Top 50 Stories: 1920s -- Boise takes flight

First private airmail contract, birthplace of United Airlines, visit by Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis

kmoeller@idahostatesman.comJune 29, 2014 

Charles A. Lindbergh visited Boise on Sept. 4, 1927. Only a few months after his famous solo flight from New York to Paris, he was on a tour of the 48 states. A parade escorted him to the fairgrounds, where he spoke to an overflow crowd.

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A decade after the Wright brothers' famous 1903 flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C., the first airplane to fly in Idaho took to the skies.

That history-making flight could have happened in Boise - but a scheduled flight in 1910 never got off the ground due to mechanical issues. The first witnessed takeoff was made by Chicagoan James Ward on Oct. 13, 1910, at the Lewiston-Clarkston State Fair.

"Engine trouble caused a rough landing that demolished the front wheel on one occasion, but since it was a standard bicycle wheel, a replacement was soon found," historian Arthur Hart wrote in his book, "Wings Over Idaho."

Ward cheated death a couple of days later when his engine stopped 200 feet above the ground and the plane plummeted to the ground near the Snake River.

Boiseans' love affair with "aeroplanes" - the word used in the pages of the Statesman in the early 1900s - is evident in the many articles about the Wright brothers and other pioneering aviators, or "aeronauts."

The same year that Idaho saw its first flight, U.S. Secretary of War Jacob Dickinson asked for funds for "flying machines" to be used by the military. Thousands of pilots were trained by the end of World War I in 1918 - the year the federal government also launched airmail in the United States.

Boise earned a footnote in history for becoming the home in 1926 to the first private mail service - Varney Air Lines, founded by Walter T. Varney. The mail route included Pasco, Wash.; Boise; and Elko, Nev.

Varney Air Lines expanded from cargo to passengers in the 1930s. The passenger line was one of the predecessors of both Continental Airlines and United Airlines.

On its Facebook page, United Airlines lists its founding as April 7, 1926, the day after Varney's first mail delivery to Pasco.

A story in the Statesman just a few days later, on April 10, announced that the mail service was temporarily suspended. Two of the six planes for the service hadn't yet been delivered, and two other planes were damaged while delivering mail.

In the mid-1920s, officials began looking for a place to build a permanent landing field, concerned that Boise would be bypassed if it didn't provide infrastructure and support for activities such as the private airmail service.

"So rapid has been the growth of aerial transportation since the war that a landing field or airport is as essential to every up-to-date city as garages and tourist parks are for automobiles," said an Aviation Board report cited in an Aug. 23, 1925, article.

The location and cost of the landing field was the subject of heated debate. The city settled on a site on the south side of the Boise River and west of Broadway Avenue - where Boise State University is now.

That's where famed aviator Charles Lindbergh landed when he visited Boise on Sept. 4, 1927.

Lindy's visit, announced months in advance, was an unprecedented spectacle in which the entire city participated, according to coverage at the time. Hotels were booked, shop windows were decorated, Boy Scouts were dispatched to aid visitors from out of town and disabled veterans made more than 500 airplane hats.

An estimated 40,000 people greeted the always-punctual Lindbergh - who actually arrived an hour late because he was told Boise was in the Pacific Time Zone.

"The spectators of the event were stretched from three to 25 deep along every available inch of the wire fence surrounding the airfield, in itself a space of almost a mile," according to one of six front-page stories on the visit published on Sept. 5, 1927.

Lindbergh dazzled the crowd even before landing, a scene colorfully described in the Statesman:

"There was no looping, no spectacular 'falling leaf' stuff, but rapid turns and climb that made the plane stand on its own tail and seem to spin around. 'We' swung about over the air field, flying low with the wind. The masses of people tossed like the waves of the Atlantic. Hands waved. Hats were thrown. The shouts were like the breaking of billows merged with the roar of the whirlwind motor."

Boise's investment in aviation continued long after the Roaring Twenties. The origin of the city's modern airport dates back to the late 1930s; today, six airlines operate nonstop flights from Boise Airport to 19 American cities, serving some 200,000 passengers every month.

During World War II, the Army Air Corps leased land at the site for an airbase critical to the war effort. The base was named for 1st Lt. Paul Gowen, a bomber pilot from Caldwell who was killed in a crash in Panama City in 1938. Gowen Field is home to the Idaho Air National Guard's 124th Fighter Wing.

Katy Moeller: 377-6413

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