How do airports get named and will Donald Trump get one?

Donald Trump Airport? Buckle up, it could happen

President Trump has reportedly expressed a wish to have an airport named in his honour. Compared with some of President Trump's other musings, this one is not extreme. It's become almost routine for recent US presidents to have an airport named after them.

The trend began in 1963 when the name of New York City's main airport was changed to John F. Kennedy International Airport, shortly after the president was assassinated. Before that it was Idlewild, after the Idlewild Beach Golf Course which preceded the airport.

Since that time, Gerald Ford (Grand Rapids, Michigan), Bill and Hillary Clinton (Little Rock, Arkansas), Theodore Roosevelt (Dickinson, North Dakota), Ronald Reagan (Arlington, Virginia) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (Wichita, Kansas) all have had airports named after them. George Bush International Airport in Houston, Texas takes its name from George H.W. Bush, father of G.W. Bush who followed in his footsteps as president, and who has yet to have an airport named in his honour. Neither has President Obama, but in both cases that's likely to happen – and years can elapse before a former president's name is linked with aviation infrastructure.

For example, the earliest US president to have an airport named after him is Abraham Lincoln, from whom Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield, capital of Illinois, takes its name. However Lincoln's name was not added until 2004, before that it was simply known as Capital Airport.

What the rest of the world calls its airports

The US is almost alone in routinely naming its airports after its presidents – but then it has a lot of airports. Most nations prefer national historic figures, and so the world has airports named after Napoleon Bonaparte (Ajaccio, France), Alexander the Great (Kavala, Greece), Charles de Gaulle (Paris, France), Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Istanbul, Turkey), David Ben Gurion (Tel Aviv, Israel), Benazir Bhutto (Rawalpini, Pakistan), Indira Gandhi (New Delhi, India), Pope John Paul II (Krakow, Poland), Robin Hood (Doncaster, UK) and the gloriously named General Bernardo O'Higgins Airport in Chile's Chillan. Bernardo O'Higgins was the illegitimate son of Ambrosio O'Higgins and a hero of the struggle to free Chile from the yoke of Spanish rule, thus turning the tables on his father who had been Captain General of Chile under Spain.

Cultural heroes also get a look-in, and here the Greeks make a power play with Aristotelis Airport in Kastoria, named after Aristotle, Hippocrates Airport on the island of Kos and Heraklion's Kazantzakis Airport, after one of the greats of modern Greek literature. Other cultural giants who are celebrated with airports named after them in their home countries include Chopin (Warsaw, Poland), Caravaggio (Bergamo, Italy), Mozart (Salzburg, Austria), John Lennon (Liverpool, UK), Pushkin (Moscow's Sheremetyevo Alexander S. Pushkin Airport) and, a little lower down the cultural hierarchy, Ian Fleming, (Boscobel, Jamaica) although in this case Jamaica was his adopted home.

Louis Armstrong (Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport) is one of the few non-white Americans to have a US airport named in their honour, but women fare even worse. Apart from small number of queens and outstanding political figures, women's names are rare on the list of the world's airports. Some airport names attract controversy, with John Wayne Airport in California's Orange County recently facing a push to rename it due to the actor's racist comments a 1971 interview.

The aviation greats

Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport takes its name from the first aviator to make a transpacific flight between the USA and Australia. Astronauts are commemorated in John Glenn Airport (Columbus, Ohio), and Yuri Gagarin Orenburg Tsentralny Airport in Russia's Orenburg, named after the world's first spaceman.

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The airport at Saint-Denis on the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion is named after the French World War I fighter pilot Roland Garros, who also gives his name to the stadium where the French Open is held. Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia, takes its name from the late Chuck Yeager, the first to fly faster than the speed of sound on a level flight, immortalised in Tom Wolfe's novel The Right Stuff. The Wright Brothers, whom history has anointed as the first to get the business of powered flight off the ground, have just Dayton–Wright Brothers Airport named in their honour, a public airport with just a single runway located 16 kilometres south of Dayton, Ohio.

The airport at New Zealand's Timaru, south-west of Christchurch, gets its name from Richard Pearse, one of aviation's unsung heroes. Even by the startling technical achievements of New Zealanders Richard Pearse stands tall, and I'm not just talking about Simon Jansen's jet-powered beer cooler. Pearse just have might have taken to the skies in a heavier-than-air powered flying machine almost nine months before the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk.

Richard Pearse was a farmer at Timaru. In his most widely circulated photograph he is shown as a woolly-headed fellow gazing into the distance with an intense and distracted air. He was also a self-taught mechanical prodigy. As a youth, Pearse invented a mechanical needle threader for his mother and later, a bicycle with a vertical pedal drive, but his passion was flight. Late in the 1800s, he set about building an aeroplane. In a shed at the back of his farm he built his own lathe and a forge and using bamboo, tubular bicycle frame, wire and canvas, built a monoplane with a 7.5 metre wingspan.

His aircraft incorporated a number of revolutionary features that set it apart from the Wright Brothers' design, such as wing flaps, rear elevators, a single wing rather than a biplane, a propeller at the front of the wing rather than the back and a tricycle undercarriage with a steerable nosewheel. Pearse also built his own horizontally opposed engine, driving a crankshaft connected directly to a propeller which gave him a lightweight 24-horsepower engine.

Possibly on about March 31, 1903, Pearse wheeled his plane out onto the main Waitohe Road, which ran at the front of his family farm, fired up the engine and took off. In a wobbly fashion, his aircraft travelled about 150 metres before it lodged in a gorse hedge.

Now how bright would you have to be to realise that a man flying through the air in a more or less controlled fashion was both wondrous and rare? I know, not very. Because nobody who was there that day thought to photograph the event, write it down in their diary or report it to the local paper. It didn't seem very important. Just that crazy old coot Richard Pearse up to his usual shenanigans.

It was only many years later that those who had been there on the day began to scratch their heads and think "Well I'll be blowed! Maybe Mad Dick Pearse was onto something after all." Thus both the date and the distance Pearse flew rely on the memories of a few elderly and not altogether quick-witted witnesses, but there is at least some evidence that suggests March 1903 as the likely date. Although he built two more flying machines, Pearse faded into obscurity, a backyard tinkerer and locally famous eccentric almost until the day he died in 1953.

How could Donald Trump possibly compete with that?

See also: You can now camp overnight in the world's best airport

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