Before the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport became a commercial airport serving over 1.6 million residents from across south Louisiana and southwest Mississippi, it was a military installation for the United States Army Air Corps known as Harding Field. Harding Field, dear to the hearts of many, operated for four years as a training base for fighter pilots flying the newest planes and bombers during World War II. The air base served as a temporary home for thousands of men and women from around the country. A number of the pilots who received their training here made history in the aviation industry. Entire units were trained and sent overseas including quartermaster units as well as fighter and bomber squadrons.
Men from Harding Field were in every theater of the war and distinguished themselves with the highest honors. For women, the base was indeed a "training” ground and an entry into the workforce of industry serving as both officers and as civilian employees.
March 17, 1941 initiated the preliminary phase of the construction of Baton Rouge’s "million-dollar” airport. Clearing an 800-acre tract of densely wooded forest, located nine miles north of the city, trees were cut, stumps were blown apart with dynamite, ravines and gullies were leveled and bridges were laid across the meandering Bayou Monte Sano. Over 50 tons of dynamite was used in the clearing process. The remarkable fact of the construction phase was that it was accomplished without a single lost-time accident.
Work on the base went on 24 hours a day – 7 days a week with 1,200 men divided into three shifts per day. This number does not include the many WPA workers employed to work on runways for the base. The base consisted of three major runways: 4,200 by 150 feet for the north-south runway; 4,600 by 150 feet for the northeast-southwest runway; and 4,700 by 200 feet for the northwest-southwest runway.
During construction, twenty-four Louisiana State Troopers were kept on duty at the base night and day where no one without proper credentials was allowed to enter. The $1,378,840 construction contract was awarded to Perilliate-Rickey Construction Company of New Orleans and Barber Brothers Construction Company of Baton Rouge.
The City of Baton Rouge was already prospering from industry; the war accelerated development, pouring millions of dollars into the local economy. The new base proved to be an astronomical economic bonanza to the city. Base operations relied on vital supplies purchased from businesses outside of the base. Monthly pay from personnel stationed at the base amounted to approximately $50,000. This did not include the many civilian personnel employed in the base offices, hospitals, warehouses, mechanics and carpenters.
On September 26, 1941, foggy conditions at the former downtown municipal airport (formerly located where Independence Park is currently between Goodwood Boulevard, Lobdell, and East Airport) forced an Army O-47 observation plane to make an unscheduled – historic first – landing on the incomplete base north of town. The plane was piloted by 1st Lt. J.B. Thomas with 2nd Lt. C.A. Thorpe, observer and Pfc. J.E. Duval, gunner. When the field was officially opened, the first official landing was made by Lt. Col. Cornelius E. O’Connor who landed in a B-18.
In August of 1948, under the US Surplus Act of 1944, for the disposition of government surplus airports, airport facilities and equipment, and to assure their disposition in such a manner as would best encourage and foster the development of civil aviation and preserve for national defense purposes a strong, efficient, and properly maintained nation-wide system of public airports, Harding Field became a public airport for civilian use serving the Baton Rouge Metropolitan area.
The airport retained the name of Harding Field until March 10, 1954. On this day, the Parish Council of East Baton Rouge, acting upon the unanimous recommendation of the East Baton Rouge Airport Commission, that Harding Field shall in the future be known as Ryan Airport in memory of Captain William Joseph Ryan. A plaque containing the resolution identifies some of Captain Ryan’s contributions and achievements are hung in the Airport Terminal Building today.
In 1969, the City-Parish Government saw fit to create an Airport Authority by establishing Act No. 151 of the 1969 Louisiana Legislative Session it was then that The Greater Baton Rouge Airport District came into existence. Members of the Authority consist of the Mayor-President and Council of the Parish of East Baton Rouge. Seated under this Authority is a twelve member "Board of Commissioners" which is responsible for recommending to the Authority the selection of airport sites, and facilities and for the operation and administration of the airport, and have all the powers to act as the Governing Authority of the district as authorized in Act 151. However, the Authority retains the power to suspend or rescind any action or proposed action by the Commission.
More recently, May 13, 1981, Ryan Airport's name was changed and is now officially Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport, Ryan Field. Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport has experienced various patterns of growth since its inception in August of 1948.
As part of Act No. 151, the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport is an agency of the City-Parish Government; however, it operates as an enterprise fund and generates its own revenues. It does not receive money from the City-Parish general fund and therefore is self-supporting.