Tucson’s Red Letter Day

99 years ago, Tucson’s aviation drought came to an end with the creation of the town’s first landing field

Piloting early mechanically powered aircraft across the United States proves thorny for pioneer aviators. Not only do winds, air pockets, temperature variations, and the like challenge flyers, but their land-bound demands often come even harder met. Finding a flat enough, relatively rockless enough, firm enough, wide enough and long enough piece of ground for a successful landing proves no easy task. Once on earth, airmen face the necessity of securing gasoline, oil, and needed repairs. A decent meal wouldn't be bad either. Depending on their level of exhaustion and the weather, they might also need a bed for the night and a guard for their aircraft.

Army Aviation author Maurer Maurer notes that Major Albert D. Smith's voyage speaks to "some of the difficulties and hazards airmen contended with in those days." Maurer states "forced landings were a common, accepted fact of flying." Citing other problems such as potential claims against the Army for crashing into a farmer's cornfield, Maurer explains, "The flyer needed to keep his eyes open to see that spectators did not carry off souvenirs and that farm animals did not damage his plane. Cattle seemed to have a taste for airplane dope," a heavy lacquer applied to fabric-covered aircraft. In addition, "Spectators paid little heed to a flyer's warnings that one could get hurt by a turning propeller." Maurer also marks an interesting and fortunate phenomenon of aviation's early days. "Although a forced landing often destroyed the plane, flyers frequently walked away from their wrecks. Close scrapes made news. Accidents were not publicity unless the fatality rate went too high." Aircraft accidents and deaths rose following World War I as stunt flying at low altitudes increased. Despite orders to limit such activities, Maurer reports, "By March 1919, the rate for fatal accidents still stood well above what it had been in the United States during the war, and it stayed high."

A modest Major Albert D. Smith later reflects, "In all my numerous minor crashes, I had, as yet, not received a single injury. But as little as I know about flying, it was quite obvious that this good luck could not continue." The 1920 Manufacturers Aircraft Association's Year Book reports that most suitable landing fields populate the nation's southern and southwestern regions. However, "there exists no adequate chain of fields to serve as stations for aerial travel" along the nation's southern border. The Year Book cites "long stretches of country upon which they [pilots] could not land at all" and where it was "frequently impossible to get fuel for their machines."

Across the nation, communities welcome arriving aerial guests in a variety of ways, ranging from open-armed warmth and hospitality to apathy and even not-so-friendly gunfire. The airman often encounters local aero-nuts, over-amped spectators who rush the landing area either just before, right as, or just after a plane lands. Many linger in hopes of grabbing a piece of history off an aircraft beneath official notice. Tucsonans responded with reckless disregard for pilot and aeroplane safety when they rushed the field as Robert G. Fowler landed at the University of Arizona football field in 1911. This forced Cal P. Rodgers to land on a city street to avoid colliding with onrushing aviation fanatics the following day. During the ensuing seven years, aerocraft only arrived in Tucson by train and workers reassembled them for brief performances.

Local fortunes brighten when Chamber of Commerce president, L.H. Hofmeister, receives a telegram in early December 1918 from Rockwell Field Commander Harvey S. Burwell announcing the impending arrival of an airplane squadron and stipulating its landing field requirements. The Commander's communiqué fires intense, hurried preparations for hosting the incoming airmen and staging Tucson's aerial rebirth. Chamber Secretary Ray B. Leach scrambles to find a good landing site for the Army's history-making Twenty M Squadron before choosing Judge William H. Sawtelle's 220-acre parcel.

The Judge gives the Chamber extended use of his land, north of Ft. Lowell Road and east of Evergreen Cemetery's entrance gate on the road to Oracle, Arizona. Mayor Olva C. Parker and Pima County Board of Supervisors' Chairman John W. Estill assign all city and county horse and mule teams, land scrapers, and road machinery to clearing the new landing grounds. Frank L. Culin, Sr., Chamber aviation committee chairman, directs 50 workers who remove underbrush on a 500-foot by 3,000-foot landing area, then grade and roll the earth until it lies flat and smooth. The Tucson Citizen deems the demanding preparation work "equivalent to building about 15 miles of ordinary road in one day." The newspaper adds, "Coating the field with gravel and oiling it thoroughly will make a splendid permanent landing place." Walter Wakefield heads up a crew marking the field with long strips of canvas for easy pilot recognition. Dick Harding provides the aircrafts' oil and the Texas Oil Company handles gasoline. Mayor Parker stations a spotter with a pair of powerful field glasses on the roof of the Santa Rita Hotel to telephone the city's water pumping station when he sees the squadron and trigger the fire siren to inform residents of their grand arrival. Amid light showers, the Air Service's Twenty M Squadron rises off Phoenix's fairgrounds field on December 6, 1918, and battles a strong wind to head southeast. Meanwhile, work on the Old Pueblo's new landing grounds draws to a close, leaving just a dozen workmen and six teams of animals at the field.

The four-plane squadron appears above Tucson just before 5 p.m. "Those with sharp eyes" shout "Here they come!" and the news passes "through the immense crowd like crackling powder through a fuse," reports the Citizen. The airplanes fly past the landing grounds in the formation of a stretched-out letter N and circle the landing area repeatedly as an athlete might while gauging the height of a hurdle. Major Smith dives for the earth and the crowd gasps, afraid that he will fly straight into the telegraph wires surrounding the field. Smith makes a smooth landing, however, and taxis to the landing grounds' west end. The remaining Curtiss airplanes circle several times before dropping onto the Oracle Road turf and pulling into line next to the Major's machine. The Star reporter declares, "This will be a red-letter day in the 'aeronautical history' of Tucson." One short flight from Phoenix—one giant leap for Old Pueblo aviation. True to their unruly nature, locals initiate a furious crush toward the airplanes when they land. Authorities hold the crowd outside the fence until all the ships put down, but the horde breaks free to flood the landing area, even beating the mayor and other officials to the planes.

Hundreds push close to gaze upon the flying wonders as Major Smith, a "lithe and wiry... cloaked and hooded figure," emerges from his aircraft in "the trappings of an aviator," recounts a Star reporter. Dressed in leather breeches and coat along with a leather fur-lined cap, he instructs Undersheriff W. Sullinger's special deputies on guarding the ships through the coming night and shows mechanics how to fuel the aircraft before addressing local dignitaries. Major Smith uses Chamber president L.H. Hofmeister's right shoulder and a page from a notebook to write a telegram to Commander Burwell at Rockwell Field to confirm his team's safe arrival in Tucson. Just 40 minutes after Twenty M Squadron's celebrated landing on the freshly created Oracle Road landing grounds, Army Air Service Major Theodore C. Macaulay sails into Tucson from the east. He joins the Smith contingent as the first planes to settle on Santa Cruz Valley soil since November 1911.

The next morning, Major Smith delivers a letter from Mountain States Telephone & Telegraph Company Phoenix associate H.D. McVey to local manager E.J. Anderson. The transfer marks one of the earliest Arizona airmail deliveries. Smith explains that he pins Rand McNally state maps to a board with thumbtacks, straps the board to his leg, and uses landmarks on the map to judge speed and distance. He draws red circles over Tucson and Deming, New Mexico, "so that they can be distinguished even through fogged goggles," and marks good landing field locations with a lead pencil as the squadron flies along the railroad tracks. He explains, "Allowance for a crosswind, which would drive the plane from its path, is made by picking out a road which runs east and west and setting the rudder so as to tack against the wind and keep it from drifting away from the road." Arizona's long-awaited aerial visitor continues, "Corrections for the [Type B] compass were worked out on the platform circles at Rockwell Field before starting and are posted in front of the pilot so that he knows how many degrees allowance to make for the magnetic variation of the compass. The shifting of tools from one part of the fuselage to another will affect the position of the needle." Major Smith describes his aircraft in detail, saying, "Wooden braces between the wings are called struts and the wires are strut wires. The wooden leg under the tail is the tail skid and the metal bows under the wings are the wing skids." The plane's laminated spruce propeller stands "stocky and sturdy, and the thin edge and ends are copper sheathed."

Major Smith declares the city's new landing grounds "one of the best I have ever seen outside of government aviation fields." Chamber President Hofmeister assures Smith of Tucson's continuing enthusiasm for constructing the permanent aviation field needed to join the nation's new airmail system. Smith declares that if Army officials select the Oracle Road landing grounds for a permanent Tucson facility, "a better one could not be found." He writes in his official report, "Tucson has a perfect landing field available. Two hundred acres are leveled and rolled for our use and the city is willing to erect a hangar." Before departing, Major Smith declares, "It will be a long time before Tucson again sees four planes at once; but there will be single mail planes dropping in every now and then." The Major's underestimation of aviation's rapid progression typifies the era's common thinking.

Saturday morning, December 7, 1918, mechanics wheel the four aircraft into a line facing east, make final checks, and fire the machines' motors. Amid a swirl of dust created by their propellers, the airplanes sprint down the field and vault into the sky. Before taking the air, Major Smith declares, "We will reach El Paso tonight or bust." A Citizen reporter rhapsodizes, "They are meant to fly and it is not until they take the air that the spectator realizes the thrill of this twentieth century marvel." Headed for the history books, Twenty M Squadron's four airplanes arrive in Jacksonville, Florida, on December 22, 1918. The Air Force Historical Research Agency's unclassified report No. IRIS1030186 acknowledges their accomplishment: "By reaching Jacksonville they will have completed a trans-continental flight, the first on record for formation flying."

The sky-cracking birds then wing north to land at Washington, D.C.'s Bolling Field on January 6, 1919. Flight Commander Smith beams, "We made the entire trip without changing a plane or an engine. The entire distance, sea to sea and up the coast was covered in formation." The Director of Military Aeronautics declares, that the 35-day voyage proves "to a certainty that it [flying] is safe and that the entire country is deeply interested in aeronautics." Twenty M Squadron next sails to New York City, where Major Smith battles influenza for almost three weeks. During his convalescence, the flight commander purchases "Flu," a police-dog puppy. Smith constructs a small canine cabin in the end of the fuselage, and his four-legged companion departs America's Big Apple in fine style. Returning to the nation's capital, the four-plane squadron leaves Bolling Field for California's Rockwell Field on February 4, 1919.

In contrast to his troop's vaunted eastbound cross-country success, the return voyage cripples all but the Major's ship before he reaches the San Diego landing field. At Vernon, Alabama, Lieutenant Robert S. Worthington's machine hits a tree while trying to take off in mud. Later, Smith's three-plane contingent flies into El Paso without problems, but the other two aircraft succumb to 65 miles per hour early morning winds. Still battling a fierce gale, Smith heads his lone airplane west and sets down in Tucson again around noon on February 14, 1919. He stays for one hour before flying toward a luncheon in Yuma and a return to Rockwell Field around 6 p.m. that day. Later, the Kelly Field Eagle (San Antonio) shares Division of Military Aeronautics data on the cross-country excursion showing that Smith's machines averaged about 80 miles per hour over 3,800 miles. The squadron's JN-4H fuel tanks held only about 22 gallons and each $12,500 aircraft consumed 15 gallons of gasoline in a series of hour-and-one-half hops across the nation. At 50 cents per gallon, each machine's fuel bill ran to $1,645 and each burned one half-gallon of oil every hour, totaling 110 hours and costing $82.50. Some military officials deem the transcontinental voyage "the most wonderful flight in the history of American aeronautics."

One newspaper points out, "The development of aviation in the United States is a story full of daring, of terrific disappointment, of unequaled achievement and finally a wonderful success."

Though small and rugged, the Oracle Road landing grounds and Tucsonans' cordial welcome ingratiates the city to military flyers and earns Tucson a spot in the nation's future plans. Now, with exciting advances on Oracle Road, visions of a permanent airdrome excite the city's aero-visionaries. ■

Excerpted with permission from High in the Desert Sky. ©2017 by William Kalt. All rights reserved.