Historic KCMH Terminal To Be Restored For Learning Center

OAS signs lease for the art-deco landmark in Columbus, Ohio.

Aerial rendering of the restored Port Columbus Terminal building at KCMH.OAS

In 1928, Charles Lindbergh personally selected Port Columbus Airport in Columbus, Ohio, as the eastern terminus of Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT), one of America’s first commercial airlines and the first to offer coast-to-coast service. In July 1929, a beautiful art deco and modern (for the era) terminal was opened to the public at what is today known as John Glenn Columbus International Airport (KCMH) to service TAT passengers.

With Ohio widely recognized as the birthplace of aviation, the core mission of the recently-established 501(c)(3) nonprofit Ohio Air & Space Hall of Fame and Museum (OAS) is to preserve and publicly honor the remarkable legacies of the state’s outstanding air and space pioneers. This roster of honorees will include legendary names like the Wright Brothers, Eddie Rickenbacker, Neil Armstrong, and John Glenn, but also under-heralded but no less significant trailblazers like Jerrie Mock, the first woman to fly solo around the world. OAS plans to leverage such inspirational examples as educational tools, using them as the foundation for fostering future innovation and workforce development through its STEAM education programs.

The old terminal building at KCMH has seen efforts to restore it over the years but has been vacant for nearly fifteen years despite being on the National Register of Historic Places. That is all about to change thanks to OAS, who announced last week that it has signed a long-term lease with the Columbus Regional Airport Authority (CRAA) for the original 1929 Port Columbus air terminal and tower.

The State of Ohio has appropriated a $550,000 grant toward OAS’s estimated $2 million cost of renovating the 12,000 square-foot-plus air terminal, with OAS having an initial goal of raising another $550,000 to double the matching funds required by the state to release the grant.

Once the building’s three stories and control tower are renovated, the air terminal and surrounding 1.7 acres will be a “civic showpiece” according to Ron Kaplan, OAS executive director. With its interior configured as the home of the OAS when it opens in late 2021, OAS will offer free-to-the-public exhibits honoring Ohio’s air and space pioneers, house research archives, and their STEAM education center, and offer rentable meeting and event spaces.

“As a native of Columbus,” Kaplan said, “I had a fair amount of personal history with the original Port Columbus air terminal and certainly was aware of its significance. I recall my dad–a pilot–taking us to see the Ford Tri-Motor on hand for the 40th Anniversary of Port Columbus in 1969 when I was just 11. Later, as a more devoted student of aviation history, I better understood Port Columbus’s significance in the history of passenger travel.”

The sun sets over KCMH, as viewed from inside the old tower at the historic Terminal Building.

The roster of the potential Ohio Air & Space Hall of Fame honorees represents a golden opportunity in the planned STEAM program, Kaplan explained. “Using these inspirational heroes and their accomplishments as a foundation, we can introduce engineering and problem solving through the amazing story of Jim Lovell, Gene Kranz, and the Apollo 13 mission. Math such as what Jerrie Mock employed without the aid of a computer to successfully navigate her Cessna 180 around the globe will be another teachable moment, as will the technological achievements like the propulsion developed and perfected by the designer of the first operational jet engine, another adopted Ohioan, German physicist Hans von Ohain.”

Kaplan emphasized the terminal building’s rich history by explaining how important it was to the development of coast-to-coast “Golden Age” air service. “Port Columbus Airport and the old terminal is rich in TAT history. Passengers would ride a train overnight from New York City to CMH, arrive in the morning, eat a quick breakfast in the terminal dining room, and board a Ford Tri-Motor to start the westward journey to Glendale, California, with another overnight train ride out west. Once nighttime flying became safe about 16 months later, TAT’s train/plane travel model became obsolete, and through mergers, the DNA of TAT ultimately became part of Trans World Airlines (TWA).”

According to Kaplan, the historic air terminal at KCMH was saved and re-purposed the first time in the 1980s when former US Navy and North American Aviation test pilot, Ed Gillespie, leased and renovated it into office space. Unoccupied again in the late 1990s, the terminal fell into disrepair. In 2014, a group of concerned citizens and heritage organizations formed Preserve Original Columbus Air Terminal (POCAT) to save the terminal again with the aid of Columbus philanthropist Sally Crane Cox and a Columbus Foundation challenge grant of $50,000. POCAT raised $53,000 to remediate interior mold issues and install a new roof in 2016. Thus, the stage was set for OAS to be the new, long-term tenant and site manager.

It is not widely known that Port Columbus Airport was both the departure and arrival airport for Mock’s historic 1964 first solo flight around the world by a woman as outlined in her book, Three-Eight Charlie. Long out of print, word-for-word reproductions of this incredible, courageous, and nail-biting aviation tale around the globe in a basically stock (except for massive long-range fuel tanks) Cessna 180 can be found here.