Bowerman Airport and Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge are located side by side on Moon Island, a narrow strip of land rising from the tidal flats in the Chehalis estuary west of Hoquiam. Since July, visitors on their way to the Sandpiper Trail birdwatching area have been passing heavy equipment moving enormous amounts of earth. The Bowerman Airport Drainage Project is executing phase four in a five-phase improvement plan that the Port of Grays Harbor initiated in 2013. The Port hopes to complete the entire plan by 2023.
By reducing flooding, the drainage project will constitute a major step in returning Bowerman Airport to prime condition. Foreman Joe Brand from Rognlin’s, Inc., Aberdeen, describes the proceedings in a nutshell: “We are using large excavators and five hauling trucks and GPS-equipped dozers to add 3,000 feet of drainage pipe. Then surfaces will be regraded and we will replant the grass surface. We will also install new electrical lighting.”
Bowerman Airport, also called Bowerman Field, started as Moon Island Airport in the years preceding World War II. During Prohibition, Moon Island was nothing more than a pile of mud dredged from the Chehalis River and named after the moonshiners who operated there. Thanks to the persistent efforts of Hoquiam Mayor Ralph L. Philbrick, the Moon Island mud pile received a dike connecting it to the Hoquiam shore. More dredging created a long, narrow strip of land suitable for an airport.
In February 1941, Moon Island Airport was ready to serve Grays Harbor. However, after the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the airport part of the national defense program. The army took over. Military aircraft moved in and practiced gunnery and bombing. The size of the airport was increased to 6,000 by 1,000 feet, making room for additional taxiways and a ramp area.
In 1953, the airport, which had been returned to Grays Harbor County after the war, was renamed Bowerman Field in honor of a local World War II fighter pilot. First Lieutenant Robert C. Bowerman from Aberdeen and his crew had flown 30 missions in their B-29 City of Aberdeen from their base on Guam. After the war, Bowerman and two friends opened Western Washington Airways at Moon Island Airport. Bowerman worked hard to promote the airport. Sadly, his business failed. Bowerman was killed on a mission in the Korean War. In his memory, the airport was renamed Bowerman Field.
Grays Harbor County had been struggling with keeping up the airport ever since the war ended. In 1962, the Port of Grays Harbor took over ownership along with the financial problems. In 2006, the Port was faced with an accumulated $901,693 operating deficit and was ready to close the airport. However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) wanted the airport to remain in operation. The FAA considered Bowerman Field a vital and integral part of the Harbor’s transportation infrastructure and important for state and national aviation. In Washington, Sea-Tac International Airport and the Port of Shelton Airport are the only airports turning a profit. The fact needs to be accepted: airports cost money, just like highways.
The significance of Bowerman Airport easily escapes notice. Bowerman Field is the only jet-capable airport on the Washington Coast. In 1992, an instrument landing system, ILS, was installed making Bowerman the best-equipped airfield of its size and use on the West Coast. Today, Bowerman also sports an area navigation system, RNAV. The absence of a tower along with the presence of navigational systems make the airport ideal for practicing instrument approach landings. Military, corporate and private pilots favor Bowerman Field for training purposes. Large businesses like Westport Yachts would find it difficult to operate without the possibility to jet in personnel and customers.
The $2.5 million budgeted for the Bowerman Airport Drainage Project will help to retain existing businesses and attract new ones to the Harbor. The cost will be shared by the FAA, the State of Washington Department of Transportation Aviation and the Port of Grays Harbor. With the completion of phase five of the airport improvement plan, the corporate world and the military will have a well-functioning modern airport at their disposal.
In recent years, traffic has increased at Bowerman Airport. In 2016, Skyvector listed 21 single-engine aircraft, three multi-engine aircraft and one jet aircraft based on the field. In 2018, the Port was happy to report all 28 hangars leased out for the first time in 10 years. A brighter future seems ahead.
According to Foreman Joe Brand, construction is progressing almost as planned with possibly a couple of weeks delay. Rognlin’s trucks are hauling excess dirt over to the adjacent wastewater lagoon. The dirt is contributing to the City of Hoquiam‘s Moon Island Design and Restoration Project funded by a Coastal Restoration Grant by the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office. If you enjoy watching heavy equipment moving earth, take your chance now. Soon aircraft will be flying again at Bowerman Field and peace will return to the bird sanctuary.
For information on the Bowerman Airport Drainage Project, visit Port of Grays Harbor’s website.