The Early Years of the Pullman-Moscow Airport
by Gary Grau, 1973
(published here by permission from the “Bunchgrass Historian”, Volume 21-4 (1994), the journal of the Whitman County Historical Society)
As late as 1932, aviational landing facilities in the Pullman-Moscow area were limited to rough landing fields. No airports existed. A landing field has generally been known as any flat area large enough for airplanes to land, while an airport has definite facilities for aircraft such as graded runways and hangars. Up to 1932, Williams field, “a plain…about a half mile north of Washington State University…was a frequent landing spot.” It was a typical landing field, not an airport. Kester Grimes, long-time local flyer, refers to it as a “former alfalfa pasture” which was the only acreage even “resembling an airport.” No hangars or other buildings existed near the runway. Without doubt, necessity made Williams field the center of local air activity.
In 1932, three reasons stimulated the idea of building a local airport. First, members of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) at the State College of Washington (WSC), the Reserve Officers’ Association (ROA) of Pullman, the Pullman American Legion, the Pullman Chamber of Commerce became concerned about the promotion of national defense. Second, there was widespread sentiment in the community that it was time for an official, permanent airport for the region. To some at least it was obvious that air travel “was the coming thing.” Third, Williams field was inadequate to handle the air transportation needs of the record-size crowd attending the 1932 WSC-California football game in Pullman. Thus, national defense, community sentiment, and a football game spurred the search for an airport site.
ROTC, ROA, the Pullman Chamber of Commerce, and the Pullman American Legion each established an airport committee. These committees worked separately to find and develop a site until an airport board was formed in 1939. The ROA coordinated the various efforts through its own airport committee. During the summer of 1932, the ROA Airport Committee (ROAAC) appointed Lieutenant Harry Cole to head a survey party to explore possible sites. The team waded through ankle-deep mud to inspect the local terrain. Five sites were located. The future Pullman airport, referred to as site number two, was the second of the five.
After the sites were designated, the committees sought federal approval in locating an airport. They surmised that if federal money was to be spent for the airport eventually, the federal airport specialist, who must approve all such federal outlays, should assist in choosing the location in the beginning. At that time, the Department of Commerce was the federal governing body for airports, so, in September, 1932, Captain Walker of the ROAAC requested an opinion from Lieutenant Marshall C. Hoppin, airport specialist of the Department of Commerce, Aeronautics Branch, Washington, D.C. Hoppin arrived in Pullman on October 24, 1932. After looking at the five sites, Hoppin generally agreed with Walker on the advantages of number two. The good approaches to the area, even though it was surrounded by rolling hills, particularly impressed Hoppin. But he also pointed out the disadvantages of the site:
It would be necessary to reroute the present county road running through the center of the valley to either the north or south side. Also there appear to be drainage problems involved.
The advantages that impressed both Hoppin and Walker proved substantial enough to make site number two the final location of what is today the Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport. However, the disadvantages have constantly hindered the airport’s development. Rerouting the county road caused considerable expense and delay in the growth of the airport facilities. Even now, in 1972, airport officials are discussing another rerouting of the road, which cuts off the southwest end of the runway, in order to provide the additional runway space vital to commercial airliners. The drainage problem that Hoppin referred to has also been a major obstacle to airport development Glen Ottmar, airport manager and operator of the airport flying service, considered the drainage problem at the airport as one of the major dilemmas which has hampered the development of local aviation, especially the construction and maintenance of the runway. He has observed several examples of how erosion widened cracks in the runway and caused many difficulties in construction of runway extensions.
Another of Hoppin’s observations made in 1932 was prophetic:
It appears to the writer that it would be advisable for the commissioners of Whitman County to aid in the establishment of a county airport which would serve several cities within their district.
Many years later, on January 19, 1971, Whitman County accepted partial responsibility for the operation of the airport, joining Pullman and Moscow in its annual financial support and its governing responsibilities. Thus, the airfield became in part the county airport Hoppin had recommended thirty-nine years earlier.
Shortly after Hoppin’s visit, President Ernest O’Holland of the State College of Washington also began suggesting to federal officials the possibility of an airport in the Pullman area. In December, 1932, Holland wrote a letter to Major Roy M. O’Day, Washington, D.C., stating that the Pullman community had “the possibility of finding a good site for a future municipal airport.” Although nothing resulted from Holland’s letter, it did reveal WSC’s interest in the airport which has consistently been a factor in its development.
Pullman’s city council surmised that site number two was the best location and purchased it from the owners, the Whitlow family and Mrs. Nellie Courtney, in January, 1934. The city bought the fifty acres at sixty-five dollars an acre. As soon as the city obtained possession of the land, construction of the Pullman airport began.
Work on airfields depended heavily on federal assistance during that period of depression. The building of the Pullman airport was no exception and the first federal helper was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). This agency, created by the depression-conscious federal government to produce jobs for young men unable to find employment, began working on the airfield shortly after Pullman bought the land. Oscar Gladish, recently mayor of Pullman and then principal of Pullman High School, and W.T. Mitchell, Gladish’s predecessor as mayor, remember vividly the CCC’s military-style barracks, youthful industriousness, and efficient operation. However, Dan Downen, city council member at the time of the CCC camp, believes that more could have been done on the airport if the money allotted to the CCC camp had been spent for more machinery and less manpower. Although the effectiveness of the CCC is controversial, “the CCC ‘boys,’… drilled a well and installed water distribution and waste disposal systems. In addition they constructed buildings, entrance roads and sidewalks.” The buildings remained at least twenty years. Glen Ottmar dug up spoons, clothing, and other CCC camp items when he constructed a foundation for his trailer on the airport grounds in1969. The CCC period of work lasted until the Civil Works Administration (CWA) took over construction on March 9, 1934.
During the depression the CWA was organized to provide the unemployed with work rather than a mere dole. Millions of persons were hired by the CWA’s contribution to the building of the Pullman airport was brief. The CWA work crew spent only about twenty days at the airport. Pullman officials were optimistic when the CWA crew started work on the airport, but the optimism diminished as the crew was reduced in number several times and disbanded completely on March 29. With the closure of the CWA program and the subsequent withdrawal of federal assistance, construction of the Pullman airport halted.
During the next frustrating five years, numerous possibilities were suggested by the various committees which had initiated the program to finish the partially completed airfield, but each attempt to restart work on the project failed. For instance, in 1937, the ROAAC was advised that the Puget Sound-Alaska Air Conference, a major aviational planning conference for the Pacific Northwest, had urged Congress to complete certain airports in the state of Washington. The recommendation did not mention the Pullman airport and the ROAAC was unable to get it included.
In 1938,Captain Henry Walker, chairman of the ROAAC, wrote Fred D. Fagg, Jr., director of air commerce, Department of Commerce, about the lack of federal aid for the Pullman airport, stating:
We have been much surprised at other areas (airfields) being bought and developed that were submitted a year and a half or two years after the Pullman airport. I earnestly request your serious consideration in order that the obligation of the Government for completion of this worthwhile airport project may be consummated.
In response to Walker’s letter, Fagg sent Paul Morris, airport manager in the Portland office of the Bureau of Air Commerce, to inquire about the abandoned construction near Pullman. While in Pullman, Morris met with the airport committees of the American Legion and the determined Reserve Officers’ Association. The only result was Morris’ promise to consider restoring federal support.
The Pullman committees continued their struggle. In November, 1938, WSC Professor G.E. Thornton, chairman of the airport committee of the Pullman Chamber of Commerce, supplied the National Airport Survey of the new civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) with a summary of the airport project. The document gave reasons for the development of the proposed airport. Although the letter was acknowledged and more information requested, nothing developed.
In 1939, not only committee members but also WSC took an active role in the attempt to finish the partially completed airport. On January 25, 1939, Vice-President H. Kimbrough met with Professors G.B. Thornton and Howard H. Langdon and Captain Walker. The purpose of the meeting was to review the work that had been done on the air facilities at Pullman and to consider possible actions that WSC might take to further the construction. Thornton, who represented the Chamber of Commerce, and Walker, who represented the ROA, summarized the efforts of their respective organizations. Kimbrough suggested the willingness of WSC to participate in the CAA’s Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). This program had been created in1939 because of gathering war clouds in Europe and the Far East. The federal government sought military preparedness, and training pilots was vital to that purpose. College men were considered good potential pilots; thus most programs were conducted on airfields near colleges.
In January, 1939, the Pullman ROAAC, after being encouraged by WSC, approached the University of Idaho regarding its cooperation in the airport development and the training of student pilots. This state university is located in Moscow, Idaho, only eight miles from WSC. The committee found that the Idaho institution was not interested. The Pullman group also sent a resolution regarding the use of the Pullman airport as a student training center to Robert H. Hinckley, director of the CPTP, Civilian Aeronautics Authority, Washington, D.C. In addition, the ROAAC wrote members of Congress in the latter part of February when it discovered that unless the airport was completed, the prospective training program for the region would be taken over by Spokane or Lewiston. The reply from Hinckley acted as a major catalyst in getting the airport finished. It read in part:
You may be sure that any application from the University of Idaho at Moscow, Idaho, or State College of Washington, Pullman, Washington, will be given careful consideration at that time.
Of course, the Pullman Airport would have to be completed before either institution could be designated to participate in the expanded program.
The Pullman committees realized that since they had not been able to finish the airport in the preceding years, they needed to solicit help from elsewhere. Therefore, they invited Moscow to assist in completing the facility in time for approval by the CPTP, in exchange for making the airport a joint venture between the two cities. Accordingly, on April 6, 1939, the Pullman ROAAC and other Pullman airport committees held a meeting with representatives from Moscow at the Moscow Hotel. The committees reviewed the airport construction which had been completed and emphasized the possibility of WSC and the University of Idaho cooperation to receive funds from the CAA for the training of civilian pilots. The funneling of federal funds into the project apparently impressed the participants with the idea that the completion of the airport might be a profit adventure.
At the meeting, Captain J.H. Reardan of the Moscow Air Reserve stated that the University of Idaho was making a big mistake if it did not endorse and make application for a training unit. The institution that did not have such a unit, he said, would lose enrollment since students would go where they could get free aeronautical training. Captain John Howard, president of the Moscow ROA, assured the representatives that undoubtedly the University of Idaho was contemplating a training program, as he had been asked if he would teach navigation. Favorable support for Moscow’s joining with Pullman came from Harold Corneilson, secretary of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce, who admitted that he did not know what the reaction of the University of Idaho’s administration might be, but that the Chamber of Commerce would be very pleased to support the joint effort. A Moscow citizen, Earl David, thought Moscow was extremely fortunate in being able to step into the picture after most of the work on the airport had been done. At the close of the meeting, the Moscow delegation, having been briefed and encouraged by the Pullman group, decided that Mr. Corneilson as a representative of the Chamber of Commerce would write to senators and representatives of Idaho urging their endorsement of the joint airport. Captain Harry Brinn stated he would see that some action was carried out by the American Legion.
The Moscow delegation present at the meeting agreed to become a committee to work with the committee from Pullman in the development of the airport.
On April 14, 1939, the Pullman newspaper contributed its support to the enthusiasm of the cooperative meeting. A statement by Captain Walker of the advantages of the joint airport concept was included in the article. This statement helped convince both cities and possibly the national government of the soundness of further construction on the Pullman airport:
The field has wonderful possibilities from a commercial standpoint It is located between two good sized towns, both having large federal-state institutions with many government departments in connection with them…This field would be available for commercial transportation of passengers, particularly to athletic events at both the University of Idaho and the State College of Washington. The field is located on an air lane from Boise to Spokane. Pullman alone sends between 2,400 and 2,500 letters a month by air mail No doubt this is about the same for Moscow.
The probability of a completed joint airport was enormously enhanced when. on August 11, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the federal CPTP bill which allowed for the training of 12,000 pilots each year in colleges and universities. The Pullman Herald enthusiastically announced the approval of the national program and commented that it added “considerable impetus to the proposal for the completion of the Pullman airport for use by the State College of Washington and the University of Idaho in training pilots.”
At the April meeting which had joined Pullman and Moscow in an effort to complete the airport, a general informal agreement was made that in return for Moscow’s help, the airport would be run by both cities equally. Such a combined effort by Pullman and Moscow and their respective universities was very agreeable to the federal government. Paul Morris, Seattle regional airport engineer for the CAA, while visiting the Pullman-Moscow area, stated that “a community airport, with the State College of Washington and the University of Idaho cooperating, is certainly the logical plan for the two institutions.”
On September 1, 1939, the uncompleted airport was approved for a flight training program sponsored by the CPTP if the facility was operational by November 1, 1939. As discussed earlier by Moscow and Pullman representatives, the only way the air facilities could be readied by the deadline was if both cities worked together on it. A joint airport would be the final result of such a unified effort.
Accordingly, a legal partnership for the establishment and control of a regional airport serving the two cities and the area was signed by B.B. Parker, mayor of Pullman, and Henry B. Hansen, mayor of Moscow, of September 5, 1939. This union created the Pullman Moscow Regional Airport from the still uncompleted Pullman airport. Under the agreement’s provisions, the mayors of both cities and a representative from each city selected by the respective city councils were to be appointed members of the Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport Board. Those four members were then to select a fifth member. The board was primarily an advisory group, while the respective city councils had final approval of all airport business. Land for the airport was leased from the city of Pullman, and all expenses and revenues were to be shared by the cities.
The physical transformation of the airport to meet the CAA’s requirements for the CPTP was almost completed on November 3, 1939. The $15,000 for the work to make the airport operational had been raised by the new board from the two cities, UI, and WSC. The runway, 100 by 2,500 feet, was completely graded and most of the 3,000 yards of crushed rock was laid. The first hangar was being constructed by Wallace Air Service of Spokane, which was awarded the contract for the training of the WSC and. UI students enrolled in the CPTP. The airport was accepted as a training center on November 9, 1939. The Pullman ROAAC and the other Pullman airport committees, with their dream fulfilled, disbanded soon afterwards.
When good weather arrived after a harsh Palouse winter, a ceremony consummated eight years of effort to create an airport, not just a flat landing field, for the Pullman-Moscow region. A dozen planes circled the airport during the ceremonies held on May 24, 1940, which drew 5,000 spectators. The crowd enthusiastically cheered a spot landing contest and numerous training maneuvers. The spectators were especially awed by “two huge transport planes” which had been brought to the field by United Airlines and Northwest Airlines. Dignitaries were introduced by the master of ceremonies, Fred Rounds, president of the Pullman Chamber of Commerce. They were Wiley R. Wright, senior private flying specialist at Boeing Field, Seattle; Paul Morris, federal regional airport engineer at Boeing Field; W.H. Hill of Boise, Idaho’s state director of aeronautics; CPTP directors Professor H.H. Langdon of WSC and Dean J.E. Buchanan of the University of Idaho; and county commissioners from Whitman and Latah counties. Speeches followed the introductions. Bert Zimmerly, head of a commercial air service at Lewiston announced plans for passenger and mail service to Lewiston and Spokane from Pullman within sixty days. Mayor Eri B. Parker of Pullman exclaimed, “We are just in the beginning and looking forward to improvements on the airport.”
In August, 1940, a few months after opening the airport, the regional airport board asked for $54,000 from the CAA to expand the runway from 100 by 2,500 feet to 400 by 4,000 feet On October 4, 1940, the CAA agreed to give $28,628 for runway construction. Additional land was required for the expansion. The possibility of the CAA grant motivated Pullman, the owner of the airport land, to buy the needed acreage as well as additional land for probable future expansion. The Pullman City Council offered the Whitlow and Courtney families $110 per acre. This was considered a fair price because comparable wheat land was being sold at $75 per acre. However, the two owners stubbornly refused the city’s offer and demanded $150 per acre plus $1,500 damages. Pullman convinced them to sell by issuing its first ordinance regarding the Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport which authorized and instructed the city attorney to institute proceedings for condemnation of the land for public airport purposes. The final price was $3,380 for 25.78 acres, or $131 per acre, considerably less than the $150 per acre plus damages first requested by the two landowners.
Another major financial contribution was made to the airport on July 18, 1941, when the original CAA grant of $28,628 was bolstered by $42,121 in additional funds. The money guaranteed the completion of the 400 by 4,000 foot runway with the necessary new type of surfacing needed for heavier planes. Specifically, the work involved in the airport preparation required 870 cu. yds. of runway and 2,400 cu. yds. of drain pipe excavation and backfill and laying of 10,800 linial (sic) feet of from 8 to 12 inch drainpipe. Fifty-two catch basins were constructed and 5,000 cu. yds. of crushed rock was used for backfill.
Surfacing of the runway required 70,000 sq. yds. of crushed rock and oil mat surfacing. Approximately 3,000 cu. yds. of 3/4 inches minus crushed rock was used in the surfacing. The water tower was painted and 10 boundary markers installed to show the limit of the sides and ends of the runway.
Searching for money to improve the airport has been a continuous project of the board. The next step in the development was to obtain the needed funds to enlarge the airport to the size demanded by the CAA for secondary flight training of civilian pilots. Formulated in September 1941, the plan was known as the “$165,000 WPA project.” It would enlarge the airstrip to 500 by 5,000 feet and include an extensive lighting system. A great deal of work was called for on the landing strip.
To aid the board in meeting these specifications, the Work Projects Administration (WPA) offered to pay for the expansion except for $21,333, which would have to be raised locally. The incentives for a local fund drive were explained at a meeting on September 25, 1941. Represented at the gathering were Pullman’s and Moscow’s chambers of commerce, the University of Idaho, the State College of Washington, the cities of Pullman and Moscow, and Whitman and Latah counties. The most favorable argument was that more than $100,000 of government money had been spent locally to develop the preliminary Civilian Pilot Training Program, so secondary training would mean added income for local people. Proponents mentioned the fact that already more than a hundred persons had been trained as possible military pilots through the existing CPTP at UI and WSC. One of the representatives commented, “Not even the most optimistic could come within 10 percent of what this airport will mean to us ten years from now.” However, even with the impetus of federal money and the national defense crisis, Jack McQuade, Latah County attorney, emphasized local differences over the airport rather than the proposed $165,000 plan. He decried “the lack of the proper use of the name ‘Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport’” and asked that an access road be constructed on the Moscow side. But national defense and federal money was more important to the communities than local problems and the $21,333 was raised. On December 26, 1941, shortly after the United States declared war, the $165,000 WPA project was approved by the federal government and local officials. Preparation of the airport for the war was well under way.
The Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport Board further committed the airport to the war effort on May 22, 1943, when it officially approved the exclusive use of the airport by the United States Army Air Corps. In this unique package deal, WSC, although not legally involved in the airport, agreed to pay $350 per month during the war emergency and $250 per month thereafter toward its maintenance. The board agreed “to keep the airfield in the best possible condition with the funds available.”
With other colleges and universities during wartime, WSC became part of the United States war effort. Prominent in its involvement was the Army Air Force (AAF) which selected the college as one of its preflight training centers. The main objective of the pre-flight program was to provide actual experience in airplanes for recruits who were being considered for pilot training. It was designed to eliminate those persons who could not eventually qualify either physically or mentally for flight training. A college without a nearby, first-rate airport could not have been selected.
The four-month program consisted of two parts: academic flight preparation and actual in-the-air training. The academic phase included courses in mathematics, physics, geography, and history.
The second part of the program allowed each student at least ten hours of flying time. A mere ten hours of air flight does not conjure up images of any major advancement of the war effort. However, in the early 1940s, the majority of the United States population had never flown in an airplane. This opportunity to fly before going into actual military flight training saved an overexcited, would-be pilot from possible damage to himself or his plane. Experience around airplanes can save persons from making costly mistakes. For example, the cadets learned respect for the Palouse wind when a woman instructor lost all of her hair while being whipped across the ground after parachuting too soon from a faulty plane.
Ultimately over 5,000 flight students passed through the training program before the airport reverted to civilian use with the end of the war. A year later, mid-1946, the first scheduled passenger service was offered by Empire Air Lines, and the airport was at last a going concern.