The Cloud Club

The first, licensed African American-owned and operated airport in Maryland, if not the nation, opened on this site in 1941. Originally known as “Riverside Field”, the Columbia Air Center was established by a group of African American aviators known as the Cloud Club.

The Cloud Club, Inc. was formed in May of 1940 in Washington, D.C. as a place for African American aviators to spread the enjoyment of flying to others. The club first met and flew at Beacon Field in Alexandria, Virginia. Friction between the club and the airport began after club members were accused of violating the airfield’s rules and regulations. Racial tension and subsequent ill-treatment of the aviators motivated them to search for a field on which to build and operate their own airport.

Cloud Club members soon found a suitable site in Croom, Maryland on the west bank of the Patuxent River. Landowner Rebecca Fisher agreed to lease the 450-acre property to the Cloud Club for $50 per month. With the guidance of club member John W. Greene and the financial assistance of C. M. Gill, the Cloud Club erected an office, two hangars and a landing strip. By 1941, Riverside Field became an operating airport.

Cloud Club members gave flying lessons, hosted air shows and developed Riverside Field into a safe and well run operation. They sponsored the airfield’s first air show in 1941, which drew over 800 spectators and featured parachute jumping, acrobatic and precision flying, and airplane rides. The Washington Afro-American newspaper (August 16, 1941) heralded this event as “the first of its kind”, as all of the pilots and performers were African American.

The Cloud Club hired their own instructors for flight training, owning and leasing some of the most popular aircraft of the day for use by their students. By October 1941, the Cloud Club named John Greene as Airport Manager.

Soon after the United States entered World War II in December 1941, the Cloud Club was notified that wartime restrictions would halt civilian flying at the field. The U.S. Navy used Riverside Field for training until mid-1944, when the airfield was again opened to general aviation and renamed the Columbia Air Center.

The Cloud Club welcomed pilots, both black and white, to the airfield and the operation thrived in the years immediately following the war. By the 1950s however, flying activity began to decline, as was the case with many of the smaller airports in the county. The airfield closed in 1956 but would be remembered as one of the finest airfields in the nation – a clear testament to the hard work and efforts by the Cloud Club and its members.

Columbia Air Center

Columbia Air Center provided access to aviation for African American pilots during an era of discrimination. It began operations with one east-west turf runway, an office and a hangar. By the end of 1941, the airfield boasted a second hangar and the services of several flight instructors. John Greene’s association with Phelps Vocational High School brought many students to the field to get on-site training in primary flight training, ground school and mechanics, spurring community interest in aviation. 

During World War II when the U.S. Navy took over operations, they added seven turf runways and a 121-foot pier on the Patuxent River. With its return to civilian use, Columbia Air Center was reorganized to reflect a new vision for the site as both an airport and recreational center for the African American community. 

The new operation did not utilize all of the changes made by the Navy. By 1945, the airport was operating with three sod runways (one as long as 3300 feet), with two more added over the next four years. The Center only operated during daylight hours and offered a flying school, charter services, aircraft maintenance, fuel and tie down space for private pilots. They utilized a large fleet of aircraft, including Piper Cubs, Aeronca Champs and L3s, Fairchild PT-19 trainers, Boeing PT-17s, Stinsons and Continental Engines. 

During Greene’s tenure, the airport expanded its operations by partnering with several school and youth programs for pilot and aviation maintenance. 

The airfield served the local pilot population and became a popular social and recreational center with frequent picnics, hangar dances, motorcycle racing, canoeing and of course, flying. 

John Greene managed the airfield until 1954. The Columbia Air Center closed in 1956 when Mrs. Fisher’s heirs decided to sell the land. In 1959, the property became part of the Patuxent River Park and is now owned by M-NCPPC. 

John Greene

More than any other person, John W. Greene is credited with the success and enduring legacy left by the Columbia Air Center. Greene was a pioneering aviator, airplane mechanic and teacher. He managed the Columbia Air Center from 1941 to 1956. 

Greene was born in 1901 and as a young man, enrolled at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, where he studied mechanical engineering. John Greene learned to fly in 1922, long before there was a system for federal pilot certification. He earned his private pilot’s license in June 1929 and by 1933 had become only the second African American to receive a commercial and transport license. He subsequently earned an instructor’s rating, airplane and engine mechanic’s licenses, third class radio license and ground school instructor’s rating. 

Mr. Greene moved to Washington, D.C. in 1940, after he was recruited to start an aviation mechanics program at Phelps Vocational High School. He formed the Cloud Club with several other pilots and became instrumental in their efforts to organize operations at the Riverside Field where he soon became manager. 

Many credit John Greene’s efforts in promoting aviation to young people as one of the airfield’s most worthwhile efforts. Greene oversaw the flying portion of Howard University’s Civil Pilot Training Program (CPTP) at Riverside Field until the advent of World War II. After the war, the airfield offered a complete program of flight training to interested students, which included primary and secondary training, as well as cross country and instrument flying. He offered classes at Armstrong High School, as well as Phelps Vocational High School, and formed the first black Civil Air Patrol (CAP) Squadron, the “Columbia Squadron” in the Washington area. 

Under the management of John Greene, the Columbia Air Center became one of the busiest airports in Prince George’s County. By 1946, the airport boasted several large hangars, a maintenance shop, a classroom and an office, along with plenty of equipment, instruments and engines for instruction. The airport continued to grow, offering charter flights, sales of aircraft and fuel, a repair shop and a place for private pilots to base their aircraft. 

In 1954, Greene retired from the airport, but remained active in aviation. He died in 1989 at the age of 87, having left as his legacy, the hundreds of pilots and mechanics in whom he had ignited a passion for aviation. 

The End of an Era

Upon the retirement of John Greene, Shirley King served as interim manager, followed by partners Charles E. Wren and Herbert H. Jones Jr. They operated the field as the “W and J Flying Service”. 

Herbert Jones had served as an Army Air Corps aviation cadet at the Tuskegee Army Airfield during World War II. After the war, he returned on the G.I. Bill to earn his flight instructors rating. After leaving the Columbia Air Center, Mr. Jones worked as a corporate pilot and operated flying schools at both Hyde Field and Potomac Airpark in Clinton, Maryland. 

Charles Wren continued to manage the airfield as the “Capital Flying Club” with partner William L. Taylor. Wren and Taylor, along with Charles H. Dabney, also formed “The Sportsmen” which organized many of the recreational events at the airport until it closed its doors forever in 1956.