Stu Pospisil: After rough take-off, Omaha’s airport spread its wings | History

No flyer likes turbulence, so the “Fasten Seat Belts” light will be turned on for this recounting of the early history of Eppley Airfield.

The airport has made it through nearly 100 years at the same spot east of Carter Lake and with a $600 million update on the way, it’s not moving. Any obstacle now couldn’t compare what was overcome before it was named for the late Omaha hotel magnate Eugene C. Eppley in 1960.

Be it the original swampy ground, the trees that couldn’t be cut down, the birthing pains or the Missouri River floods of 1943 and 1952, the notion of somebody goofed in selecting the site resurfaced.

Stu Pospisil

It was not the first location for a landing strip in the Omaha area. That distinction went to the Creighton pasture at 45th Street and Military Avenue, where Glenn Curtiss held an air show in 1910. Next, at the north end of Florence Boulevard on a dairy farm, was Omaha — or Pulitzer — Field. The latter name stemmed from the sponsor of the air races held there in 1921.

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Ak-Sar-Ben Field at 63rd and Center Streets served as the landing field for Omaha’s first transcontinental airmail service for three years — until a 1924 windstorm destroyed the hangar and seven planes. Operations were transferred to the Army field at Fort Crook west of Bellevue.

Early in 1925, the Greater Omaha Committee recommended acquiring at least 160 acres for an air terminal that would be municipally owned. “Omaha is so situated as to become an important station in the development of commercial aviation,” the report said. “The early development of air service facilities will tend to draw commercial aviation lines here. As a military asset, an airportin Omaha would be extremely valuable.” It was essential, the committee believed, for a municipal field lest a privately owned one could keep out commercial lines.

Rejected immediately was the Florence Boulevard airstrip as it was too close to the bluffs, the river and a railroad, and the 1921 air races had seen a parachute jumper drown in the Missouri River. The front-runner for a time was farmland around 168th Street and West Dodge Road, but the rumor of a possible conflict of interest killed the idea of a west Omaha airport. Imagine how that could have changed Omaha’s direction of growth.

That left the low land east of Carter Lake. Not convinced that the city should buy the nearly 200-acre tract was city parks commissioner Joe Hummel (the subject of last week’s column). He said the swampy land was unfit for an airfield. “If you men had visited that tract twice a week like I have for the past 30 years, you would realize it,” Hummel said. “You would be having to pull your airplanes out of the mud all the time.”

But buy it the city fathers did, for $189,000, and by dredging silt from Carter Lake, the ever-resourceful Hummel deepened the lake and filled in the low spots of the landing field tract. The first plane to land at the airstrip was on Oct. 5, 1925.

After a lawsuit unsuccessfully tried to prevent the parkland from being used as an airport, Boeing Air (the parent of United Air Lines) began transcontinental airmail service on July 1, 1927.

The turbulence that followed was on the ground. A Ford Reliability Tour plane had stopped in Omaha in June and the reviews were bad. “A rough bumpy field covered with high grass greeted the Ford fliers. There was no water and no accommodations of any kind for them. This was Omaha’s greeting to the Ford tour,” was from an editorial on July 16 in the Douglas County Legionnaire publication.

Unless immediate action was taken, the Legion was concerned that Omaha would be dropped from the exhibition tour by Charles Lindbergh — only months after he crossed the Atlantic — and Boeing would move its Nebraska operation to Lincoln. A hanger and other accommodations were needed.

The Legion backed up its words with action. It formed the Legion Airport corporation to raise $30,000 for the improvements. And they were lucky Lindy, in his Spirit of St. Louis, kept Omaha on his tour and landed at the airport on Aug. 30, 1927, in front of 4,000 spectators. He taxied his plane into a wire-enclosed hangar.

A permanent hangar, built of brick at Joe Hummel’s insistence, was large enough for six planes. Its first use was on March 31, 1928. Traffic that year averaged four planes a day. Two were tri-motor, with the pilot in an open cockpit, that could carry 14 passengers. There was no terminal yet. Passengers climbed aboard on their own after checking in at a desk in the hangar.

Hummel’s hangar was sold, at a loss, to the Rapid Airlines Corporation two years later. The next one built, by Mid-West Aviation, accommodated 22 planes.

Omaha’s first night landing in 1930 didn’t come off as planned. While lights had been installed, the city commissioner in charge had the only key to the light switch and he wasn’t at the airport that event. The pilot frantically radioed for assistance and landed safely, the runway lit by the headlights of a half-dozen cars.

The incident came at a time when Boeing (which had moved to Fort Crook) was reluctant to sign a 50-year lease to use the airfield because the Cornish family, which donated Carter Lake Park, was refusing to cut down cottonwoods that were obstructing takeoffs and landings. Once it was worked out, Boeing soon was operating mail and passenger service, with stewardesses aboard, out of a new $75,000 hangar.

On the 30th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight, the airport’s first administration building, including passenger amenities, was dedicated in 1937. It was used, with small additions and repairs, until the Omaha Airport Authority opened a $3.75 million passenger terminal in September 1961.

1958_Parking Lot.JPG

The parking lot at Omaha Municipal Airport parking lot on March 26, 1958.

Eppley had been a pioneer aviator in Ohio, known as “Daredevil Eppley, who chills the crowd with the thrills of his air antics,” and was active in airport affairs from the early days. He had sold his hotel chain for $30 million two years before his death in 1958, and his foundation donated $1 million, matched by federal money, for runway improvements.

The airport authority unanimously voted to designate the airport as Eppley Field. When it got to ratification by the City Council, that body tweaked Field to Airfield. And there it has stayed, just like the airport itself.

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