The use of airplanes during World War I made the world aware of the effectiveness of powered flight and legitimized aviation for commercial as well as military purposes. Before the war, aircraft were a novelty in West Virginia and most other places.
Paul Peck was probably was the first person to fly in West Virginia. Historians believe he piloted the first plane to land in Raleigh County and that the flight occurred before 1912. Born in Ansted, the son of Lon and Alice Peck of Lewisburg, Peck grew up mostly in Hinton where his father worked as a railroad agent.
The achievements of the daring “Birdman” remain largely unrecognized. Peck was the state’s first pilot, the 57th licensed by the International Aeronautics Federation. He learned to fly in seven days. Within two weeks, he’d captured a world flight record.
He also had a reputation for brilliance in storms. Flying at Long Island, he set a world duration record amid lightning and hail. Two months after his celebrated performance, he represented the United States in the International Gordon Bennett Trophy Race at Chicago when a storm erupted. He died, fittingly, in midair. He was 23.
A single plaque in the lobby of the Greenbrier Valley Airport memorializes Paul Peck’s contribution to flight. Peck’s last descendants presented the plaque to the airport in 1979. Col. John Gwinn, airport manager at the time of the presentation, commended the family for choosing the airport location.
“Peck’s importance to aviation history is not realized by many West Virginians,” Gwinn said in a 1979 newspaper article. “This man was flying seven years after the Wright brothers’ first successful flight. He was flying when Lindbergh was only 9 years old.”
He was one of the rare people in America working to perfect flight after the Wright brothers’ breakthrough.
West Virginia’s best known aviators include Louis Bennett Jr, who was one of the top ranking American-born aces of World War I. Gen. James K. McLaughlin flew a B-17 bomber during World War II and led the raid over Schweinfurt, Germany, the largest Allied daytime bombing raid. He returned to Charleston after the war and organized the 167th Fighter Squadron, which became the West Virginia Air National Guard. George Spencer ‘‘Spanky’’ Roberts was a member of the 302nd Fighter Squadron, the nation’s first black flying unit in WWII. Roberts eventually became the commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron. Rose Agnes Rolls Cousins was one of the early black female civilian pilots. Another notable West Virginia aviator was Stephen Coonts, a navy pilot during the Vietnam War and bestselling author. The most famous West Virginia aviator was Chuck Yeager for flying an aircraft faster than the speed of sound. He was immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s 1980 book, The Right Stuff, and later, in the movie of the same title.
After 1920, aviation expanded rapidly in West Virginia. In 1922, the first Morgantown airport was built. The present Morgantown Municipal Airport opened in 1939. In 1923, Shepherd Field (now the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport) opened in Martinsburg. Then in 1927, Wertz Field near Institute was constructed to serve Charleston and the Kanawha Valley. In 1947 Kanawha Airport was opened at Charleston with the leveling of three mountain tops to construct the airport. The airport was later renamed Yeager Airport for Gen. Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier on October 14, 1947.
Today West Virginia has 32 airports, seven of which offer scheduled commercial air service. In addition to Morgantown, North Central West Virginia Airport, and Yeager, the commercial airports are Tri-State Airport in Huntington (1952), Raleigh County Memorial Airport near Beckley (1952), Wood County Airport near Parkersburg (1946), and the Greenbrier Valley Airport at Lewisburg (1968), according to www.wvencyclopedia.org.
In 1978, Congress deregulated the airline industry and many government subsidies were eliminated. Airlines ceased operating unprofitable routes, including many flights to smaller cities. West Virginia airports have not fully recovered the commercial service resulting from these losses. West Virginia airports are served by the West Virginia Aeronautics Commission, which was formed by the legislature in 1947 to foster aviation. The Aeronautics Commission cooperates with Federal Aviation Administration officials on matters of concern to West Virginia aviation.
General aviation airports has become increasingly important throughout the state, benefiting West Virginians through corporate, private, charter and air taxi travel, shipping and express air freight services, firefighting, public safety and law enforcement, weather and traffic reporting, and recreation and tourism. West Virginia has had aircraft industries since early in the 20th century, and aviation manufacturing takes place at a number of locations in the state. General aviation supports 5,300 jobs in the state, resulting in $256 million in labor income, and contributes over $1 billion to the state’s total economic output annually.