Today's William B. Hartsfield Airport covers some 3750 acres with 130 acres of buildings totaling 5.7 million square feet. It features four runways from 9,000 to 11,889 feet and it employs almost 45,000 people. It handles more than 900,000 flights a year, totaling more than 78 million passengers (1999 statistics, courtesy The William B. Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport). The story of this immense giant goes back almost a century and deeply involves the man for which the airport is named.
Candler Field was named for Coca-Cola magnate Asa Candler, who owned the property on which the oval racetrack was built.
The year is 1909 and a new sport, auto racing, has captured Atlanta by storm. South of the city a large oval track has been built, complete with trolley service, next to Hapeville. The promoters have a special event planned. An airplane makes a low-level run over the track, passing directly in front of the grandstand. The next day Atlanta is abuzz with the sight those at Candler Field witnessed.
Unfortunately, Atlanta's love affair with racing is short-lived; by 1923 the racetrack is abandoned. Enter William B. Hartsfield. The newly elected alderman is assigned the task of finding a place to build a new airport proposed by Mayor Walter Sims. It wasn't a hard choice -- the 287-acre Candler Field was perfect. In 1925 the city leases Candler Field, rent free for five years, and a new race is on -- for the lucrative air mail route contracts then being given out by the United States Postal Service.
Candler Field, 1930 In 1930 the Atlanta Airport was still called by the name of the racetrack that preceded it.
In 1926 Atlanta was well on its way to becoming the center of the deep South. The city's growth during the first quarter of the 20th century was astounding. Recently the shift in population moving to Atlanta had been increasing, thanks in part to the boll weevil and the drought of 1925. Sims saw the potential for new jobs in the city from the airport.
On September_15, 1926, Atlanta aviation history was made when the first air mail flight took off from the city. Under a charter to Florida Airways, Inc., Contract Air Mail (CAM) Flight 10 left Candler Field for Macon, Jacksonville, Tampa, Fort Myers and Miami. Pilot Ben Eilson, however, was told of a problem in Macon. Because of a misunderstanding between city and county officials, the airfield was being plowed to prevent the plane from landing.
he postmasters of Atlanta and Macon worked out an arrangement where the Macon postmaster would stand away from the crowd and wave a white handkerchief in each hand. This would be the pilot's signal to drop the bag of mail. As Pilot Eilson approached the field he easily spotted the handkerchiefs, flew over the man and dropped the bag of mail. Word of the incident quickly spread and the first day covers became a collectors item.
The flight from Atlanta to Miami continued through December_31, 1926, when it was discontinued for a lack of mail to deliver. The cost, 10 cents per ounce, was significantly higher than for regular service. Of 12 operational routes in the nation at the time, the Atlanta route is the only failure.
On May_1, 1928, air mail service again returned to Candler Field. CAM 19, owned by Pitcairn Aviation, flew to New Brunswick, New Jersey, while CAM 23, owned by St. Tammany Gulf Coast Airway, flew to New Orleans.
Passenger service from Atlanta was inaugurated on October_15, 1930 with service to Dallas and Los Angeles by American Airlines. On December 10th a flight to New York was added and on January_1, 1931 service to Florida began.
In 1934 the Roosevelt administration completely overhauled the way the mail service contracts were awarded. It was then that tiny Delta Air Lines, from Monroe, Louisiana, won the Atlanta to Charlotte, North Carolina, mail contract. The first flight, piloted by Charles Dolson, carried no passengers, not for lack of seating, but because the beaconing system was not completed and there were no emergency landing fields between the two cities. From this beginning Delta's relationship with Atlanta grew quickly and within two years they had built a maintenance facility at the new airport. And the rest is history....
Pilot Ben Eilson of the first airmail flight from Atlanta would gain fame flying to explore the North Pole and the land above the Artic Circle. He would die on a rescue mission in Siberia.
Alderman William B. Hartsfield would serve as mayor of Atlanta from 1938 to 1961. Candler Field would be renamed in his honor.
Charles Dolson, who piloted the first Delta flight from Atlanta to Charlotte eventually became Chief Executive Officer of Delta Air Lines.
According to the Geneva-based Airports Council International, the William B. Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport is now (1999) the busiest airport in the world.