Monday, January 5, 2015

The Portland International Airport was originally called the Portland Columbia Airport to distinguish it from the Swan Island airport while giving it's proximity to the river. In 1951, the name was changed to Portland International Airport after a longer runway was added for overseas flights. 

Early runway 1961

In 1926, the City of Portland needed an airport.  At this time, the city was using Pearson Field in Vancouver, WA for it's airport.  After some debate, the city choose to locate the flight center on Swan Island.  Initially, it made sense.  The Port of Portland had already purchased the island in 1921 for $125,000. It was centrally located and the 250 acre island was already flat.  Construction began the same year and was dedicated in 1927. The airport's services included airmail and passenger service. Within a few years of construction, the airport started becoming obsolete because it couldn't handle the growing volume of Portland's air traffic, especially the larger main liner aircraft.  Additional problems were close proximity to the St. Johns Bridge and the island sat at a low altitude.  Plans were made to find and locate a site for a new "super airport".

In 1936, the City of Portland purchased 700 acres of land adjacent to the Columbia River and began building the beginnings of what we know as PDX today.  The construction of the airport included a Works Progress Administration grant of $1.3 million that provided many jobs during the depression.  The new airport opened in 1940.  The airport featured an "asterisks" configuration of runways and a small terminal on the north side of the airport near Marine Drive.

In 1948, during the Vanport flood, the airport flooded and the Troutdale airport was used while the Portland Columbia airport was out of service.

In 1951, a longer 8,800 foot runway was added and the Portland Columbia Airport became the Portland International Airport.  In 1959,  a new terminal was built towards the center of the airport.  This is the current location of the terminal (with many additions since).  A second runway was added to the north making the terminal the center point of the airport.

In 1968, the Port of Portland attempted further expansion of the airport with a proposal to build a third "super runway" with a dredge and fill project into the adjacent Columbia River.

Artist Concept of PDX 1974

1968 Airport Expansion

 In 1968, the Port of Portland unveiled an ambitious $100 million plan to expand the airport out into the shallow, southern portion of the Columbia river by adding 640 acres of new fill/land. The "new" land  was to be shaped like a rectangle, 2.5 miles long and 1/4 mile wide. The top of the new land would be home for a 12,500 foot runway. The plan involved 5 major steps and was to be completed by 1972:  Phase 1) dredge the Columbia River and create a new river channel while using the dredge material to fill in and expand the airport out from the southern bank of the Columbia River. Cost = $20 million.  2) build a 12,500 runway on top of new infill. Cost = $10 million. 3)  replace/relocate the old south runway with a new 12,000 foot runway. Cost = $10 million.  4) build a new passenger terminal to service the new runway. Cost = $35 million. 5) expand loading facilities at both current terminals, build a new flight kitchen (Sky Chefs) and upgrade emergency response vehicles. $10 million.  Additional extra costs= $15 million. The plan would have expanded the number of gates from 18 to 38 by 1972.  It would also provide a new terminal for giant Boeing 747 jetliner due out in 1969.  From the beginning, this project was snarled in endless, federal red tape and public outcry from both Oregonians and neighbors across the river.  To make things worse, 3 congressman from the state of Washington fought the proposal.  The Washington state politicians cited environmental reasons but were really afraid that Portland airport expansion would have deleterious effects on the rival Sea-Tac International just 150 miles to the north.  The fight lasted 4 years, but eventually, airport expansion into the river was not to be.  In the end, the two existing runways were lengthened and improvements continued with the existing terminal.

Figure above shows airport expansion plan to dredge and fill Columbia River

1. New land with runway
2. Dark shaded area (upper right) = newly dredged river channel
3. I-205 Glenn Jackson Bridge
4. New south runway (length extended to the west)
5. New crosswind runway (length extended north and south)
6. Old (current) north runway

Next Idea:  Move the Airport

In 1968, the city was divided about airport expansion.  What had happened earlier with the Swan Island Airport was now taking place again.  The PIA was now hand-cuffed and unable to expand to meet the future needs of increasing air travel.  PIA was bordered by the river to the north, residents to the south and the I-205 freeway to the east.  Airport history was repeating itself.  Many favored a second plan, which was to relocate the airport and build a new one from the ground up.  Developing a new airport would involve acquiring 10,000 acres of property, not too far from the city, free from neighbors, freeway bridges and environment impacts.  This time, there would plenty of room, a built in "expansion zone" for the coming years.

The following 4 sites were on the short list:

1. Wilsonville (?....may have been best choice)
2. Sauvie's Island (environmental obstacles and new bridge needed)
3. Woodburn/St. Paul (too far from Downtown Portland)
4. Canby (too far)
This plan would have cost over $150 million and would have taken 8 years to finish.

Even though the plan for airport expansion was defeated, the airport was never relocated.  It was decided that moving the airport would be too expensive and take too long.  The airport would remain on the Columbia River and would undergo many improvements over the coming years.

Reasons Why the Airport Expansion Plan Was Defeated 
1. Lawsuits filed by Citizens' Committee for the Columbia River (Wash. residents)
2. Locals opposed to air, water and noise pollution (Oregon residents)
3. Air travel slowed down in the early 1970's (gas shortage)
4. With constant delays, inflation made the airport too expensive to build
5.  Environment impacts
6.  Sea-Tac Airport didn't want a better/competitive airport just south of them

 Airport Time Line
1921  Port of Portland buys Swan Island
1927  Swan Island Airport opens
1936  Port of Portland buys 700 acres along the Columbia River
1940  Portland Columbia Airport opens
1948  Vanport flood closes airport
1951  Airport adds 8,800 foot runway and changes name to Portland International Airport
1955  Pan Am #845 to Hawaii crashes into ocean   4 killed
1959  First jet service comes to PIA, Pan Am to Honolulu 2x a week
1966  West Coast Airlines #956 crashes into Mt Hood forest  all 18 killed
1968  Airport attempts expansion with dredge and fill into Columbia River 
1969  Army Corps of Engineers approves dredging of river
1970  Lawsuits bring PDX/Columbia River expansion plan to standstill
1971  DB Cooper hijacks jet and escapes by parachute. Never solved
1974  South runway extended to 11,000 feet
1977  Terminal size is doubled and new control tower with radome (ball on top) built
1978  United #173 crashed on E Burnside after running out of fuel. 10 killed.
1986  Concourse B completed
1988  Concourse A completed
1992  Concourse E completed
1994  Concourse D completed
2000  Glass and steel canopy at main entrance completed