High in Desert Skies

Author William Kalt III.jpg


Gravity Grovels & the Birds Lose Their Jobs to the Homo-Avis
By William Kalt III


Historian and award-winning author William Kalt III, discusses Arizona’s fascinating aviation history, as documented in his new book, “High in Desert Skies: Early Arizona Aviation,” on Big Blend Radio.

While jet aircraft thunder across Arizona skies today, just over a century ago daring “bird men” challenged gravity in rickety contraptions of wire, wood, and cloth. These crazy souls of the air battled wind and weather conditions in open-cockpit machines that lacked the power and instruments of modern-day airplanes. Landing on rough, poorly-cleared, too-short landing strips or on brush-filled vacant lots, airmen faced earth-bound aero-fanatics who rushed the plane as it landed in hopes of grabbing a piece of history.

Deep in the nation’s southwestern corner, far from its bustling commercial centers, Arizona celebrated more of its share of “flying firsts” during the early days of aviation. Public aerial shows began in Phoenix less than a month after the United States’ first large Air Meet near Los Angeles in 1910. Similar performances soon followed in Tucson and Douglas and the flying game was on in the Territory!


The next year, eastbound pioneer aviator Robert G. Fowler piloted the first plane to fly into Arizona. Foiled by a flood of mechanical and other difficulties in his attempt to secure William Randolph Hearst’s $50,000 prize for making the first flight across the United States, Fowler landed at a ballpark in Yuma on October 25, 1911. A statue in front of the city’s Yuma Landing Restaurant, dedicated on its 50th anniversary, commemorates the historic event. Flying his Wright Model B biplane, dubbed the “Cole Flyer,” Fowler met his westbound counterpart Cal P. Rodgers in Tucson, the only place in the nation where both initial transcontinental fliers stood on the ground at the same time.

Following these historic events, seven years would elapse before an airplane again flew into the Territory and landed. December 1918 brought a military squadron four JN-4 “Jennys” to Phoenix from Coronado Island’s Rockwell Field at San Diego. The Phoenix Chamber of Commerce prepared land at the Arizona Territorial Fairgrounds at 19th Avenue and McDowell Road, which proved too short by military standards, almost resulting in Smith crashing his plane into an irrigation ditch. To the south in Tucson, city and county officials halted all work projects and directed all workers along with every horse and mule team to clear land east of present-day Evergreen Cemetery for the city’s first landing grounds. Following its successful landing and welcoming festivities the squadron soared on to execute the first flight across the country in military formation.


Thus began an array of flights into Arizona as the state took its place as an aviation leader. The Gulf-to-Pacific Squadron soon followed, also mapping early airmail routes and capturing the first aerial photos of the Grand Canyon. Within a year, Tucson opened America’s first municipal airport and Arizona hosted one of the U.S. Air Service’s initial recruitment efforts. In addition, stunt pilots, including the Victory Loan Circus, thrilled entertainment-starved crowds in a series of aerial displays.

Recognition crowned two Arizona pilots who earned flying “Ace” status in World War I. One, Lieutenant Frank Luke, Jr., died tragically in an heroic blaze of patriotic glory. The other, Ralph A. O’Neill, endured to develop Mexico’s initial aerial force and build the first passenger and freight airline to connect New York City with South America.

The 1920s brought two highlights and tragedy in Arizona’s early aviation history. When wear and tear on their Douglas World Cruisers forced the first airmen to circle the globe to alter their flight path in 1924 and land in Tucson. This put the small town on the map with Tokyo, Vienna, and London. The deaths of Samuel Howard Davis and Oscar Monthan (Mon-tan) in airplane accidents prompted Tucson to name a succession of airfields in their honor. Charles A. Lindbergh’s 1927 visit to Tucson following his historic trans-Atlantic solo flight provided the pinnacle of the period. More than 20,000 people gathered to hear America’s boy wonder speak before he dedicated the Ancient and Honorable Pueblo’s second Davis-Monthan Airport.

These and other tales of flying adventure join more than 200 images to bring to life the age of flight in the nation’s 48th state in William Kalt’s book, “High in Desert Skies: Early Arizona Aviation.” Purchase your copy at www.highindesertskies.com or at amazon.com.


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These and other tales of flying adventure join more than 200 images to bring to life the age of flight in the nation’s 48th state in William Kalt’s book, “High in Desert Skies: Early Arizona Aviation.”

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