High in Desert Skies: Tucson's Red-Letter Day
by William Kalt
Blueish-gray smoke billows from large metal drums surrounding Tucson’s newly prepared landing grounds for airplanes in early December 1918. A small crew of men and animals works applying the finishing touches on the clearing, grading, and leveling of land east of the road from Tucson to Oracle, Arizona. Arizona’s Ancient & Honorable Pueblo throbs with excitement in expectation of the first planes to fly into the city in more than seven years.
A telegram just three days earlier from Harvey S. Burwell, U.S. Army Commander at Coronado Island’s Rockwell Field, San Diego, requested, “Kindly arrange to have a landing field cleared off, which must be 3,000 feet long, 500 feet wide, and comparatively smooth. Kindly have same marked with large white canvass placed flat on the ground and have available 200 gallons 68-[specific] gravity gasoline, 25 gallons of the best medium lubricating oil, one barrel clean water, 20 stakes 2 x 4 x 48 inches, 150 feet three-eighths-inch line, and sufficient guards to protect the planes, which will remain all night.” Burwell concludes, “Kindly wire action taken and location of field, giving directions and distance from city and any suggestions to the [flight’s] commanding officer.”
Scrambling, the Tucson Chamber of Commerce soon locates suitable turf and a landowner willing to provide access to it for flying purposes. Realizing the benefit to the community, Tucson’s mayor and Pima County Supervisors order all work crews, along with every horse and mule team to the new airfield. While the groundwork moves forward, one group marks the field with long strips of canvas for easy pilot recognition. Not yet fully packed for firm landings but deemed adequate, the grounds’ preparation amounts to “the building of 15 miles of good road in just three days,” declares a local newspaper.
Squadron commander Major Albert D. Smith’s flight departs the Pacific coast and works eastward mapping one of the first airmail routes across Arizona and the nation. After landing in Phoenix at the Arizona State Fairgrounds, Major Smiths heads southeast. Searching the desert for potential emergency and permanent landing areas, Smith pins a Rand McNally state map to his leg with thumbtacks, straps the board to his leg, and uses landmarks such as Pinal County’s Picacho Peak to judge speed and distance. He also draws red circles over Tucson and Deming, New Mexico and marks good landing field locations with a lead pencil as the squadron flies along the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks.
Four Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” aircraft appear above the Old Pueblo just before 5:00 p.m. on December 6, 1918. “Those with sharp eyes” shout, “Here they come” and the news races “through the immense crowd like crackling powder through a fuse,” reports the Tucson Citizen. The mayor 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 spots the squadron and trigger the city’s fire siren to inform other residents of the airmen’s grand arrival. The airplanes soar past the Oracle Road landing grounds in the formation of a stretched-out letter N and circle repeatedly “as an athlete might while gauging the height of a hurdle.”
Major Smith then dives for the dirt 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 grounds’ west end. The remaining Curtiss machines circle several times before dropping to earth and pulling into line next to Major’s aircraft. True to early aero-fans’ unruly nature, spectators initiate a furious crush toward the airplanes. Authorities hold the throng outside the fence until the ships put down, but the horde breaks free to flood the field, even beating city 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 plane in “the trappings of an aviator,” recounts an observer.
Dressed in leather breeches and coat and a fur-lined cap, Smith instructs Special Sheriff’s Deputies on guarding the ships through the December night and shows mechanics how to fuel them before addressing locals. A warm welcome greets the history-making fliers, who soon find themselves whisked into town for a sumptuous banquet and comfortable sleeping accommodations. One reporter asserts, “This will be a red-letter day in the ‘aeronautical history’ of Tucson.” One short flight from Phenix—one giant leap for Old Pueblo Aviation. Major Smith’s aviators will soar on to Jacksonville, Florida as the first squadron to execute a successful transcontinental flight in military formation.
In fact, piloting early mechanically-powered aircraft across the United States proved thorny for pioneer aviators. Not only did fliers battle winds, temperature variations, and violent storms in open-cockpit in wood, wire, and cloth machines which lacked modern-day power, due to southwestern desert turbulence, “pockety-air” challenged even the finest aviator. Finding a flat-enough, relatively rockless-enough, firm-enough, wide-enough, and long-enough piece of land for a successful landing without instrumentation also proved no easy task. Once aground, airmen might find their demands even harder met.
Communities across the nation welcomed arriving aerial guests in a variety of ways, ranging from open-armed warmth and hospitality to apathy and even not-so-friendly gunfire. In addition, fliers often encountered local “aero-nuts”—over-amped spectators who rushed the landing area either just before, right as, or just after a plane touched down. Some lingered in hopes of grabbing a piece of history off the aircraft, necessitating a guard for the machines. Other pilot needs, such as securing gasoline, oil, and needed repairs found fulfillment with varying degrees of difficulty. Depending on their level of hunger and exhaustion and weather conditions, airmen might also require a decent meal and a bed for the night. Such stood the days when early airplanes soared high in desert skies!
Read other exciting tales of early flying in William Kalt’s book High in Desert Skies: Early Arizona Aviation. Visit highindesertskies.com to learn more and purchase.