Sea-Tac's Turbulent History

The latest controversy at Sea-Tac, over a possible third runway, is one more chapter in a long, turbulent history of airport expansion. Planes started using the site in 1944 and in five decades, it has become the 16th-busiest airport in the nation. ----------------------------------

If you're upset about the possibility of a third runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, blame Nazi Germany, the warlords of Japan, civic leaders of Bellevue or The Boeing Co.

But don't blame the woman in the nightgown holding a rifle on Ray Bishop in April 1942. She tried to stop an airport from being built in the first place, according to a diary kept by Bishop, who was leading a survey crew through what was then a sparsely populated area of farms and orchards called Bow Lake.

"She told me, in no uncertain terms, that she intended to use that gun on me if I came on her property," Bishop wrote.

Ultimately, the woman's efforts failed, and Bishop and his crew simply surveyed around her property, marking the beginning of what would become Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Now the 16th-busiest airport in the United States, it is expected to serve a record 20 million passengers this year, the 50th anniversary of air traffic at the site.

For today's backers of Sea-Tac expansion, the spirit of that one-woman opposition more than five decades ago has grown into a powerful coalition of cities - Burien, Federal Way, Tukwila, Des Moines and Normandy Park - and thousands of residents who are tired of the airport's noise. They've amassed a $1.2 million war chest and are threatening years of legal battles.

Third-runway opponents say they have no other choice since the Puget Sound Regional Council, in September, gave up on a process of finding a site for a new regional airport to take pressure off Sea-Tac.

The council - made up of elected officials in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties - had voted last year that the third Sea-Tac runway should be built if a second airport site wasn't approved by May 1996.

"We will employ several lawsuits, if need be, on multiple fronts to make sure that this third runway does not go through," Des Moines Mayor Richard Kennedy said shortly after the second-airport option was abandoned.

But even the more formidable and sophisticated opposition of today might not be able to slow the march of historical forces that have built Sea-Tac into the 2,500-acre behemoth it is today. Perched on a hilltop halfway between Seattle and Tacoma, the airport appears headed for yet another major expansion.

And to think it all could have happened to Bellevue.


In 1942, the United States had been at war with Germany and Japan less than four months and already had seized Boeing Field, then the area's major airport, as well as Paine Field in Everett.

The federal government offered to help pay for construction of a new regional airport, and two sites were being studied by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce: Bow Lake, which now is across the street from the entrance to Sea-Tac, and an area along the western shore of Lake Sammamish, which is now part of Bellevue.

"We'd like to develop both," Elliott Merrill, who was leading the chamber's site-selection committee, said at the time. Merrill believed both sites were ideal. But there was a catch. No local government wanted anything to do with running one airport, let alone two.

In those days, when most people traveled by train, operating an airport was a losing proposition. King County took a bath on Boeing Field, and Seattle lost so much money in its 10-year operation of Sand Field along Sand Point Way that it gladly gave it to the Navy in 1932.

Civic eyes turned to the Port of Seattle, flush with a bundle of cash from selling some waterfront property to the Navy.

Many in the Port's maritime old guard were against the deal, but, with prodding by Port General Manager W.C. Bickford, the three Port commissioners reluctantly agreed to sponsor the airport.

Their risky, $500,000 initial investment to buy the land mushroomed. Sea-Tac's total operating revenue this year is expected to be more than $122.8 million, far more than the maritime operation, which has a operating revenue of $66.3 million.

Port officials decided to build just one airport, and the competition over Bow Lake or Lake Sammamish became intense. The Sammamish site could be built faster and cheaper, and only seven houses or buildings had to be removed, compared with 55 at Bow Lake.

Open warfare broke out between the Seattle Chamber and the younger set at the Junior Chamber, which backed the Sammamish site, believing that future expansion would be easier there than at Bow Lake.

But Bow Lake was selected. The official reason then was its aeronautical advantages: Its elevation was about 400 feet, higher than the Sammamish site; prevailing winds were more favorable; it tended to be less foggy than the Sammamish area, where nearby Squak Mountain presented an additional hazard.

But the prevailing reason was that the two major airlines of the day, United and Northwest, wanted to draw passengers from Tacoma as well as Seattle.

Also, Bellevue civic leaders couldn't match the political and financial muscle of the Tacoma lobby, which was willing to put up $100,000 if Bow Lake was chosen.

Tacoma's money pales compared with the $11 million the Port of Seattle ultimately spent to build the airport.

It was a happy crowd from both Seattle and Tacoma that gathered at Bow Lake for groundbreaking on Jan. 3, 1943.

Fred Marvin of the Port of Tacoma shoveled the first scoop of dirt. It was the last bit of effort a Tacoma official would contribute to the airport, other than to complain bitterly at several attempts over the years to remove Tacoma from the name. Proposals have included renaming it after the late Sen. Henry M. Jackson, as well as for a flight attendant killed in a plane crash and for a Boeing president.


That groundbreaking also marked the end of stability for Peter and Shirley Rio.

In 1994, standing outside the home he fashioned with his own two hands, Peter Rio, 76, glances across the street at the airport.

"I was here in 1932," Peter says proudly, boasting that his father once owned land that now rests beneath Sea-Tac's outstretched runways. "That's how long I've been here."

Shirley, 76, is seated inside, at a dining-room table that overlooks a chain-link fence along 12th Avenue South, the westernmost border of the airport. There is no pride in her voice. Just fatigue - and anger.

"You don't have to tell us what (airport expansion) is like," she says, fiddling with an opened deck of pinochle cards. "We've had to move three times."

Originally constructed on 906 acres, Sea-Tac expanded several times to get to its current 2,500. An additional 125 to 150 acres would be needed for the third runway.

More so than others, the Rios have a keen understanding of what airport expansion means. But even they don't know what to expect this time around.

Amid the cacophony of claims and counterclaims being hurled between third-runway opponents and the Port of Seattle, it is growing increasingly difficult to discern the truth from hyperbole and propaganda.

Will the Port - if given approval for a third runway - eventually build a fourth or perhaps even a fifth runway, as some runway opponents have suggested?

How many additional families would have to suffer with jet noise? Would it be tens of thousands, as some have suggested? Or significantly less, as the Port asserts? How many schools would have to be torn down?

What would the real impacts be?

"Who knows?" Shirley says.

The one thing - the only thing - she does know for certain is that if a third runway is built, the Rios and their immediate neighbors in west SeaTac from 12th Avenue South to at least Ninth Avenue South or Des Moines Memorial Drive will have to move.

A third runway would mean planes touching down on 12th Avenue South, probably in front of the Rios' two-car carport and well-manicured lawn. As for 11th, 10th and Ninth avenues - all residential neighborhoods - they would be needed for the 1,000-foot buffer required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Would the buyouts end there?

"I cannot tell you where the line will be drawn," said Port Commissioner Paige Miller, at least not until the FAA's environmental-impact study is completed next year or in early 1996.

"The first house not bought is where the impact will be felt," said SeaTac City Manager Scott Rohlfs. "You almost have to decide what's worse: getting bought out or being left behind."

For some "Westsiders," who have found they cannot leave because there isn't a market for homes so close to a major airport, the answer is simple: being left behind is worse.

A third runway would be their first chance to move in two decades.

For others like the Rios, though, who don't want to move, a third runway would mean the destruction of a life it took years to forge.

And what would a third runway mean to people such as Jake Johannesen, who lives in Burien to the west of Eighth Avenue?

"It will mean that we will become the `Westsiders' for the next decade," he said.


The answers were easier in 1943, when earthmovers were roaring over the Bow Lake area, clearing houses, farms, trees and families.

Many of the people bought out by the Port simply upgraded, buying newer homes in the area, sparking a small real-estate boom around Sea-Tac.

There also were land speculators purchasing large tracts around Highway 99 for commercial development. The Army put a stop to that with a commercial ban intended to "prohibit taverns, restaurants and other enterprises which might tend to draw a broad classification of patrons."

In other words, the Army didn't want prostitutes hanging out near Sea-Tac.

After the war, the area's hotel and bar trade did develop, and the Army turned out to be correct. The Sea-Tac strip is one of the major sites of prostitution in the Seattle area.


Sea-Tac originally was built with four runways, and there were plans for seven.

By 1944, the four runways were complete and in service, including a 6,100-foot main strip that ran north-south and three shorter cross-runways.

The cross-runways eventually were abandoned, but parts still exist as airplane taxiways.

Only one of the three planned additional runways was built, in 1969 - the west runway, which runs parallel to the original main runway and is 9,450 feet long.

Meanwhile, the original runway was lengthened four times and now is nearly twice its original size, at 11,000 feet.

One main runway was plenty in 1947 when the first major carriers, Northwest and Western, left Boeing Field and began regular flights out of Sea-Tac. Work also began that year on a terminal to replace the barnlike structure used by charter airlines and private pilots.

"(Sea-Tac) was just a farm building and a baggage room off to the side," said Don Shay, who became assistant manager in 1947. There were just 10 flights a day that first year. Today, Sea-Tac averages 950 flights a day.

Development around the airport was just as slow. Other than some new housing, as well as some land condemnation to lengthen runways, the area around Bow Lake had changed little in the four years since 1943.

Other than the crash of an Alaska Airlines DC-4, which wound up killing a woman in a car on Des Moines Way South, the surrounding area was little fazed by the airport.


Then two events, more than anything, changed the area:

First was completion of the terminal on July 9, 1949. More than 30,000 people turned out to view it. United Airlines abandoned Boeing Field, as did several other carriers.

More than 540,000 passengers passed through the new terminal in its first year. Operations soared to more than 40 takeoffs and landings per day. Sea-Tac was king.

The second event was more a harbinger of things to come. On Aug. 7, 1955, Boeing test pilot Alvin "Tex" Johnston was at the controls of the Dash 80, the company's 707 prototype. Boeing, in a race with other manufacturers to produce the nation's first commercial-jet transport, had staked the company treasure on the 707.

With nearly a quarter-million people lining Lake Washington for the Gold Cup hydroplane races, Johnston eased the plane into a slow barrel roll, an aerial stunt seemingly impossible for a transport. Then he did it again.

Rather than getting Johnston fired, the bold stunt made him and Boeing's sturdy new jet the stuff of aviation folklore.

The ubiquitous 707 helped usher in the jet age. Sea-Tac and the communities around it would never be the same.

"The Dash 80 triggered the explosion in air travel, and air travel triggered the development around Sea-Tac," said Roy Moore, who got in on some of the action when he leased land from the Port at the south end of the airport to develop Tyee Valley Golf Club. "The reason most of the developments around the airport came was because of the jobs at Sea-Tac."

Sea-Tac itself was bursting. To handle the growth, Port commissioners in 1968 began a $175 million renovation and expansion project, completed in 1973. A new terminal was wrapped around the 1949 terminal. Two satellite terminals were built, as well as the second north-south runway.


Although some of the more percipient Port officials saw the need for a third runway in that critical phase of Sea-Tac's history, there were reasons for caution:

-- The boom in 1968, when the expansion project began, went bust in 1970, in part because of layoffs at Boeing - which went from 101,000 employees in 1968 to fewer than 40,000 in 1970 - and because of the national recession.

-- The Army, in 1972, began returning troops from Vietnam through Oakland, instead of Sea-Tac.

-- The number of flights at Sea-Tac dropped in 1970 and stayed stagnant until after the Arab oil embargo of 1973.

-- The Port was embroiled in the noise problem and was busy buying up property north and south of the airport in areas called "clear zones."

By 1974, jet travel was picking up again. Then, in 1978, when the airline industry was deregulated, passenger numbers went through the roof. They were at about 9.8 million in 1979 and have more than doubled since. This year, there are expected to be 347,000 planes taking off or landing at Sea-Tac.

If the third runway is built, Sea-Tac could handle an extra 100,000 flights a year, or a total of 1,224 flights a day for all runways.


The two runways are already too much for Tom Miller, who in 1980 bought a home in a subdivision of three-bedroom ramblers just west of the airport, near 12th Avenue South. He now has it up for sale.

"It wasn't that bad then," Miller said. "We could play outside with the kids and carry on a conversation. But not now."

Miller will have no problem selling his house if the third runway is approved, though.

The whole neighborhood will be bought by the Port, and, sometime around the turn of the century, jets will thunder down where Miller's children once played.

Aboard those jets, no doubt, will be people from the fashionable neighborhoods near Lake Sammamish.

---------------------------. FACTS ABOUT SEA-TAC AIRPORT. ---------------------------. Groundbreaking 1943. Cost $11 million. Flights begin 1944. Terminal complete 1949. Major expansion 1968-73. Original size 906 acres. Current size 2,500 acres. Runways in 1944 #4 . Runways in 1994 2 . Daily flights in 1947 10 . Daily flights in 1969 454. Daily flights in 1994 950.

# Three short cross-runways were later abandoned.)