Other airports in the area over the years

Jensen Field, named for aviator Martin Jensen, off Harbor View Road on James Island, 1940 to 1946.

Truluck Airport, named for Milton Truluck, off Savannah Highway in West Ashley where Air Harbor subdivision is now. Many of the street names bear witness to the site's early history, 1945-1950.

Carolina Skyways, in a field off Folly Road on James Island directly across the Stono River from where Charleston Executive Airport is located now, 1940s to 1967.

Charleston Executive Airport, built by the military starting in 1944 as an auxiliary training base. In 1948, Charleston County acquired the airport before granting it to Charleston County Aviation Authority in 1975.

Remley's Point, near where Holiday Inn at base of Ravenel Bridge in Mount Pleasant is located, 1950-1973.

Isle of Palms Airport, built in the early 1950s on privately owned leased land, which in 1983 was recovered by its owners to build Wild Dunes resort.

Mount Pleasant Regional Airport, site selected in 1976 after residents strongly desired a modern airport to serve East Cooper. Construction nearly completed 10 years later. It opened in 1987.

Source: Charleston County Aviation Authority

Can you guess what is on the site of Charleston's first municipal airport?

Objects fly through the air there now, but they are not airplanes.

Do you know where Ten Mile Airport was in Greater Charleston? The name might give it away.

How about the first airport on an island east of the Cooper River? Vacationers and beach-goers throng there now.

The Charleston area's history in the air is as storied as the Holy City's past.

The old runways and terminal at what was Charleston Municipal Airport bear little resemblance to today's bustling gateway to the Lowcountry, where nearly 3 million passengers arrive and depart every year.

That's a big leap from the 70 passengers who flew in 1931, two years after the airport opened 85 years ago this month.

For nearly a century, people in the Lowcountry have taken to the air.

When the current terminal at Charleston International Airport was planned and built in the early 1980s, George "Kelly" Rubino was the airports director.

He remembers well the toils of the $48 million project.

An old phosphate mine acquired for the 10-gate new terminal was wooded with trenches and ridges from excavation years earlier.

"We had to level the site, compact it and let it sit for a period of time to let it settle before we could do any work," Rubino said. "That property was pretty rough, but in some ways it was fortunate for us that it was there for us to do what we did."

He remembers critics calling the project a waste of money, saying, "Who was going to fly to Charleston when they could fly anywhere in the country?"

Taking flight

The area's first municipal airport opened in 1927 and served until 1936 at what is now Charleston Municipal Golf Course along Maybank Highway at Riverland Drive.

But it provided turf landings, and the local chamber of commerce lobbied hard for a more adequate airport to serve the Charleston area.

In 1928, the Charleston Airport Corp. was formed to lease about 700 acres on a former phosphate mine in what is now North Charleston near what would become the juncture of interstates 26 and 526.

Originally called the Ten Mile Airport because of its estimated distance from downtown Charleston, the land was cleared and graded to provide landing strips for aircraft. It officially opened on Aug. 10, 1929. The first Cooper River Bridge was dedicated the same week, about two months before the stock market crashed and drove the nation into the Great Depression.

The first flight to carry mail and passengers occurred on April 1, 1931. It flew from Jacksonville, Fla., to Charleston to New York City. Airfare to New York: $47.76. The first flights carried mainly mail for the first few months.

The sparkling new airport in 1929 sported an operation "shack" that seated nine people in what was loosely called a "lobby." What was then Eastern Air Transport (later Eastern Airlines, now defunct) supplied the chairs.

With the help of the federal government to stimulate jobs during the Depression, the airport, by the mid-1930s, featured three asphalt runways: one 3,500 feet long, one 3,000 feet and another 4,000 feet. Floodlights allowed nighttime operations.

The airport now has two runways: one 9,000 feet long and one 7,000 feet long, and they are owned by the U.S. Air Force, which maintains an air base and a fleet of C-17 cargo planes at the jointly used landing strips. The third runway is now a taxiway.

In 1931, the city of Charleston floated a bond for $60,000 to obtain a portion of the airfield for further development and continued to operate the airfield until World War II broke out. Hawthorne Aviation set up shop just off South Aviation Avenue.

In 1942, what had become Charleston Municipal Airport was given to the U.S. Army as part of the Eastern defense of the U.S. The Army Air Corps controlled the field, but commercial flights were permitted. The Army lengthened the runways to 7,000 feet, and military units stayed in tents and huts in the woods bordering the airfield. Taxiways, aprons, hangars, shops and other buildings rose up on the site.

The Army acquired about another 1,000 acres during the war, but released all of its holdings - some 2,050 acres - and $12 million in improvements to the city of Charleston in 1946.

Terminal drive

In 1949, a new airport terminal opened, the first post-war airport modernization in the Southeast. The terminal was located where Aviation Avenue coming off Interstate 26 dead ends at Charleston Air Force Base. Atlantic Aviation now sits on the site. The aging terminal was demolished in 1992, and nothing remains of it.

The airport, however, almost was moved to a new location altogether.

When the Korean War broke out in the early 1950s, the military reactivated its hold on the air base and worked out an agreement with the city for both to jointly use the runways until Charleston could develop a replacement airport for civil aviation by 1958.

The Air Force later released the city from the alternate site requirement, and they continued to jointly use the airport over the next two decades.

In 1970, the state Legislature formed the seven-member Charleston County Aviation Authority, formally transferring ownership from the city of Charleston by the end of the decade. A new joint-use agreement with the Air Force took effect in 1973.

The new airport agency acquired 1,400 more acres from Georgia-Pacific in 1975 for $4 million, and a new $48 million terminal complex opened in April 1985. Speakers included the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond and former Gov. Bob McNair. It's the same building being modernized and expanded today under a 13-member oversight agency.

Building blocks

Rubino, the airport director at the time, remembers the movement to build a new terminal vividly.

He started as an engineer in 1979, but quickly became the airport's new head.

Now 68 and living in Sarasota, Fla., Rubino recalls the former terminal as "spartan."

The 30-year-old brick building in 1979 was outdated with constant maintenance issues, especially on the roof and in its plumbing, he remembers.

"It needed to be replaced," he said. "If Charleston was going to continue to be a gateway, something had to be done to accommodate the potential there. Something needed to happen."

The expansion came at a time of airline deregulation, when air carriers were allowed to fly where they wanted.

"The philosophy was," Rubino said, "airlines would fly to where the market was. We were able to convince bond-rating agencies that Charleston was a strong enough market for people to fly here. Once we did that, the airlines came around. We forced the airlines to sign an agreement to subsidize the cost."

Charleston is now served by Delta, its largest-volume carrier, and United, US Airways, American, Southwest and JetBlue.

He also praised the board, which wasn't as large or political as it is now, for having the foresight to buy the extra land in 1975 when it did.

Boeing Co. now builds 787 Dreamliners on some of the land and is a driving force in Charleston's economy.

"It turned out to be a wise investment," Rubino said.

About 15 years after the new terminal opened, officials realized they needed more parking to accommodate the increasing passenger load. A 1,200-car parking deck opened in 2005, and officials are already talking about adding a second one.

Today, Charleston International, the state's busiest airport, is in the throes of a major makeover to accommodate an expected 4 million passengers over the next decade or so. It's adding five new gates to its current 10, installing a third baggage carousel, consolidating security checkpoints into eight lanes, placing a dome on the terminal and making numerous other cosmetic changes throughout the nearly 30-year-old building at a cost of $189 million. Another $10 million will be spent by concessionaires as they upfit spaces provided for them.

"We are adding essentially a 50 percent expansion to accommodate the projected future growth," current Airports Director Paul Campbell said. "The saying is, 'If you build it, they will come.' At the airport, we better build it because they are coming whether we build it or not."

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524.