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The Early Days of Oakland Airport

Jeff Goodwin

Airports are fascinating. Come on, admit it. They’re still transportation marvels even if the golden age of air travel appears to be behind us.

On a recent trip through OAK, I noticed some old hangers hiding away in the background of the current terminals. It got me thinking about the early days of the airport, so I dug through the archives at the Oakland History Room to read up on its origins. Here’s a summary and some of my favorite photos from the archives.

 The soon-to-be Oakland Airport

The soon-to-be Oakland Airport

Back in 1927 the Oakland Airport was a big ol’ field sitting adjacent to San Francisco Bay. Thanks to a bond measure, the 825 acres officially became The Oakland Municipal Airport for $769,000. What a bargain.

Thanks to the blessings of the Assistant Secretary of War for Aeronautics and a couple other guys with long titles, construction of the first runway was underway by mid-1927. The Army needed a runway long enough for its cargo planes so that it could establish an air route to Hawaii. At 7000’ long, Oakland’s gravel runway was the only option on the Pacific Coast. Fun fact - one of the pilots on that first flight was Lt. Hegenberger, hence the road leading to OAK today.

In case that wasn’t enough excitement for OAK’s first year, Charles Lindbergh touched down to see what all the excitement was about. Before leaving, he declared Oakland “The finest, most modern airport in the country."

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The gravel runway was only temporary though, and by the end of ’27, construction on the permanent facilities were underway. The initial scope included an administration building complete with a hospital, press room, and comfort stations (whatever those were), two hangers, and the first part of a drainage system for the field.

The work wasn’t just limited to the airfield; dredging quickly began on an adjacent inlet. The channel became a landing strip for sea planes and an access route for cargo and passenger boat service. Next time you drive past the airport on Doolittle Drive, take a look to the right. The channel is still there, now part of the MLK Jr. Regional Shoreline.

 One of the 'flying boats' that flew in and out of Oak.

One of the 'flying boats' that flew in and out of Oak.

By 1928, Oakland had also become an essential component of the air mail network. Both regional and transcontinental mail planes were flying through Oakland daily. Passenger service arrived the same year. By the middle of the year there was 6000 passengers arriving each month.

In less than two years, OAK had already established itself as the primary Pacific Coast Airport. Obviously the trajectory of growth continued after that, but you’ll just have to go dig into the archives yourselves.