Greater Tulsa Reporter
AND SO IT BEGAN: This is the original Tulsa Municipal Airport terminal building that was built to satisfy the requirements of Charles Lindbergh’s Ford Reliability Tour. Nothing but a wood and tarpaper shack, it had all the necessary amenities and served the airport until a handsome and more up to date Art Deco style terminal was competed in 1932. Parked in the back on the tarmac are the Ford Trimotors of Lindbergh’s national tour.
Editors Note: This is the 16th article in a multi-part series about the growth of the aviation industry in greater Tulsa and throughout the region. The series explores the many unique contributions made by Tulsans to what has become a major aspect of the area economy. The editors of GTR Newspapers want to acknowledge and thank the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and the Tulsa Historic Society for research assistance and the use of many of the historic photos that accompany these articles.
Expansion plans for American Airlines and Spirit AeroSystems, Inc. at Tulsa International Airport were recently reported in Tulsa area media. Funding help for the new construction and renovation of an existing hangar came out of Vision 2025 funds approved by Tulsa County voters in 2003. This public/private collaboration will create new jobs in the area, secure both companies continued presences at Tulsa International Airport and add another chapter to the on-going story of the longtime mutually beneficial affiliation between the City of Tulsa and its municipal airport.
It is doubtful Tulsa would have been an early-adaptor to the infant aviation industry back in the early 1920s without the influence of Tulsa’s emerging oil industry. The city’s first generation of oil barons had the vision to see the economic impact and potential of aviation. They saw new market possibilities for fuels and lubricants. They wanted Tulsa and Oklahoma in the forefront of aviation and they had the leadership skills and the financial resources to make it happen. From their early efforts a symbiotic relationship grew between the city and its aviation industry. Much evidence of this is in the history of the city’s municipal airport. It is a story full of moments in which the city and the airport experienced the mutual benefits of each other.
The first such moment came in 1927 when Charles (Lucky Lindy) Lindbergh landed at Tulsa’s privately owned McIntyre Airport at the urging of oil executive and city leader W.G. Skelly. Lindbergh was on a victory lap/aviation-promoting tour of the country following his historic solo flight across the Atlantic. His visit and the message he brought confirmed the suspicions of many city leaders that commercial aviation was the future of travel. Skelly, invariably the city’s early day aviation man of the hour, coaxed, prodded and persuaded a bevy of the city’s movers and shakers to kick in substantial sums of private dollars to purchase a 390 acre tract of farmland south of Mohawk Park that became Tulsa Municipal Airport in less than a year. Not long thereafter the voters of Tulsa choose to pick up the tab through a bond issue. After all, it was everyone’s airport. Thus began a partnership that would continue for the next eight decades and repeatedly positioned the city and its airport to be center stage for one of the country’s greatest dramas: the growth of American aviation.
As the 1930s rolled in, the barnstorming era of aviation faded with its fearless flyers showing off their repertoire of novelty feats of daring flight to spellbound audiences. What replaced the early era would become known as the “Golden Age of American Aviation.” It would be an age characterized by the pioneering giants of early aviation funded by their counterparts in the oil industry, pushing the envelope and pushing aviation ahead by leaps and bounds. At the beginning of the 1930s there were five operational airports around the city, but Tulsa Municipal Airport with its newly completed, stunningly contemporary art deco style terminal and pilots hotel dubbed “The Ye Slippe Inn,” was often the destination for aviation pioneers to stopover on their way to their next major event and pay respects to the many Oklahoma aviation financiers. The footprints of Amelia Erhart, Willy Post, Will Rogers, Harold Gatty, Erle Halliburton and General Billy Mitchell all graced the tarmac of the city’s airport. This in turn provided ample national and worldwide attention to the “Oil Capital of the World.”
The 1940s brought WWII and by then Tulsa Municipal Airport had grown its capacity to accommodate the bigger and faster airplanes of the Golden Age. Sometimes the funding for the growth would come from the city’s private sector, sometimes from the federal government and often from the public coffers of the city through bond issues. But over the years there was rarely a hesitation by either the local public or private sector to invest in one of the city’s greatest assets. Consequently when the U.S. entered the war, Tulsa’s up- to-date airport with pilot and aviation mechanic training centers such as Spartan Aviation already in place, large tracts of unused land plus being more securely located in the geographic center of the country made Tulsa Municipal Airport a prime candidate for wartime aviation contracts. But it would still take considerable lobbying efforts by J. Paul Getty and other elected officials to finally land funding to build Air Force Plant no. 3, a behemoth structure built in record time by a company called Manhattan Construction Company of Tulsa.
During the war and into the postwar years the airport continued evolving to meet the ever-changing needs of America’s wartime, peacetime and Cold War aviation. Many of the airport’s facilities, designed originally for optimum wartime production, were retrofitted to service and upgrade emerging fleets of modern jet propelled aircraft for both military and commercial use. Displayed on the buildings spotted about the airport were the grand names of American aviation such as Rockwell, Douglas, Boeing and American Airlines. The airport that had once hosted aviation’s pioneering giants now welcomed large lumbering strategic bombers and commercial airliners, products of the Cold War era and a prosperous post war economy.
As the 1960s approached it became apparent to city leaders that the airport was in dire need of a modern day terminal, one more commensurate with the stature of the city and the airport. To that end they embarked on a program to modernize the airport to help maintain economic viability for both the airport and Tulsa. In 1958 control of the airport was shifted from The Park Board to the newly formed Tulsa Airport Authority. By November of 1959, the Airport Authority in conjunction with the City of Tulsa broke ground for a new state of the art terminal building and on Nov. 16, 1961 the terminal was dedicated along with a new cargo building, control tower and parking aprons. Air traffic at Tulsa Municipal Airport was reaching critical mass and something needed to be done to relieve growing congestion among private, corporate and commercial aircraft. The answer came with the opening of Riverside Airport situated across town in Jenks. Later renamed Jones Riverside Airport. it has become the tenth busiest airport of its kind in the world. The changeover to the modern era was complete when on Aug. 28, 1963 Tulsa Municipal Airport changed its name to Tulsa International Airport.
Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s aviation companies in and around the Tulsa International Airport continued to expand, grow and adapt making significant inroads into the emerging aerospace industry and cold war weapon technology. Rockwell International, which later became Boeing North American Aerostructures, took over a portion of AF Plant no. 3 to begin producing components for the Apollo/Saturn program while contributing to the B-1A bomber program, the Tomahawk missile, the Bell/Boeing tilt-rotor prototype air craft, the Hound Dog Missile system, the Navy’s AEGIS antenna, the Peacekeeper missile, the Sikorsky CH-35E helicopter and finally the B-1B bomber program.
The City of Tulsa and Tulsa International Airport have always needed each other to maintain economic viability for the region. Currently the airport terminal is in the process of yet another revitalization effort designed to increase ease of access and user friendliness. A city’s municipal airport often provides the first impression of a city to newcomers. Visitors arriving by plane to Tulsa International Airport see a facility on the move, keeping up with the demands of a vibrant growing city. And that’s the way it has always been.
The next article in this series will deal with the historic interaction of Tulsa aviation with the U.S. military.