Tulsa Airport History: A Fascinating Glimpse Back in Time

Updated on February 14, 2018
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Eric Standridge is a freelance writer with an interest in history. His main focus is writing about Oklahoma.

Duncan A. McIntyre and Tulsa’s Finest Airport

The history of Tulsa’s airport begins in 1919 with Duncan A. McIntyre. A native of New Zealand and an avid aviator, McIntyre flew in to Tulsa to visit an old army buddy.

At this time, progress in Tulsa was in full bloom. Close to twenty years earlier, Tulsa had gained international fame by becoming designated as the “Oil Capital of the World”. With the discovery of oil at the Red Fork Field secured Tulsa’s presence in the world economy.

In the following years, Tulsa quickly became a major hub of industry. In 1920, the Morning Tulsa Daily World reported that there were 48 millionaires living within the city. By the time McIntyre arrived, he saw a lively and bustling city with no signs of slowing down. He had intended to only stay a few days in the city before continuing on to Spokane, Washington. Those few days must have had quite an impact on McIntyre.

By this time, Tulsa had grown to a city with 75,000 people. There were rail lines and automobiles, trolley systems and even bus routes. With all of this progress, there was only one thing that Tulsa was missing; an airport.

McIntyre Field was the first of its kind in the region. Initially established at Apache and Memorial, Tulsa’s first modern airport opened on August 22, 1919. When established, the air field was located on the outskirts of the city. The railroad was located around a mile to the south.

As anticipated, the success of the airport was astounding. He purchased an 80 acre tract at the corner of Admiral Place and Sheridan Avenue. After the purchase, he established a private airport that consisted of three modern hangers that housed 40 aircraft. He ran beacons down the dirt lanes to help during bad weather or night time landings. Most airports in Oklahoma consisted of grassy fields, with little established for safety or the comfort of pilots. His foresight and planning established McIntyre Field as one of the finest airports in Oklahoma.

In addition to the advanced facilities, McIntyre also offered charter services, flying lessons, and mechanical services. For those flying in from out of town, he also secured them rooms in some of the area’s best hotels and helped provide them with a comfortable stay. For the wealthy oilmen of the area, this was a great boon to business. Before the airport was established, the quickest way to get to Tulsa was by railcar. Now, trips that would take days were narrowed down to hours.

Tulsa, 1918
Tulsa, 1918 | Source

The Growth of McIntyre Airport

The origins of aircraft manufacturing begin in 1906. That year, Tulsans Jimmie Jones and Bill Stringer partnered to design their own airplane. Unfortunately, this never came to pass. While they had built an early aircraft, it never flew. Before they could test it, a large thunderstorm rolled in and destroyed their only prototype.

While interest in aircraft design and manufacturing was still there, it wasn’t until October 25, 1926 that the industry really took off. That year, Willis C. Brown took to the air in a homemade design that local residents dubbed “Brown’s Mule”. Brown had teamed up with Waldo Emery a few years before to design the new airplane. It was built in Emery’s shop at 915 N. Wheeling. Once completed, they hauled it out to McIntyre field to begin test runs. The tests were so successful that they formed the Mid-Continent Aircraft Company to manufacture the new airplanes.

McIntyre Field saw its busiest year in 1927.

On July 9th, thousands of Tulsans flocked to the field to witness the Ford Reliability Tour. Officially named "The National Air Tour for the Edsel B. Ford Reliability Trophy", this competition sponsored by Ford helped push the boundaries of aviation. Fourteen of the best airplanes flew over 4,000 miles in a circuit starting and ending at the Ford Airport in Dearborn, Michigan. From Michigan, pilots visited 26 airports across the country. They first headed east towards Massachusetts before turning west towards Texas and Oklahoma. As this was the start of the golden age of aircraft, huge crowds followed the routes of these brave pilots, and even more tuned in on home radios.

Two months later, McIntyre Field saw an even bigger event. On September 30, 1927, Charles Lindbergh arrived in Poteau. In part due to the success of The National Air Tour, Chamber of Commerce president William G. Skelly contacted Lindbergh and persuaded him to fly in to McIntyre Field and visit the bustling city of Tulsa. Skelly was a wealthy oilman and an avid follower of the young aviation industry. While he wasn’t a pilot himself, he saw the potential impact of the airline industry in Tulsa.

Lindbergh frequently visited Oklahoma. On previous trips, he landed at the Oklahoma City Municipal Airport, Bartlesville Municipal Airport, and Muskogee’s Hatbox Field. By now, these airports were much larger and more modern as compared to the privately owned McIntyre field.

In a banquet given in his honor the night before, Lindbergh addressed this. After landing at McIntyre’s airport, Lindbergh praised Duncan McIntyre on how much he had accomplished. At the same time, he criticized the city leaders of Tulsa for not establishing a public municipal airport.

William Skelly, perhaps embarrassed by Lindbergh’s remarks, set about convincing other city leaders of the importance of having a city-owned municipal airport. Within a year, Tulsa established its first public municipal airport.

McIntyre Airport, 1928
McIntyre Airport, 1928 | Source

Although a municipal field will be a reality within a few months, McIntyre has made aviation possible in Tulsa largely through the private maintenance of a well-equipped airport.

McIntyre first conceived the establishment of a commercial airport here, conquered skepticism and other obstacles to get sufficient finances for his idea and stuck with his dream until he had gained national recognition as a successful operator in commercial aviation.

— Tulsa World, May 14, 1928
Spirit of St. Louis at the McIntyre Field, 1928
Spirit of St. Louis at the McIntyre Field, 1928 | Source

Tulsa Municipal Airport Established

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, new airports were being established all across the country. Much of this was due to the heroic pursuits of aviation legends such as Charles Lindbergh. While his visit inspired the creation of the Tulsa Municipal Airport, it was Henry Ford that set the date.

At the Ford plant in Michigan, by January, planning for the fourth Ford Air Tours was well underway. In 1927, only fourteen airplanes had participated. The privately owned McIntyre field was sufficient for that number. For 1928, planners estimated that over 50 aviators would take part. When Skelly contacted the event organizers to ensure that Tulsa would play host again, he was told that the airport was simply too small. To be able to participate, McIntyre Field would have to be able to accommodate at least 50 airplanes, as well as offer the facilities to service them. This pushed Skelly into action. He promised that Tulsa would be ready and secured the town’s spot on the map.

Shortly after speaking with the event planners for the Ford Air Tour, Skelly founded Spartan Aircraft Company. In January, 1928, Skelly bought out the Mid-Continent Aircraft Company owned by Emery and Brown. While Mid-Continent had flourished in 1926, it began to decline after the initial models were rolled out. Knowing that a new municipal airport was in the works, Skelly saw a great investment opportunity. After founding Spartan Aircraft, he also established the Spartan School of aeronautics. The purpose of the school was to promote Spartan Aircraft, however, it grew to become one of the most advanced aviation schools in the country.

At the same time of founding Spartan Aircraft, Skelly galvanized 47 of the wealthiest businessmen in Tulsa into action. Skelly got them to sign a promissory note for the amount of $172,000. This note, dubbed a “Stud Horse Note” is similar to promissory notes used by groups of farmers to underwrite the purchase of a stud horse. This money allowed the city to purchase 320 acres of land near Sheridan and Apache.

After the land was purchased, there was little time left before the aviators with the Ford Air Tours were due to land. With only a couple weeks to spare, a large wheat field was quickly converted into an airport. Two runways were cleared within the field and an aircraft barn was constructed for maintenance and reception.

This was all done just in time. On July 3, 1928, Tulsa’s Municipal Airport roared to life. Now officially open, the new airport played host to more than 50 of the most modern aircraft in the world.

Within a year Tulsa’s Airport was claimed to be the busiest in the world. This was due in part to the great oil boom of the 1920’s, as well as the city’s central location in the country. During its first year and a half, the airport saw 70,895 people. In Febuary 1930, the Tulsa Airport outpaced London, Berlin, and Paris in passenger totals. During the early 1930’s, Tulsa played host to Braniff Airways, TWA, and American Airlines, among others.

While the Tulsa Airport flourished, the McIntyre field languished. It was sold for $350,000 to Garland Airport and the two merged to become the McIntyre Airport Company. It was located at 51st and Sheridan. McIntyre continued to run it as president for a number of years. He remained in business until 1940 when he accepted a position with Lockheed and moved to California.

Tulsa Airport Terminal, 1930s
Tulsa Airport Terminal, 1930s | Source
Overview of the Tulsa Airport, assumed to be 1930s - 1940s
Overview of the Tulsa Airport, assumed to be 1930s - 1940s | Source

Legends, Art Deco and World War II

Tulsa’s original depot was a shabby one-story wood and tar paper building. Resembling that of a warehouse, it didn’t showcase Tulsa’s progressive nature.

City leaders wanted to provide a more suitable structure that also represented Tulsa. As the prevailing architectural designs downtown were centered on the Art Deco style, they wanted to extend this to the new airport terminal. In 1932, the new Tulsa airport terminal opened. This was a major upgrade from the old. It offered a large space and was topped with an ornate control tower. The inside was decorated by Charles Short in early-day aviation photographs.

By this time, Tulsa’s airport had become an airline hub for the nation. Several airplane manufacturers had relocated to the city and the aeronautical school was considered one of the best in the nation. Even with the effects of the Great Depression lingering on, the airport did exceedingly well.

In 1940, just prior to the U.S.’s involvement in World War II, the 138th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard was organized at the airport. A year later, on Jaunuary 4th, the War Department invested $15 million dollars in establishing Air Force Plant number 3. This plant was operated by Douglas Aircraft. They manufactured bombers for the United States Air Force from 1942 until the end of World War II in 1945.

The legends that surround the airport and the Air Force plant during World War II are numerous. While it is now common knowledge that there are tunnels under Tulsa, there are many stories of bunkers built under the airport. One legend relates how military personal would move from the base to the underground bunkers by long tunnels. During the war, prisoners of war would be flown in to the airport and then taken to one of the many POW camps throughout Oklahoma. Another legend speaks of a secret POW camp hidden underground that was reserved for some of the worst war criminals. However, concrete evidence of this has yet to be found.

One of the most outlandish legends is also one that holds the most truth. Following the Lindbergh Kidnapping, many tunnels were created under Tulsa. Around the same time, an ambitious project to create a subway was in the works that would link downtown, the railroad depot, and the airport together. Originally conceived in the early 1930’s, this plan took on serious consideration during World War II. Schematics and blueprints were drawn up for the project; however, nothing ever came of it.

The Denison and Tulsa Districts built facilities needed to mobilize a nation at war.
The Denison and Tulsa Districts built facilities needed to mobilize a nation at war. | Source
Aerial view of Tulsa's massive aircraft assembly plant.
Aerial view of Tulsa's massive aircraft assembly plant. | Source

The Tulsa Airport, Post-war

The airport and surrounding areas saw significant growth during the war years, and continued to have strong growth for many years to come.

In 1946, American Airlines purchased two hangers that belonged to the Air Force to establish a maintenance and engineering base.

The Air Force Plant was reactivated in 1950 at the start of the cold war. In 1960, McDonnell Douglas began using the plant for aircraft maintenance while Rockwell International leased a portion to manufacture aerospace products. McDonnell Douglas ended its lease in 1996 and during the same year, Boeing purchased Rockwell International’s aerospace business.

During the late 1950’s, the Tulsa Airport handled flights from American, Braniff, Continental, Central, and TWA. As the Tulsa Airport continued to grow it soon became apparent that the old airline terminal was simply too small. The city contacted Murray Jones Murray to design a new one. Workers broke ground on the new terminal in November 1958. After three long years, Tulsa’s new airport terminal opened on November 16, 1961. Two years later, on August 28, 1963, the facility was given a new name, the Tulsa International Airport. Following the upgrades, by 1980, Frontier Airlines, Scheduled Skyways and Texas International Airlines were added to the list of airlines that flew in and out of Tulsa.

In 1998, to honor Tulsa’s aviation history, the Tulsa Air and Space museum was established on the northwest side of the airport. A large IMAX planetarium was also added to the facility in 2006.

Today, the Tulsa International Airport continues to be one of the most used, most modern airports in the country. With its rich history and innovative designs, it will continue to play a large role in the future of both Tulsa and the state.

Tulsa Airport Postcard, Date Unknown
Tulsa Airport Postcard, Date Unknown
Tulsa Airport Postcard, Date Unknown
Tulsa Airport Postcard, Date Unknown

Sources

  • Oklahoma Historical Society
  • Oklahoma Corporation Commission
  • Tulsa World
  • Tulsa Air and Space Museum
  • On-site interviews

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      Eurofile 11 days ago

      A very informative article, charting the growth of air travel and the airport in Tulsa. A lot of interesting information packed into a very readable piece.

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