graf Zeppelin, New York 1928, (4)
When Dr. Hugo Eckener and First Officer Captain Ernst Lehmann flew the Graf Zeppelin LZ-127 on its famous transatlantic voyage from Germany to America in October 1928, they spent time in the Washington area promoting the dirigible airship technology(1).  

Interested in establishing a base in the United States for the dirigible airships, Dr. Eckener and Captain Lehmann first visited Hybla Valley on October 19, 1928, and announced it was the "ideal site" for the American terminus to provide for transoceanic airship passenger and mail service between Germany and the United States(2).

Dr. Eckener had acheived rockstar status around the world and especially in America due to his Zeppelin expertise.   He appeared on the front pages of the newspapers and surrounded by media at every stop.   Some say none in the aviation industry since Lindberg's solo Atlantic flight were treated with such admiration as Dr. Eckener(3).  
Greeted in the States with non-stop ticker tape parades, banquets, ceremonies, awards, and overwhelming public awe, Dr. Eckener brought hope and wonderment in a time of great world economic depression. 

Elvin W. Robertson

This visit ignited "Zeppelin Fever" in the energetic Mr. Elvin W. Robertson, President of Mount Vernon Airways, Inc. and proprietor of Hybla Valley Airport since 1924.   Mr. Robertson rapidly began improving the Hybla Valley Flying Field to fulfill his vision for a vast commercial aviation operation.   Within weeks, he signed land leases with the L. C. Painter and F.J. Wease families to use 110 acres of farmland to operate a flying field and flying school(5).    

An early American aviator, Robertson held United States Department of Commerce Pilots License #89 and Mechanics License #79.   His flight training was obtained locally  from Instructor Herb Faye who owned a Jenny.     Faye refused to solo him in his prized Jenny and Robertson had to buy his own plane.   "On his solo flight after circling the Washington Monument and other Washington scenes, he ran out of gas but successfully landed on Columbia Island in the Potomac with no damage to his Jenny."(5a)

He submitted an application to the Virginia State Corporation Commission and in February 1929, Hybla Valley Airport (also known as Alexandria Airport) became the first airfield in Virginia to receive a permit to operate an airport within the state(6).   Hybla Valley was also located along the US Contract Air Mail Route 19 (CAM-19) that spanned 763 miles from New York to Atlanta(7).

On a hot summer evening in late June 1929, E.W. Robertson suffered a major blow to his flying career when he and Fritz Korte were practicing spins in an Eaglerock biplane and failed to recover.   When the plane crashed Robertson's glass goggles broke and severely damaged his face causing the loss of his left eye(8).   He was able to retain some of his certifications but turned over much of the actual flying operations to his brother Heywood Robertson.    

Due to this event,  E.W. Robertson dedicated the next ten years on the ground promoting the Hybla Valley Airport(9).  He was not alone in vying for Dr. Eckener's airship terminus.   Literally in Robertson's own airport backyard, a self-glorifying real estate speculator and unscrupulous character, Henry Woodhouse, created the George Washington Air Junction scheme to enter the competition for the airship base
(10).  The George Washington Air Junction was never operational.     The flim-flam project failed and Woodhouse went bankrupt by 1932, thus leaving Robertson as the only airport owner in Hybla Valley(11).

By 1934, Mr. Robertson had purchased more land and greatly improved the 200 acre airfield with new hangars, aviation repair facilities, three new 3500 feet runways, and formalized pilot training programs,  all the while lobbying his two initiatives:  the placement of the international airship terminal and the National Airport at Hybla Valley(12).

Nation's Capital Needs a Modern Airport ....

Feb 6, 1936 AP WIRE -- Hoover Field : Key spot in airport dispute at Washington DC. Traffic is halted as transport plane takes off. Officials threaten to move port to Baltimore unless road is rerouted.
The Federal city needed a national airport.   Washington D.C.'s Hoover Field  and Washington Airport were too small and too close to each other  to accommodate the expanding aviation industry.   These two privately owned unpaved fields merged in an attempt to remain viable during the depression.    Pilots would not land there because of the treacherous conditions including a public connector road in the middle of the runway.  

Congress resisted responsibility for resolving the issue.  "Between 1926 and 1938, Congress produced  reams of debate transcripts  and 37 committee reports on the problem, but no action."(13)  The Air Commerce Act of 1926 had restricted government financial involvement in the development of airports and Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt had been stymied to press legislative decision(14).

Mr. Robertson was involved in the controversy and worked diligently testifying at Congressional hearings, communicating with legislators and Chairmen to convey Hybla Valley's selling points as the National Airport site (see Virtual Gallery) .   He received extensive support from the long-term Fairfax County Chairman of the Board WFP Reid and the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce.   Dr. Eckener continued to be an advocate for Robertson who also had comprehensive meteorological and geographical data resources courtesy of the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation research(15).

The Congressional Record for the 75th Congress reported in August  1937 the nine selected sites chosen by the National Capital Airport Commission included four Virginia locations: Hybla Valley, Beacon Field, Gravelly Point, and Washington-Hoover Airport, and five Maryland locations:  Suitland, Forestville, Oakland, Silver Hill, and Camp Springs
(16).  The Congressional record seemed to incorrectly identify the site selection locales either using postal districts or some other colloquial names.

Wash Times Oct 22, 1936 (Click to Enlarge)
The Washington Post, Jul 5, 1938
Wash Post Jan 26, 1938
The Washington Post, Jul 18, 1937

The following June 1938,  Congress adjourned without selecting a site.   However, they did manage to pass the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 to promote the development, safety, and regulation of civil aeronautics.     The Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) was created and provided for the first time government involvement in airport development.(17)  

President Roosevelt had become increasingly frustrated with the Congressional indecision on the National Airport issue and took action while Congress was on vacation.   Under Section 303, Chapter 610 of the newly enacted Public Law 75-706, Statute 52,  Roosevelt passed to the new CAA all related airport data and research, his choice of location, with instructions for priority planning, and on September 27, 1938,  approved the CAA's 750 acre Washington National Airport project at Gravelly Point.(18)

Mr. Robertson was disappointed with the President's decision but he remained optimistic that a Zeppelin airship terminal would be built at Hybla Valley.

Zeppelins:  the Way of the Future ?

The US Navy had successfully deployed the Zeppelin airship USS Los Angeles (ZR-3) delivered in 1924 by Dr. Eckener.(19)    The Los Angeles had traversed the Atlantic with  hydrogen fill, but after delivery to the US Navy, was reconfigured to use helium.   

The Zeppelin Corporation continued to use hydrogen fill not only because helium was a restricted export to Germany,  but also because of its greater lift performance (click on Moment of Science chart at right).

Capt Ernst Lehmann

Germany  launched the hydrogen filled Hindenberg (LZ-129) in 1936 commanded by Ernst Lehmann,  its largest and most well equipped passenger airship, measuring thirteen and half stories tall,  two and a half football fields long, and offered regularly scheduled round trips from Berlin to America at a costly $720 (average price of new car was $763 and minimum wage was 25 cents/hour) (20).    

On May 6, 1937, the Hindenberg (LZ-129) met a fiery end attempting to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey.  Ironically,  Ernst Lehmann, on board as an observer,  succombed to injury sustained in the catastrophic explosion. (20A)  Even the expert Dr. Eckener was not 100 percent certain of the cause.    Conspiracy theories were rampant; however, the popular technical consensus focused on the highly flammable hydrogen fill.     The Hindenberg had been designed for helium fill but the Germans had been unable to negotiate sufficient supplies from America.   

May 1938 -- L to R, Admiral Leahy CNO, Robert Jackson Solicitor General, and General Malin Craig Army Chief of Staff, shown leaving the White House after conference in which President Roosevelt decided to uphold ban on selling helium to Germany. (courtesy Int'l News Photo)

Dr. Eckener continued to work conversion to helium challenges and reported a breakthrough in October 1937. (21)    With breakneck speed following the crash, the Germans conducted successful test flights of the new Graf Zeppelin II but was hangared after ten flights in face of the World War II.

After the Hindenberg disaster, popularity diminished for the Zeppelin airships mainly out of passenger safety uncertainty and the technological advances in commercial airliners.    Coupled with the October 1938 German invasion of neighboring peaceful countries, the demise of the Zeppelin airship industry as an international commercial passenger and mail service was guaranteed.

The US Navy Comes On Board  ....

Within a year, America began preparing for entry into the second world war.    The US Navy exponentially expanded its training operations and in 1940 took over Hybla Valley as part of its naval pilot training program.(22)  NAS Hybla Valley was a secondary field providing an intermediate landing zone for cadets stationed at NAS Anacostia. This navy training generated a lot of low flying and several fatal crashes in the nearby neighborhoods.(23) 

Under the lease agreement, Mr. Robertson retained land ownership but was not allowed to carry on any civilian aviation activity.     The CAA tapped Robertson's skill set and gave him a two year position of Ground School Supervisor at La Guardia Airport in New York.    In late 1942 until May of 1943, he served as the Director of Aeronautics at VPI in Blacksburg to oversee the Naval Cadet Flight Training implemented under the CAA's War Training Service Program.(24)  

Robertson returned to Hybla Valley Airport to conduct surplus military aircraft and parts sales until the end of the war in 1945.(25)   He resigned from his government job and sold the airport to the Ashburns, another well-known local aviation family.(26)

The Ashburns Move In . . . 
and the FUN Begins !!

Mr. Robert Ashburn
Mr. William Robert "Bob" Ashburn and his wife Elizabeth "Betty" Ashburn had worked as the Fixed Based Operator (FBO) at neighboring Beacon Field from 1931 until 1942.    Bob was President and Betty was Secretary-Treasurer of the Ashburn Flying Service:  he was an astute innovative businessman with a knack for marketing and promoting his business and she excelled at keeping track of the student records and home base operations.    
US Route 1 (Richmond Highway) travelers were very familiar with the Taylorcraft E-2 tilted onto its nose as an attention getter roadside advertisement for the airport.

Mrs. Betty Ashburn
With similar thoughts as Robertson, the Ashburns envisioned Hybla Valley Airport becoming the regional light airplane center for the Washington Metro area.   The field was considered one of the largest private fields in the area with four runways:  Runway 4 was  4800 x 150 feet (gravel), Runway 27 was 2100 x 200 feet (gravel),   Runway 16 :   3450 x 60 feet (bitumen), and Runway 36  was 3600 x 200 feet (gravel).(27)

Mr. Ashburn made many improvements to the Hybla Valley field incorporating and demolishing as needed the facilities previously occupied by the Navy Reserve during WWII .    A terminal area contained a restaurant and stone fireplace passenger lounge area with arcade and vending machines.  The grounds also had three large maintenance and storage hangars and a two story ground school facility.

The Ashburns advertised in national and local newspapers and magazines their trademark "Its Easy Learning to Fly at Ashburn" CAA approved flight training.    The program was extensive offering day/evening classes of private, commercial, multi-engine and instrument instruction catering to post WWII GI Bill candidates.  The curriculum promoted fun "in conjunction with ground school" including "weenie roasts, oyster fries, breakfast flights, beach trips, and automobile races".(28)    Esso Aviation Products featured a full page spotlight ad on Mr. Ashburn in the September 1946 issue of Flying magazine (at right).

Under the tutelage of Bob Ashburn,  local pilot Keaney Kopp (see Salute) teamed up with his old friend Jimmy Greenwood, a former newspaper cartoonist turned aerial daredevil to form SKYCAPADESan air circus that performed many summer Sunday afternoon air shows at both Beacon and Hybla Valley Airports.(28A)    Piloting an all metal wing Luscombe and BT-13, and a fabric wing PT-19,  the two young stuntmen made thrilling parachute jumps and conducted stunt flying including rolls, loops, spins, inverted flights, precision manuevers, and streamer cutting.

As was customary for FBO's to make ends meet, he diversified into other business activities to promote the airport.   He established the Hybla Valley Speedway with its inaugural race on April 17th, 1949.(29)   The half mile flat dirt speedway oval can be seen in the1950 aerial in the Maps/Aerials tab.      The Speedway was a popular weekend venue hosting the Eastern Roadster Racing Club (later known as the Eastern Racing Association).  

Drivers in their open cockpit roadsters raced to the delight of thousands of spectators from all over the east coast.   The roadster racing kept drawing bigger crowds, so much that Ashburn added more events featuring a variety of race cars including midgets, stock cars, and big cars.(30)  Eye witness accounts remember "mobs" of fans.(31)

Mr. Ashburn also managed the ASHBURN 1st Street Seaplane Base adjacent to the Ft. McNair Army War College at the mouth of the Anacostia River across from the Naval Air Station.  The 1951 map below indicates the active presense of the seaplane base.   

By 1952,  the Washington Post reported intense negotiations being conducted to bring NASCAR sanctioned racing to the valley.  However, NASCAR chose the speedway at West Lanham, Maryland instead and the Hybla Valley Speedway gave way to harness racing, model airplane meets, and air shows.

Hybla Valley Airport activity drew to a close in 1956 and like other small airports in Northern Virginia, became a residential area and shopping center.(32)

WP, 4/16/49
WP, 9/25/49
WP, 8/31/52
1950 USGS Cropped Aerial w/notes
E.W.Robertson, Capt Ernst Lehmann, Bob Ashburn, Dr. Hugo Eckener