Battle for the skies: DFW’s aviation history

Photo: Guest speakers Darwin Payne and Bruce Bleakley (far left and far right) discuss the lecture with Sally Ann Hudnall and Mary Jalonick. /Photo by John Starkey

In the years leading up to the completion of DFW International Airport, the state of aviation in the Metroplex was turbulent, according to Dr. Darwin Payne and Bruce Bleakley, the guest speakers of the Jalonick Lecture Series hosted by the University of Texas at Dallas on Saturday, July 11.

In his lecture titled “The Dallas-Fort Worth Struggle for Aviation Supremacy: How it Started and How it Ended,” Payne traced the history of aviation in DFW up to the 21st Century.

In the 1900s, pilots performed daredevil stunts that often ended in death. One such pilot was Lincoln Beachey.

“In Dallas, the sensational Lincoln Beachey flew, doing stunts like the loop-de-loop, flying upside down, and making a vertical drop of 1,500 feet before pulling up. He was evidently too reckless because the next year, he died when his plane went into the waters of the San Francisco Bay,” Payne said.

Eventually, people began to realize aviation’s potential outside of daring stunts and entertainment.

“The idea arose that Dallas and Fort Worth should be connected through the air. The young Dallas pilot, who had made his first solo flight in the plane powered by a motorcycle engine, made the connection in January of 1917. His name was Lester Miller,” he said. “He delivered to Fort Worth a bag filled with letters from Dallas, greetings from the Dallas rotary club to the Fort Worth rotary club and different mementos, then he returned with similar items from Fort Worth.”

When the First World War began, military uses for planes emerged, including scouting the location of enemy forces, arming planes with machine guns and dropping small bombs.

“Our federal government, even with the late entry into the war, built as many as 48 training fields across the nation to train pilots. Fort Worth especially with three of these fields, and Dallas with one, played key roles,” Payne said.

Following the war, thousands of trained pilots remained at the airfields, unsure of what to do next.

“After the war, airfields saw potential in using aviation for mail, and pilots began to push the limits of current aviation practices, resulting in a number of deaths,” Payne said.

“We tend to forget or not to even recognize, that there’s a surprising number of fatalities in these early years. In 11 months in those three airfields at Fort Worth, 106 aviators died in crashes.”

Soon after, the battle for aviation supremacy began with the construction of Love Field in 1917. The new airfield, which was named for Lieutenant Moss L. Love who died in a military training flight in California, competed with Fort Worth’s airfields for Texas Air Transport (TAT) contracts.

“TAT won important contracts for picking up mail around Texas and delivering them to Dallas, where they could take off for Chicago. TAT was quickly taken over by the entrepreneurial AP Barrett of Fort Worth with Amon Carter’s backing,” Payne said.

“Barrett created charter service and training schools in Fort Worth with the vision that it would become the aviation hub of the nation and Central and South America.”

As the airline expanded, the name was changed to Southern Air Transport. It became the most important airline in the south and a key component of what would become American Airlines.

“As the 20s ended, both Fort Worth and Dallas continued to be firmly committed to developing their separate airfields. The newer and stronger airplanes were extending their ranges, but at this point it didn’t seem necessary to have a single airport servicing both cities, in fact, it was convenient to have two,” Payne said.

Texas was at the forefront of aviation, ranked second only to California in the number of airfields, in addition to having the third largest number of pilots.

In the late 1920s, pilots began fastening wicker chairs to the floors of aircraft and started carrying passengers. Finally, the aviation industry entered the age of passenger transport.

By 1936, there were 10 airlines that were flying passengers out of Love Field every day, and by 1940 more than 100,000 incoming and outgoing passengers annually were served by 13 hangars.

“With all the advancements in aviation and with the distances between the two cities soon to be far closer now, the question seriously arose; why not serve both cities with a single airport?” Payne said.

The question ignited a grudge match that would span almost 35 years.

“In 1940, the CivilAeronautics Board (CAB) received requests for federal money for both airports, Meacham and Love Field. It occurred to some that maybe it wasn’t right for both airports to be considered separately,” Payne said.

“Dallas said that a joint airport might be appropriate, but if so, it should be in Dallas County. Of course Fort Worth didn’t see it that way.”

Arguments like these occurred often over the next three decades. The Dallas and Fort Worth chambers attempted to work out an arrangement that would evenly combine the two, and they came close, desiring a mid-city airport.

However, during WWII most runways were put to military use, and following the war, Fort Worth decided to move forward with the construction of the mid-city airport without Dallas.

“In 1947, Fort Worth announced it would build an $11.5 million super mid-cities airport and terminal. The acreage for the airport would be increased from 966 acres to 1,344 acres,” Payne said.

Dallas received even more bad news in 1948. A plan surfaced that the new airport would be the primary airport for both Dallas and Fort Worth.

“Love and Meacham would become auxiliaryfacilities. The new airport’s runways could be readily lengthened. Love Field couldn’t really lengthen without a great deal of trouble,” he said.

In 1953, the new Fort Worth terminal at Amon Carter Field was completed, but the directors knew it would need Dallas’ greater number of passengers.

“Another problem for the new airfield was the significant difference in operating costs for the airlines. At Amon Carter Field, the cost of each passenger for American Airlines was $40, while the costs per passenger at Love Field was only $6,” Payne said.

So, Carter Field tried again to get Dallas to join. Fort Worth was willing to negotiate, even offering to change the name to Dallas Fort Worth Field dropping ‘Amon Carter.’ Dallas wasn’t biting.

“Eventually, the government, fed up with funding two airports so close together, refused to help fund Love Field,” Payne said.

“The Fort Worth city council went ahead and they renamed Amon Carter Field. Without asking permission, they changed it to Great Southwest International Dallas Fort Worth Airport, removing Carter’s name.”

Dallas still refused to cooperate.

Finally, the CAB stepped in and handed down a surprising demand.

“Dallas and Fort Worth would pick a site together for a regional airport. If not, [the CAB] would do it for the cities,” he said.

However, following the assassination of President Kennedy, Dallas became the most hated city in the U.S. and it took a toll on the airports.

Eventually, Dallas Fort Worth Airport opened in 1974, the largest in the world at the time, with 18,000 acres.

“So the feud was over. It took nearly 10 years to complete the airport,” Payne said.

Bruce Bleakley, author of Dallas Aviation and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and current Museum Director at the Frontiers of Flight Museum, highlighted the major struggles and success of the DFW Airport.

“During its 41-plus year history, DFW Airport’s taken three big hits, but it’s survived due to the fact that it’s well led and well designed, but there were big hits nonetheless,” Bleakley said.

“The first occurred in May of 1982 when Braniff Airlines declared bankruptcy. Very literally overnight, pilots and crewmembers were told that when you arrive back at DFW, park the airplane and walk away and thanks for being part of the company.”

At that point, the airport lost $6,000 a month in landing fees and $21 million a year in facility rentals. Luckily, American Airlines had recently moved its headquarters from New York to Dallas Fort Worth.

Shortly after, the airport changed its name to DFW International Airport in 1985.

“Not that there hadn’t been international flights before, as a matter of fact there were, almost from day one, but this represented more and more international airline traffic coming through the airport,” Bleakley said.

The second big hit was one shared by every airport in the nation.

“On September 11, 2001, along with every other airport in the country, things really got crazy for a while,” he said. “One hundred and fifty aircraft were on the ground after all of the dust had settled. The airplanes had landed, but at that time, DFW did not have 150 gates, so a lot of them were stacked up along the taxiways.

“On one score, DFW really shines on this tragic situation; the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] required all major airports to recertify their security measures before beginning flight operations. DFW was the very first major airport to recertify, and on Thursday, the 13th of September, managed to see 377 departures.”

At this point, the DFW board had to decide whether or not to move forward with a $2.75 billion development plan they intended to begin prior to the events of 9/11. They decided to move forward.

“They made the right decision, because if they hadn’t, terminal D would have been a half million dollar hole in the ground, and their philosophy was that the aviation industry can recover from this. It will take several years, but we can recover,” Bleakley said.

“The third big hit that the airport has taken was in 2005 with Delta Airlines, which by this time had grown to be the second largest airline, right behind American. Delta decided to de-hub their operations. They went from 270 plus flights a day, to I think seven or eight, and so again, American Airlines was able to pick up some of the slack.”

Currently, there are 50 nonstop international destinations out of DFW International Airport. The airport has seven runways, three control towers, five terminals and 165 gates, according to Bleakley.

In addition, DFW hosts 27 airlines, 12 domestic and 15 international, with over 60,000 jobs at the airport, including employees of the airlines and the vendors. American Airlines accounts for 84-85 percent of traffic at DFW.

“The economic impact to this area, the Metroplex, is over $30 billion a year,” Bleakley said.

The lecture was followed by an opportunity to ask the speakers questions and book signings by both Payne and Bleakley.