The Pilot's Lounge #104: Preserving Our Aviation Treasures And Heritage

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The Pilot's Lounge

Over the past two weeks the topic of discussion in the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport has been preserving and restoring our aviation treasures. It evolved from conversation regarding the staggering sums spent to restore individual airplanes with historic significance, into the surprising lack of interest in the airports, buildings and structures that figured in the development of our air transportation system and the airplanes that made it possible.

I recalled that the building that housed the first successful aircraft manufacturers in Wichita, Kan. -- Laird Aircraft Company and, later, Swallow Aircraft, where Lloyd Stearman and Walter Beech had worked together, just northwest of Wichita State University -- was torn down in the late 1980s. There was not any attempt by the city to preserve the place that was arguably the cradle of the industry that caused Wichita to become known as the Air Capital of the World. Likewise, there is no trace of the airport where Charles Lindbergh launched for his successful and world-altering solo flight to Paris, although I'm told there is some sort of a marker in the shopping center that occupies part of the site. Can you name the airport?

A couple of our regulars brought up a current dilemma over an aviation artifact that is very much in use but faces the wrecking ball. While this particular bit of history may not have the significance of Roosevelt Field (I knew you knew the airport name) or the Laird Aircraft factory, it is nevertheless of value and indicative of the nature of the loss of our aviation heritage, a gradual nibbling away, slowly and steadily, in widely diverse locations; quietly, rather than in major, nationwide, publicized fights.

Historic Airport

The Iowa City (Iowa) Municipal Airport is the oldest continuously operating airport west of the Mississippi River. Still in the location laid out in 1918, it is still a vibrant general-aviation field, although it just went from three paved runways to two, for reasons that are not entirely clear.

Iowa City fought for and became one of the relatively few designated stops on the original transcontinental airmail route, beginning in 1920. The airport was renamed "Smith Field" shortly after that when airmail pilot, Walter Smith, who had flown in and out of Iowa City, perished in a crash. Interestingly, no one seems to use the "Smith Field" name any more.

In 1921 Iowa City was the site of one of the most heroic events of the early, open-cockpit, biplane air mail service: Congress had mandated that mail transport not stop when it got dark, so the air mail service was to continue through the night. On the inaugural, 'round-the-clock run, two airplanes departed from each coast. One eastbound ship crashed fatally in Nevada and the two westbound flights halted for weather east of Cleveland. Pilot Jack Knight picked up the remaining eastbound mail in North Platte, Neb., (after having flown from North Platte to Cheyenne, Wyo., and back that day). He was to fly to Omaha, where he would turn the mail over to the pilot who would be arriving from Chicago. However, the westbound mail was parked and there was no one in Omaha to continue eastward. Stopping would mean Congress would shut down the airmail. To add to the excitement, it was snowing in Omaha and all across Iowa, and Knight's DH-4 had developed engine problems that took hours to repair. Knight, despite never having flown the route east of Omaha, reviewed the available navigation aid (a highway map) and took off into the snowstorm. At night.

Following the Rock Island tracks at single-digit altitudes, in driving show, Knight over-flew the Des Moines stop. In Iowa City, folks had given up and gone home by the time Knight arrived in the vicinity of the airport and began to circle. A night watchman heard the airplane and ran around the perimeter of the field, lighting flare pots and waving a lantern. On the last of his fuel, Knight landed safely. He was refueled and departed for Chicago. He flew out of the snow and into the dawn, arriving at Checkerboard Field, where he passed the mail on to the next pilot and history. The mail got through and Congress kept the appropriation alive.

The United Hangar

Passenger service came to Iowa City Airport in 1927. In 1929 the massive Boeing Air Transport conglomerate (of which United Airlines was a part) built one of its standard hangars on the Iowa City airport. Huge for its time, its design was in keeping with the philosophy that airline passengers, who were paying a king's ransom for service -- well over first class rail fares -- should be treated with care and respect. (What a unique concept.) What became known as the United Hangar was rectangular, with folding doors on opposite sides. Arriving airliners would taxi into the hangar (I said it was big) and shut down. There, out of the weather, passengers would disembark and the departing passengers would board. The airplane would then start up and taxi out the other side of the hangar.

The United Hangar served its purpose for years. From what I can tell, it was big enough for the DC-3s to taxi inside to unload and load.

Eventually, United started using airplanes that were too large for its hangars and passengers were relegated to walking across the ramp to get to and from the airplanes. Some say this was the beginning of the decline in service.

As the United Hangars across the country became obsolete, the large, enclosed space was used for other purposes on the airports they served. As a kid growing up in Des Moines, I recall that its United Hangar was a part of the air-freight area on the airport, southeast of the terminal, until one day it was simply gone.

Iowa City lost its airline service gradually, starting in the 1950s when United came to the city and asked that a runway be lengthened. The city refused and United moved an hour's drive away to Cedar Rapids, which built an airport that was adequate for the newer generation airliners. That also marked the beginning of the eclipse of Iowa City by Cedar Rapids as a business hub in east central Iowa. By the 1970s, all airlines had quit serving Iowa City. The United Hangar had reverted to the airport and was being used to store general aviation airplanes.


Today the United Hangar is still in good shape and is still being used for storage. It was so well-made that the massive folding doors can be opened and closed by a child. It is also one of only about seven still left in this country.

In the 1930s and '40s, the United Hangar protected Ford Trimotors, Boeing 247s, DC-2s and -3s arriving with passengers bound for Iowa City and its Big-10 University of Iowa. It saw the crowds that came for the 1939 football season to watch the amazing performances of Iowa back, Nile Kinnick, as he passed, rushed, punted and drop-kicked his way to the Heisman Trophy. It saw and stored airplanes for the U.S. Navy flight-training program in World War II, and watched silently as young men and women left to serve their country. And then it saw some of them returned in boxes or not returned at all, among them, Nile Kinnick himself, who died in a Grumman F4F Wildcat after an unsuccessful ditching following seizure of its engine.

The United Hangar was there when the University of Iowa sports teams changed from rail to air travel and it witnessed the crowds that welcomed them back from Bowl victories and national championships. In fact, some of those airplanes loaded or unloaded inside its open, welcoming doors.

I do not know why this hangar has not been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, for it represents a significant part of our national transportation and aviation history, being foursquare on the original transcontinental airmail route and one of a distinctive style of combination hangars and terminals built across the country. I do not know if an attempt to list it has been made, but it would seem to make sense.

Pushed Out By Progress

I do know that the plan for the Iowa City airport calls for installation of a precision instrument approach and a parallel taxiway for Runway 25. Given that the prevailing winds in that part of the world are from the east when the weather is worst, I'm not sure who came up with the idea of approaching from that side of the airport, but it may be because there are hills to the southwest that might preclude a precision approach. No matter what the reason, the City has been told that the United Hangar extends into the protected area for a precision approach runway and it will have to go. Apparently, the FAA will make available funds for demolition of the Hangar.

Fortunately, the Iowa City Airport has a group of dedicated people who have been attending airport board and city council meetings on a regular basis, have established a group email distribution list (Friends of Iowa City Airport) and are voicing their concerns about the potential loss of the United Hangar. I've seen some of the emails. There is anger, concern and determination, but thus far I do not think it has coalesced into a movement that will save that hangar.

It seems to me that instead of yet another piece of our heritage becoming land fill and beer cans, the United Hangar at Iowa City should be saved. It will take a lot of work by the airport supporters, but I think there is precedent. When I was in Rock Springs, Wyo, I sheltered from a sudden thunderstorm in a United-style hangar. I learned that when the City of Rock Springs had moved its airport from the edge of town to its present location, it also moved that large, brick, concrete and steel hangar to the new site. It did so partially because of one piece of aeronautical history it had seen: Amelia Earhart had parked her autogyro in it one night on a record-setting flight across the country.

The Iowa City United Hangar has sheltered its share of dignitaries, it has been a part of its share of history, and continues to be. As I write this, a Grumman F-4F, similar to they type in which Nile Kinnick was lost, is parked near the United Hangar. The F-4F to be used for a flyover of the University of Iowa's first home football game in -- wait for it -- Nile Kinnick Stadium.

Not an Ignorant Town

Iowa City recognizes the value of its history. It was the original capitol of the State of Iowa and has preserved the old Capitol building with loving care. It named its football stadium for a man who made history on the playing field and went on to become a naval aviator. It now has a chance to save a piece of its historic airport, which has stood from the days when it helped establish the very first national airline map and those upstarts an hour away were not even a blip on the aeronautical radar screen. The records indicate Iowa City fought to become a stop on the transcontinental airmail route and it fought for airline service, which it got at the very beginning of such service in this country. Now it's time to fight to preserve an artifact from that time.

It seems to me that every airport I know of is short of hangar space. I do not know whether federal matching funds are available for hangar construction on airports as a part of the various airport improvement programs. If so, then Iowa City should be applying for funds to rebuild the United Hangar on a different site on the airport. If not, Iowa City should accept the money the FAA will pay toward the demolition of the United Hangar and apply it to the cost of moving it to another spot on the airport where it can continue to serve the purpose for which it was built all these years ago: to shelter airplanes. No matter what, it means that some people are going to have to get together to apply for Historic designation and start raising the bucks necessary to move the hangar. We raise millions to rebuild a P-51; there are far fewer United Hangars in existence, they are older, and they could shelter several P-51s each.

If you would like to get involved in the preservation of a piece of our aeronautical history, get hold of Jay Honeck. He runs the Alexis Park Inn, a very cool, aviation-themed hotel across the street from the Iowa City Airport. I think it's a worthwhile endeavor; we've lost far too much already.

See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.