History of Aviation In Grand Junction

The first flight in Grand Junction took place on August 27, 1912. The two local newspapers, the Daily News and Daily Sentinel, cosponsored the “Aviation Day” which was held at the Fairgrounds (what is now Lincoln Park). The hype leading up to the event was tremendous. Barnstorm Fever had hit the United States hard; as it was only a mere decade since the Wright brothers first flew. Air shows had been held in Denver, Colorado Springs, and probably Pueblo before a plane first made its way to Grand Junction, and the Sentinel promised the event was “not an experiment, but exhibition, both machine and birdman having gone through the tests making them fit for display.”

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Thirty-four year old Charles Walsh was the pilot of the craft. Walsh became obsessed with aviation while working in California and had his wife send him any and all information that she could find on the Wright brothers while he worked in the gold mines. Eventually, Walsh designed his own plane and opened the San Diego Aeroplane Mfg. Co. in 1909. His first 29 horsepower plane was a disaster. Nearly broke but very persistent, Walsh finally builds a successful airplane while living on the beach in 1910. Eventually, he would sign with the Curtiss Aircraft Company and started touring all around the country.

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Walsh’s Curtiss Biplane was too weak to fly over the mountains and into Grand Junction and was brought in by rail. Ads from the Sentinel show many business and banks closing on Aviation Day and special train service was ran on the Interurban (a small train service between Grand Junction and Fruita). The Sentinel also advised that should there be an accident, crowds should not “crash in and pull the aeroplane to pieces for souvenirs. It will interfere with the Curtis’ men and possibly cost a life.” It was also suggested that horses be kept far away as they might be spooked by the noise.

The program consisted of Walsh doing three flights. The first was simply flying high and fast but even that was breath-taking for the crowd. Photographs of aircraft had appeared in both local newspapers before but very few had actually seen man fly. The second flight consisted of Walsh dropping oranges on a newspaper target from 200 feet above. While this seems a little odd, it must be remembered that the military application of aircraft was in its infancy. The idea that an air force would one day be the backbone of a military power was a shocking and new belief. For hundreds of years it had been the navy that was the measure of a country’s strength. Now that bombs could be flown over a target and dropped, the navy seemed less and less important. In fact, some early air shows included setting up mock battleships and destroying them with sandbags. Walsh’s plane suffered some damage on his second flight and a mechanic had to leap onto the plane to help it slow down while landing. After a quick fix, the third flight was underway. A spiral toward the ground was performed and the Sentinel reported it as “breathtaking work and there was a universal sigh of satisfaction when it was still seen that Walsh had not lost control of his vehicle.”

Roughly 5,000 spectators came to watch the event and both newspapers called it a great success. Aviation had come to Grand Junction and the Western Slope. Walsh would only make a few more flights in his life after his show in Grand Junction. On October 3, 1912, Walsh was at an air show in Trenton, New Jersey. Presidential Candidate Woodrow Wilson supposedly turned down the opportunity to ride with Walsh on a flight or was scheduled to fly with Walsh after the show. On his final maneuver, a wire snapped and Walsh’s wing collapsed. It was reported that every bone in his body was broken from the fatal fall.

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On October 12, 1914, Grand Junction’s second great air show was held at the fairgrounds. By now, Barnstorming was still very popular but was beginning to lose some of its appeal. Potential patrons began to realize that instead of paying to get into an area to watch an air show, they could simply watch from just outside of the gates and have just as good of a view of the aircraft. To counter this and to get people to keep buying tickets, promoters began to offer car demonstrations that could only be seen from inside of a venue. The team of Beachey and Oldfield would become one of the most famous flying/racing duos.

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Barney Oldfield began racing gas powered bicycles and was soon involved in car racing. His daredevil attitude led to him being the first person to drive over 60 miles per hour and his skills on a racetrack were legendary. Lincoln Beachey had established himself an expert pilot after almost getting kicked out of the Curtiss Flying School. He developed a way to pull an aircraft out of a tailspin and was able to use this knowledge to create death-defying displays that most pilots of the day would never dream of attempting. Teamed up, the two were one of the hottest draws in entertainment.

A crowd estimated at 6,500 came to watch Beachey and Oldfield when they came to Grand Junction. Beachey didn’t disappoint with his flying skills. His high-altitude dives allowed him to reach speeds reported at 200 miles per hour and he performed not one, but five loops. Oldfield’s driving broke the state track record by seconds as he managed to get his car to speeds of 70 miles per hour. The highlight of the event came when the two raced each other. Accounts from the time claim that Beachey should have won the race by flying faster than Oldfield but Beachey performed a loop during the race and Oldfield took the lead.

The rest of the 1910s were filled with small air shows all over western Colorado. DeBeque, Rifle, and Montrose would all host air shows and soon dirt strips would pop up in almost every town. Aviation was about to move from spectator entertainment to everyday life.

Through the 1920s, local aviation enthusiasts began to use a dirt and gravel runway on the north end of Grand Junction. On September 29, 1929, the Grand Junction City Council voted to make improvements at the strip including the construction of two hangers and gas and oil facilities. The area was officially dedicated as Grand Junction Municipal Airport on June 14 and 15, 1930. A “great aerial exhibition” was held that included an altitude contest in which two planes raced to reach an altitude of 3,000 feet, a balloon breaking contest where two balloons were released from the ground, and pilots rushed to pop theirs first and several stunt flights by local pilots. At the end of the show, the American Legion conducted a dedication ceremony for the airport.

Eventually, the airport would be named after the editor of The Daily Sentinel, Walter Walker. Walker was key to the airport’s beginning and used his paper to promote the importance of aviation. On September 21, 1935, Walker wrote, “Grand Junction’s need of an improved airport becomes more convincing each day. More and more frequently official visitors to our city are choosing the airplane route and there is no doubt that private business officials are more generally adopting this quicker method of travel to save time…As the industrial and business center of the western slope, our city should be equipped with a landing field to meet every flying need.”

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Western Colorado Air Service, a private flight school, began operation in Grand Junction. The school was run by T.H Sackett, A.A. Sherred and D.B. Bullock who used Curtiss-Robin airplanes for training and commercial use. In return for opening up the school the city promised to upgrade the small airfield by adding a gasoline pump and keeping the landing strip in safe condition. The school would later be renamed the Mesa Air Transport Inc. and can be considered the first commercial aviation operation in Grand Junction. Oryl Burnett would become the first women to enlist for lessons. On May 4, 1930, Grand Junction saw its first aviation accident. A plane flown by Bullock had a wheel brake seize up on landing and badly damaged the aircraft. The first local fatality came on October 7, 1932, when Harold Thompson crashed a glider. The glider took Thompson two years to make and it crashed on its first flight.

More hard times for the airport came on January 8, 1943. A fire caused by oil placed too near a furnace quickly spread and engulfed a hanger at the Municipal airport. Eight planes were destroyed including seven owned by Eddie Drapela who was running a flight training school out of the hanger. No one was injured but the only plain to survive was an obsolete Alexander Eaglerock plane. The hanger was valued at $3,500 and Drapela’s planes had a total value of over $12,000.

Major commercial aviation service came to Grand Junction on April 1, 1946. On a windy and wet day, a crowed of local residents greeted the first commercial flight to land in Grand Junction. The DC-4 Western Air Lines plane landed a half hour late because of the weather conditions but that did not stop a large number of people to go witness the sight. Glen Berry was the only one passenger who was added to the Los Angeles to Denver flight and became the first passenger to fly out of Grand Junction on a major airline. In September 1947, the route was bought and operated by United Airlines as Walker Field was added to the Denver-Los Angeles route. The United DC-4 was christened “Mainliner Grand Junction” and several UAL delegates made the trip. They were treated to first class treatment by the city council and were taken on a special trip over the Colorado National Monument. United would halt service to Grand Junction on May 9, 1956, because of the condition of the runways. A UAL flight operations manager liked the runway to a “pie crust” and unsafe for DC-5s to land or take off. United would return and Continental and Frontier would add service by 1980. Today Grand Junction Regional Airport is home to United, Allegiant, American Airlines, Delta, and US Airways, as well as several smaller companies.

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The growth in commercial activity led to the construction of a new terminal building in 1950 to house United and Monarch Airlines. On December 26, 1961, the control tower at Walker Field was completed. On December 16, 1982, a new, state of the art terminal building was opened at Walker Field. The building cost $4 million to build and the total cost of improvements ran near $10 million. The new building including much more space for travelers, air carriers and other aviation related businesses and featured a unique, cost saving solar and heating system.

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Historical information provided by Museum of Westsern Colorado