The Airport Through the Decades
Today, Lexington's Blue Grass Airport serves more than 1.2 million passengers each year and occupies approximately 1,000 acres. The airport offers commercial flights to destinations worldwide and also provides a variety of corporate and general aviation services, including U.S. Customs cargo inspection, flight instruction, charter aircraft, airplane maintenance, aircraft storage and more.
Here's a look at our history through the decades:
In 1940, the city and county governments purchased 523 acres of farmland off Versailles Road to construct what would eventually become known as Blue Grass Field in 1940. Runway construction began on March 6, 1941 and progressed quickly anticipating the U.S. entering World War II. On July 11, 1942, the first aircraft, an Army Air Corps B-25 bomber, officially landed at Blue Grass Field. The Army began using it as a secondary training facility and supply gateway. The first commercial terminal was completed October 13, 1946. Eastern and Delta Air Lines provided the first commercial passenger flights to Lexington. The Lexington-Fayette County Airport Board was formed. (Earlier airfields in Fayette County were Halley Field and Glengarry Field, later Cool Meadow.)
A new $28,000 control tower was put into operation at Blue Grass Field. The airport's longest runway was extended from 4,000 feet to 5,000 feet to permit four-engine planes to operate more safely. President Dwight D. Eisenhower flew into Blue Grass Field for a Lexington visit. Hertz Rent a Car signed a concession lease. Fayette County donated an old fire truck to the airport, the beginning of today's exceptional fire safety facilities. The Instrument Landing System (ILS) was commissioned for the airport. Plans were made to extend two of three runways by 500 feet to accommodate turbo-prop jets. FAA assigns Gene Sims, the first female controller, to Blue Grass Airport's tower.
Senator John F. Kennedy stopped during his campaign for the presidency. Negotiations for land and right-of-ways to improve the runway and lighting took place. Federal government money aided the airport's budget and funded a $230,000 project to install new approach lighting to guide pilots during times of poor visibility. The restaurant at the airport was renamed the Skyline Room. The 1964 hit James Bond movie Goldfinger mentioned Blue Grass Field as the destination of the villain's plane. Piedmont Airlines flew the first passenger jet, a Boeing 727, into Blue Grass Field. Airport development plans proposed a new terminal and a 1,000-foot runway extension. Extending the runway took over a year and a half and cost $1.3 million. Construction of a new FAA air traffic control tower utilizing radar began. Delta Air Lines and Eastern Air Lines began jet service from Blue Grass Airport. Allegheny Airlines started service non-stop service to Pittsburgh and Nashville.
In 1970, the new 78-foot FAA control tower replaced the previous one located atop the terminal building. Betty Moseley and Virginia Chamberlain represented Kentucky in the All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race (Powder Puff Derby). In 1972, a hijacked Southern Airways jetliner departing from Alabama and carrying 31 passengers was diverted to Blue Grass Field for refueling. After receiving $2 million and assurances of safety, the hijackers were arrested when the plane landed in Havana, Cuba. The FAA announced installation and operation of airport surveillance radar, providing 24-hour service for aircraft arriving and departing within a 40-mile radius. Runway 33-15, built in 1942 as a WPA project, was permanently closed.
The new terminal facility (at a cost of approximately $10 million) officially opened in April 1976, containing 70,000 square feet and including relocation of hangars, plus utilities and taxiway improvements. More than 7,000 University of Kentucky basketball fans swarmed the terminal in 1978 to welcome home the 1978 national champion Wildcats after their defeat of Duke University.
Eastern Air Lines, a fixture since 1946, announced it would cease operations in Lexington. Air traffic controllers went on strike, forcing airlines to suspend flights to smaller airports. The Flight History Museum, forerunner to today's Aviation Museum of Kentucky, opened its doors to the public. In 1984, Blue Grass Field became "Blue Grass Airport" as it is known today. Queen Elizabeth II visited central Kentucky for a private six-day visit. A major expansion and redesign of the terminal building was launched. Enhancements included switching the location of baggage and arrival areas, additional windows and skylights, and a second floor mezzanine suitable for jet bridge access to airplanes. The world's fastest airliner, the Concorde SST, visited Blue Grass Airport. Phase I of the terminal expansion added 80,000 square feet of space, doubling its previous size. The U.S. Customs Service opened a permanent office at Blue Grass Airport.
The Goodyear blimp Enterprise spent the night in Lexington en route to its retirement in Akron. The upgraded Low Level Wind Shear Alert System (LLWAS) was completed at 110 airports, including Blue Grass Airport. The air traffic control tower began 24-hour operation. Members of General Jimmy Doolittle's Raiders held their 53rd reunion in Lexington to coincide with the opening of the Aviation Museum of Kentucky. Gayle Ray and Bruce Lewis took their marriage vows at the airport minutes before take-off on their way to a honeymoon cruise. Blue Grass Airport announced a $4 million fire training facility that would make it one of the leading regional sites for training airport safety crews. The airport built a taxiway to accommodate more hangars in the general aviation area. Construction of a three-level parking garage began, eventually adding 550 new public spaces and 68 rental car spaces.
Due to terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on September 11, 2001, the FAA ordered all aircraft to land at the nearest airport as soon as practical. Airplanes remained grounded for two days at Blue Grass Airport as it worked to complete the FAA checklist imposing tougher security requirements. Congress passed stricter security measures for baggage screening. In 2002, Blue Grass Airport unveiled a new state-of-the-art system for baggage screening, which served as a model to airports nationwide. Between October 2002 and March 2003, the airport saw an increase of 23 percent as 519,251 passengers boarded flights. Construction began on a new rental car ready-return center and safety area improvements on Runway 4-22. American Airlines and Allegiant began serving the Lexington community. Blue Grass Airport opened an airport-operated executive lounge—The Club at Blue Grass, featuring business facilities, an upscale passenger lounge and personalized service. Blue Grass Airport completed a four-phase Runway Safety area improvement project, including construction of a one-of-a-kind retaining wall with a Kentucky mural. The airport's main runway was closed to all air traffic for 48 hours to resurface and add new runway markings and signage. August 27, 2006, Delta Comair Flight 5191 crashed during take-off, killing 49 of the 50 people aboard. A new $16.9 million concourse addition opened in April 2007, including six new passenger boarding gates, additional seating and restroom facilities.
The latest renovations to the terminal's lobby level included the terrazzo floor depicting the sire lineage of the Thoroughbred horse. August 2010 saw the completion of the new 4,000-foot general aviation runway. General aviation accounted for 65 percent of total operations at the airport. November 2010 marked one of the busiest months in the airport's history due in large part to the hosting of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington. The 5191 Memorial Commission unveils a sculpture on August 27, 2011 to honor the 49 lives lost five years earlier as a result of the Delta Comair Flight 5191 accident. More than 2,500 fans gathered to welcome the returning 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Champion UK Wildcats. The airport board completed its 2013 Master Plan Update, which launched the airport into a $60 million taxiway safety improvement program and the relocation of the Snow Removal Equipment Complex and public safety firehouse over the next decade. Blue Grass Airport celebrated 70 years of partnership with Delta Air Lines.