Arizona Skyways Were Sunny & Blue

According to Border Air Museum in Douglas, the first airplane to fly in Arizona was a glider built in 1908 by Douglas Aeronautical Club members.  They added an engine the following year and in 1913 the by then obsolete design bombed Mexico for General Pershing’s troops.  The 1908 Territorial Fair at Phoenix featured a balloon ascension and a dirigible appeared at the 1909 fair.  Also in 1909, a glider was exhibited and towed briefly aloft.  Powered aircraft showed up in Phoenix for only the second Aviation Meet in the whole country, 10-12 February 1910 at the fairgrounds.  Two pilots in Curtiss biplanes made several flights, once carrying a passenger and twice racing automobiles.  One of the planes then went on to Tucson later that month.  Katherine Stinson (1891-1977), the first woman to fly airmail in the US and the first pilot to fly at night, delivered airmail to Tucson in November 1915.  That was another first for Arizona.

Standard Air Lines Fokker UniversalAero Corporation of California established Standard Air Lines to fly the “Fair Weather Route” from Los Angeles to Phoenix, Tucson, Douglas and El Paso, beginning 28 November 1927.  It was Arizona’s first scheduled airline service.  Standard was sold to Western Air Express in March 1930.  By complicated business deals American Airlines would get Standard’s southern Arizona route while WAE would become TWA with the transcontinental route across northern Arizona.  Fokker Universal registration number C-3317, construction number 426 was manufactured in October 1927 by Atlantic Aircraft Corporation, Teterboro Airport, Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey and fitted with a Wright J-5 engine.  The pilot flew in an open cockpit at the leading edge of the wing.  An enclosed cabin accommodated 4-6 passengers.  Aero Corporation of California purchased the machine 23 November 1927 and featured it in Standard Air Lines advertising, including the 1929 timetable cover shown here.  It flew very well for Standard from December 1927 through December 1929.  By 1932 the aircraft had been repossessed by the bank, after passing through a number of private owners and establishing a 40-hour endurance record September 28-30, 1932 with aerial refueling.  The history of the plane ends following a minor crash in Los Angeles 17 November 1933.  

Scenic Airways trimotorJ. Parker Van Zandt (1894-1990) established Scenic Airways in 1927 to fly tourists over the Grand Canyon.  A single-engine Stinson SM-1 Detroiter and a Ford Trimotor were based at Red Butte airport 13 miles south of the south rim of the canyon.  This photo from the University of Wyoming collection shows boarding of the Ford 4-AT-B Trimotor NC5493, probably at Red Butte.  The company name changed to Grand Canyon Airlines in 1930 and remains in business as the world’s oldest air tour service in continuous operation.  An air tour service with almost the same name, Scenic Airlines, started up in Las Vegas in 1967.  Through mergers Scenic Airlines operated scheduled passenger service for a time but returned to tours in 2006 and was sold to Grand Canyon Airlines in 2007.  Scenic Airlines was completely absorbed by Grand Canyon Airlines in 2009. 

Phoenix opened a municipal airport in 1926 on Christy Road (McDowell west of Six Points, near 59th Avenue).  Scenic Airways chose a location across town to build 1928-1929 Sky Harbor Field but then pulled out and sold the new airport in 1930 to a firm called Acme.  American Airlines began scheduled flights at Sky Harbor the same year.  Also in 1930, Desert Airways was operating from Phoenix South Central Airport (gone now, site of Rio Salado Park).  In 1935, the City of Phoenix purchased Sky Harbor, abandoning its Christy facility.  It was a chaotic time during the early development of commercial aviation, just as the economy collapsed into the Great Depression.  Still, within a few years airline travel would emerge on a firm footing only to be disrupted again, this time by world war.  Throughout the 1930s American Airlines continued to fly the old Standard Air Lines route, providing flights from Los Angeles and Texas into Phoenix Sky Harbor, Tucson and Douglas.  In 1938, TWA connected Phoenix with San Francisco.

AmerAirlines Arizona adFlying upscale vacationers to the Sun Country became a viable alternative to train, bus and auto transportation with the introduction of twin-engine Douglas DC-3 aircraft, the first airliner to consistently earn a profit.  In 1929 Aviation Corporation began acquiring and consolidating a number of smaller carriers.  These subsidiaries were combined in 1930 to form American Airways Inc., which became American Airlines in 1934.  As this ad from around 1940 shows, American Airlines DC-3 Flagship Skysleepers connected the east and west coasts with Tucson and Phoenix, providing the “American Standard of Service.”

Flagship Texas at TucsonDuring a visit to Tucson in February 1940, Charles W. Cushman (1896-1972) snapped this photo of American Airlines Flagship Skysleeper Texas refueling at Davis-Monthan Aviation Field before it became a military base.  It sure illustrates the clear flying weather in an Arizona winter, conditions which attracted the industry.  And the warm winters brought visitors to the many guest ranches and resorts in southern Arizona.  Many of these guests could afford to fly.  Flagship Texas, NC14988 c/n 1494, was the first of 10 DST-114 models for American Airlines ordered in 1935.  Douglas Sleeper Transports began flying through night skies 18 September 1936.  Small windows for the upper berths make the DST easy to spot.  Repaired after two minor accidents in 1938, Flagship Texas was sold to TWA in May 1942.  In July 1942 the Army Air Force converted NC14988 into a C-49E troop transport (USAAF 42-43619) and on October 15, 1942 it crashed and burned in Missouri, killing the one pilot on board.  (Photo from Indiana University Archives, Cushman collection.)

Douglas AT-17World War II brought a number of air bases to Arizona, giving the state an important role in pilot training that has endured.  At Douglas Army Airfield, about 10 miles north of Douglas, Arizona, pilots earned their twin-engine rating during World War II in B-25 bombers and the AT-17, pictured here from a 1943 Douglas cadet yearbook.  Fabric covering over wood construction and a tubular steel frame earned the Cessna AT-17 Bobcat the nickname “Bamboo Bomber.”  Based on the civilian T-50 that first flew in 1939, the cheap construction allowed the military to purchase 4,600 Bobcats during the war.  Following the war, surplus Bobcats were acquired by general aviation owners.  It was known as an easy plane to fly.  Douglas Army Airfield was constructed 1941-1943.  It was one of only four Army Air Fields in the US to include both African-American soldiers and WACs, and was the second air field to receive black WACs.  It became Bisbee-Douglas International Airport in 1949, supplementing Douglas Municipal Airport, established in 1928 closer to town.

Williams Field flight lineWilliams Army Airfield was built southeast of Mesa in 1941.  Named for 1st Lt. Charles Linton Williams (1898–1927), the facility trained pilots, gunners and radar observers.  The planes shown are Curtiss-Wright AT-9 “Jeeps,” twin-engine trainers for bomber pilots.  Built 1941-1943, the compact little aircraft were designed to be difficult to fly in order to challenge pilots who would go on to more powerful machines under harrowing combat conditions.  Williams Field airmen also trained in Beech AT-10s, Cessna AT-17s, Lockheed P-38s and North American AT-6s.  There were nearly 200 AT-9s at Williams when this Genuine Curteich-Chicago, C.T. Art-Colortone postcard was printed in 1943.  The card was produced for distribution by Lollesgard Specialty Co. of Tucson.  After the war, Williams Field continued to train pilots and gunners, adding the new jets to the flight line.  In 1948 the airfield became Williams Air Force Base for advanced single-engine training.  The base closed 30 September 1993 but transitioned to commercial aviation as Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.  

Luke Field en echelonLitchfield Park Air Base was constructed 15 miles west of Phoenix in 1941 and renamed that same year for Medal of Honor recipient 2nd Lt. Frank Luke, Jr. (1897–1918).  Advanced flight training in the AT-6 began immediately.  It became the largest fighter training base of World War II.  In this illustration from a 1943 squadron yearbook, three training aircraft from Luke Field fly en echelon over the Arizona desert.  From top to bottom, the planes are a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, the older Curtiss P-36 Hawk and a North American Aviation AT-6 Texan.  Though its performance fell short of newer designs, the P-40 saw extensive combat operation during World War II as a low-level air superiority platform.  The P-36 was obsolete for combat deployment but useful for training while the AT-6 became the most popular and enduring advanced single-engine trainer.  With the end of hostilities, Luke Field was deactivated 30 November 1946 but then, after the outbreak of the Korean War, reactivated 1 February 1951 as Luke Air Force Base.  The facility has endured to become the largest fighter training base in the world, transitioning recently from emphasis on the F-16 Fighting Falcon to the F-35 Lightning II.  In addition to Douglas, Williams and Luke, there were Army airfields during the Second World War at Tucson, Glendale, Goodyear, Mesa, Prescott, Kingman, Winslow and Yuma, supported by dozens of auxiliary landing strips. 

Winslow TWA DC-3With US entry into World War II, commercial airline service became vital to the war effort but suffered from withdrawal of some of the newest and largest planes for military operation.  Airlines turned over about half their planes to the military and new DC-4 and Lockheed Constellation models would not be available for civilian use until after the war.  But repair and maintenance of remaining aircraft like the DC-3 pictured at Winslow in this TWA advertisement continued with renewed motivation.  “Buy Liberty Bonds,” urges the slogan painted within the TWA arrow logo.  (See the Winslow history posted 9/12/11 for another view of the TWA hangar.)

Following World War II Arizona experienced a population explosion driving the rapid development of all forms of transportation.  Both private and commercial aviation benefited from a large supply of cheap war-surplus planes.  And the cost of airline travel fell enough to increase the number of passengers.  As a result, a number of local airlines were born in the state, while the national carriers expanded flight schedules through Phoenix and Tucson.

PHX Sky Harbor 1940sThis postcard from about 1947 shows the oldest Phoenix Sky Harbor terminal that used to be located on the north side of the runway that became the civil aviation runway in the 1960s and is now the site of Runway 8-26.  The SPRR tracks are running in the line of low trees behind the terminal, with Washington Street far in the distance.  The houses at upper left are on Madison and Jackson.  By the late 1930s, Sky Harbor offered fly-in weddings at the outdoor chapel visible between the two palm trees.  There was a control tower attached to a hanger out of view at right.  Intermountain Tourist Supply of Salt Lake City distributed the Kodachrome postcard by Mike Roberts.  A caption on the back says: “Sky Haven Airport [sic.] and Sky Chef Café. . . .  Scheduled flights by swift modern airliners connect the Phoenix Sky Haven Airport with all parts of the world.”  Sky Chef Cafe, was operated by Skychefs Inc., a subsidiary of American Airlines.  Later, Sky Harbor offered a Sky Chief dining room.

Arizona Airways DC-3H. O. Rocky Nelson (1905-1951) formed Arizona Airways 8 September 1942 in Safford.  Scenic tours of northern Arizona began in March 1946, then, scheduled service across the state with three Douglas DC-3s.  The company got an airmail contract in 1948 but was unable to sustain financial viability and merged with Monarch Airlines in 1949 and then Challenger Airlines to form Frontier Airlines in 1950.  The Douglas DC-3C, c/n 6053, registered as NC75028, is shown boarding, probably at Clifton.  The passengers are entering through the forward half of the double cargo door.  The aircraft was built in 1942 for the US Army as a C-47 cargo plane.  Acquired as surplus after the war, it flew with Arizona Airways 1946-1950 then as Frontier Sunliner Teton.  Southeast Airlines of Miami, Florida exported the aircraft in 1967 to Surinam where it flew under KLM Aerocarto registration as PZ-TLC.  Flying as TG-AXA with Aviateca Guatamala beginning in March 1979, it finally ran off the runway and nosed over after a tire blew while landing at Carmelita.  There is no record of it being returned to service.  

Bonanza DC-3Bonanza Air Lines was established in Las Vegas in 1945 and began flying a Reno-Las Vegas-Phoenix route in 1949.  Flights to Los Angeles were added in July 1952 and ten DC-3 aircraft like the one pictured were flying Bonanza colors by 1957.  In 1944, Florence Murphy (1911-2006) of Las Vegas was the first woman in Nevada to earn a commercial pilot’s license.  She joined Bonanza Air Lines in 1946 to fly DC-3s and became the only female airline vice president in the country.  She left the airline in 1958 to go into real estate.  In 1958 and 1959 Bonanza expanded flights to Los Angeles LAX and began replacing DC-3s with Fairchild F-27s. This Dick Hurley photo published as a postcard by Aviation World Inc. of Bethel, Connecticut shows the new white, orange and black livery on N485 c/n 4848.  I think the drum and hose contraption going to the airmail door is a portable air conditioner.  The location is probably sweltering Phoenix.  Before the color change the DC-3A had been numbered N15564.  After first flying for the Army in 1942 as a C-53-DO the aircraft was with Bonanza 1957-1963.  It then went to Edde Airlines and crashed into a hill in a snowstorm 27 November 1965 about five minutes after takeoff from Salt Lake City International.  All four crew and nine passengers were killed.

PHX Sky Harbor apronRunways at Sky Harbor were realigned and a completely new, million-dollar terminal opened in 1952, located about a half-mile south of the old terminal.  It featured a 50,000 square-foot terminal building, a 107-foot control tower on top of an unusual tubular support, an 850-car parking lot and 10-plane parking apron providing 44 flights a day.  There were three runways now, each over a mile long.  This Curteich-Chicago, C. T. Art-Colortone postcard issued in 1953 shows two American Airlines DC-6 Mainliners in the foreground and a TWA Constellation at right.  The smallest airliner is a DC-3, a type flown into Sky Harbor at the time by both Bonanza and Frontier Airlines.  A number of private planes are tied down northeast of the parking lot.  The former terminal, out of view at left, had become an industrial park.  Skyriders Hotel, later Sheraton Sky Riders, “the nation’s first airport hotel,” opened on the west side of the terminal in 1954.

Luke AFB F-84F ThunderstreaksThe Republic F-84 Thunderjet was one of the earliest turbojet designs.  It first flew in 1946 and entered service in 1947 but had to overcome a number of airframe and engine problems before it could be considered operational, in 1949—just in time for missions in Korea.  Republic began work that same year on a swept-wing version designated F-84F Thunderstreak, but the final result was really a very different design that first flew in 1952.  Again, bugs had to be worked out and the Thunderstreak was not considered operational until 1954.  In January of that year, F-84Fs began arriving at Luke AFB.  This flight of armed Thunderstreaks cruises over the Goldwater Gunnery Range west of Ajo in 1956.

TWA Super ConnieTranscontinental Air Transport (TAT) was founded in 1928 and began 48-hour coast-to-coast service in July 1929 with Ford Trimotors.  Passengers flew in the clouds by day and slept on a speeding train at night.  Planes stopped at Winslow and Port Kingman in Arizona.  (See Kingman post 6/5/2010 and Winslow 9/12/2011.)  TAT merged with Western Air Express in 1930 to form Transcontinental & Western Air, which became TWA.  Largely through part ownership by Howard Hughes (1905-1976), TWA invested heavily in the Lockheed Constellation for transcontinental and international flights beginning in 1946.  The first TWA constellation arrived at Sky Harbor late in December 1946.  In 1953, TWA Constellations began the first Los Angeles to New York non-stop service, making the trip in eight hours, with a view of the Grand Canyon along the way as shown on this postcard from the time.

Many other airlines achieved some degree of success or failure in Arizona over the years.  Gilpin Air Lines (1931-1934) built its own airport in north Tucson.  America West Airlines (1983-2005) maintained a Phoenix hub and corporate headquarters in Tempe, now headquarters for its descendent, US Airways.  Frontier (1950-1987) brought air travel to several smaller cities in Arizona, followed by Apache Airlines (1957-1970), Sun Aire Lines (1968-1984), Cochise (1971-ca.1982), Skywest (1972- ), Copper State Airlines (1980-1982), Sun West (ca.1980-1985) and Mesa Airlines (1980- ).  New corporations have recently resurrected two old business names:  Arizona Airways (1993-1998) and Frontier (1994- ).  The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 continued government subsidies for airline service, a practice dating to the airmail contracts of the 1920s, but removed caps on pricing.  That law, and recent swings in commodity prices brought volatility to the industry. 

General aviation, the private companion to the commercial aviation industry has always been strong in Arizona.  Deer Valley Airport, a Phoenix municipal facility, is now the country’s busiest general aviation harbor.  Long ago, Arizona’s mild weather encouraged innovation in the air.  Lake Havasu City began as a fly-in recreational site without automobile access.  Then, even after highways were extended, developers created their own airline to drop in prospective homebuyers for tours of lakefront lots.  (See the 6/14/2010, Lake Havasu City posting on this blog.)  Stellar Airpark, just north of Loop 202 at McClintock in Chandler, was created in the 1970s as an aerospace age subdivision where commuters taxied light planes right to their homes.  It has been expanded and maintained in recent years. 

Bonanza F-27 Silver DartThe outlook remained sunny for Bonanza when this Silver Dart was photographed over Hoover Dam, probably in the 1960s.  The first of 11 Fokker F-27 twin turbo-props, or “prop-jets,” manufactured in the USA by Fairchild, arrived in 1959 and after November 1960 Bonanza advertised itself as the “first all jet-powered airline in America.”  The airline’s first fatal crash came in 1964, but it continued to grow its business nevertheless.  Fairchild F-27A, N149L first flew in 1959 and joined the Bonanza fleet in September of that year.  On 8 December 1965 the aircraft suffered substantial damage when the gear retracted during the landing roll at Yuma but it was repaired and returned to service.  AirWest sold the plane in 1980 and it flew for Aeronor Chile under the registration CC-CJE.  The left engine quit and the airliner stalled on final approach to La Serena 9 December 1982 and crashed and burned short of the runway, killing all 46 occupants.  According to one source, it remains the worst loss involving a Fairchild F-27 and the second worst accident ever in Chile.

PHX Terminal TwoAmerican Airlines inaugurated daily jet service to Phoenix in September 1960 and TWA followed in January 1961.  Terminal 2, built at a cost of about $2.7 million, opened in April 1962.  At the time, 13 Arizona airports were served by eight airlines.  American Airlines, Apache Airlines, Bonanza, Continental, Frontier, Trans-World and Western Airlines variously offered service at Clifton, Flagstaff, Fort Huachuca, Grand Canyon, Kingman, Page, Prescott, Phoenix, Safford, Sierra Vista, Tucson, Winslow and Yuma.  And Aeronaves de Mexico connected Tucson with Mexico City.  Bob Petley of Phoenix published the Mike Roberts photo as a postcard in 1962 or 1963, looking northwest toward the skyscrapers on North Central.  Three American Airlines planes are parked on the east side of the gate concourse, including a prop liner.  A far left is a Western Airlines jetliner, followed to the right by two TWA jets and a TWA constellation.  In those days you could walk outside on the roof above the gates and watch planes come and go.  Terminal One with its control tower was demolished in the 1990s.  Terminal Three opened in 1979 and was enlarged in 1984 and Terminal Four opened in 1990.  The Terminal One control tower survives as a feature of the FBO terminal operated by Cutter Aviation on the south side of Sky Harbor, on Old Tower Road.

Davis-Monthan F-84 scrapheapLike so many toys tossed in a heap, once fearsome, now obsolete, straight-wing F-84 jets await the melting pot at Davis-Monthan AFB, disposal yard.  Davis-Monthan Air Force Base was originally constructed in 1927 as Tucson’s second municipal airport, used only occasionally by military aircraft.  Standard Air Lines and then American Airlines planes stopped there daily.  But in 1941 it was rebuilt as an Army Air Force field and it remains a military installation.  A Military Aircraft Storage & Disposition Center was established there in 1945 to mothball surplus aircraft for reuse, salvage parts and scrap obsolete planes.  It’s now called the Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC).  The photo is from a postcard issued in France.

Air West DC-9-31The first Bonanza DC-9 FanJet flight, in 1966, came the same year the airline moved its headquarters and maintenance facility to Phoenix Sky Harbor.  The following year Bonanza merged with West Coast and Pacific Airlines to become Air West Inc.  Howard Hughes purchased Air West in 1970.  Hughes AirWest was sold to Republic Airlines in 1980, which then merged into Northwest.  Douglas DC-9-31, registered as N9335, c/n 47337, was manufactured in October 1968 and delivered to Air West the following month.  It flew scheduled service for more than 30 years for Hughes, Republic and Northwest, accumulating 95,872 hours in the air.  In 2007, the aircraft finally ending up in storage at Marana-Pinal Air Park MZJ, in the desert north of Tucson, along with a number of its sister ships.

Several previous postings on this blog include aviation history:

1956 crash over Grand Canyon posted 10/30/09 in Arizona Apocalypto.

Douglas Army Air Field & airport posted 1/13/10.

Kingman Army Air Field & airport posted 6/5/10.

Lake Havasu City aviation posted 6/14/10.

Phoenix Sky Harbor airport posted 11/7/10.

Tucson International Airport posted 7/16/11.

Yuma aviation posted 11/19/11.

Winslow Lindbergh Field posted 9/12/11.

Prescott Love Field posted 2/20/12.


“A Guide For The Air-Minded,” Arizona Highways, May 1947 (entire issue)

Arizona’s Transportation Dimension, 36th Arizona Town Hall (1980)

Frontier News, Issue #20, Summer 2005

G. W. Hyatt, “Davis-Monthan Airfield Register,” [website]

Edward H. Peplow, Jr., “Skyways of Arizona,” Arizona Highways, Sept. 1956, pp. 14-31

Allen C. Reed, “Sky Harbor,” Arizona Highways, Oct. 1954, pp. 6-13

Jeremy Rowe, “The Man-Birds Fly in Phoenix,” (2000)

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