The Beginnings of Commercial Aviation

Charles S. Davey
History Blazer, November 1995

Airmail service in the United States began on May 15, 1918, over a single route between Washington, D. C., and New York City with a refueling stop in Philadelphia.

From 1918 to 1920 routes were expanded to include Chicago, Cleveland, and Omaha. The last leg of what was developing into a transcontinental route linked Omaha with San Francisco via North Platte, Cheyenne, Rawlins, Rock Springs, Salt Lake City, and Reno. This route was opened on September 8, 1920.

Salt Lake City offered little more than a safety landing strip and a refueling stop in the first months of the airmail run. In fact, one pilot flying in from Reno on September 10, 1920, had difficulty finding the temporary landing strip at Buena Vista Field near 8th South and 14th West. While he circled the valley, officials lighted a smudge pot as a signal. The flyer saw the smoke and finally made a safe landing at 4:15 p.m. He had left Reno at 9:25 that morning on an all-day flight that now takes an hour or less.

Just before Christmas, on December 21, 1920, Woodward Field was dedicated at 22nd West and North Temple. At the suggestion of Salt Lake City Mayor Clarence Neslen, the new facility was named after John P. Woodward, an airmail pilot who was killed November 6, 1920, when his plane crashed in a snowstorm in Wyoming.

With its 106 acres, Woodward Field was one of the largest of the 15 U. S. airfields used by the Post Office Department. In addition to runways, it had an office building, a hangar for eight planes, and a service area to rebuild planes. Later, Woodward Field was renamed Salt Lake City Airport. According to Vern Halliday, airport manager from 1927 to 1936, a large wind sock indicated the wind direction during the day, while a large illuminated arrow, free to turn, provided pilots with landing information during the early evening hours.

The Post Office Department began transporting mail by airplane in cooperation with the U. S. Army, but they hoped to encourage private enterprise to take over the mail contracts.

With the passage of the Air Mail Act of 1925, individuals began to compete for airmail contracts. Walter T. Varney was awarded the contract from Pasco, Washington, to Elko, Nevada. This route was described by one Post Office official as “starting nowhere and ending nowhere, and over impossible country getting there.”

Salt Lake City was quickly pinpointed by Varney Speed Lines and Western Air Express as a connection for points east. So, on October 1, 1926, seven months after Varney began the Pasco-Elko route, Salt Lake City replaced Elko as the southern terminus.

Meanwhile, Western Air Express delivered the first airmail from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City on April 17, 1926. WAE had been incorporated a year earlier by a group of young Los Angeles businessmen who felt that their city was being deprived of airmail service. Not to be outdone by San Francisco, these LA men pushed for a Los Angeles to Salt Lake City route. Five weeks after its first airmail flight, WAE (later Western Airlines) carried its first passengers.

The early airmail carriers were permitted by their contracts to carry passengers only if priority was given to the mail cargo. The average mail load per plane was 400 pounds. About a quarter of a million letters were flown across the country daily.

Western’s first passenger flight on May 23, 1926, carried Ben Redman and John Tomlinson from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles with a stop at Las Vegas. Pilot Charles N. James flew the route in eight hours. During its early years, air travel was expensive. A one-way ticket from Salt Lake to Los Angeles cost $90 and a round-trip $150, large sums in those days.

From 1926 to 1929 commercial aviation expanded rapidly in Salt Lake City. Walter Varney extended his Pasco-Salt Lake route to include Portland and Seattle. Two other contractors, Pacific Air Transport and Boeing Air Transport, began operating in the western United States about this same time.

Varney was enthusiastic about carrying passengers to and from the Pacific Northwest, connecting in Salt Lake City with Boeing Air Transport which had the San Francisco to Chicago airmail contract. Passenger facilities were simple: a crude mimeograph machine cranked out tickets and safety instructions, and a small percolator provided coffee for those waiting to board flights. In 1931 Varney joined with three other airlines to form United Airlines.

The Salt Lake City Airport kept pace with airline growth. A hard-surfaced runway, runway landing lights, a primitive aircraft approach control (a siren blew once for landing, twice for takeoff), and improved buildings demonstrated that the transportation of mail, commodities, and passengers by air was here to stay.

From the beginning of transcontinental airmail service by the Post Office Department, through the development of large commercial airlines, Salt Lake City has filled an important role in aviation. And commercial aviation has provided Utah with economic growth, good access to other American cities, and a basis for attracting additional business and industry to the area.

Source: Charles S. Davey, “The Beginnings of Commercial Aviation,” Beehive History 8 (1982)