The Iowa City Municipal Airport, opened in 1918, is the oldest civil airport west of the Mississippi River still in its original location. Commercial aviation was born right here in Iowa City, as the very first air mail flights flew through Iowa City, and many of the early pioneers of flight landed here, including Wiley Post, Jack Knight, Charles Lindbergh, and Will Rogers.
Today it is the finest general aviation airport in the Midwest, serving business, medical, charter and private pilots year round.
The following information is reproduced with the permission of their original authors, Jay and Mary Honeck.
In 1840, a young man named Jeremiah Stover told his father, Joseph Stover, that he was moving to Johnson County, as he no longer wished to stay in Iowa County. He then rode on horseback and laid claim to a farm of 240 acres at the spot where the Iowa City Municipal Airport is located today.
After laying claim to his farm, he rode back to Dubuque, where he paid $1.25 per acre. At the time there were many bandits and Indians in the territory, and it was necessary for him to avoid them while carrying so much cash -- but he made it safely.
Thus was the land beneath Iowa City's airport first settled. (And the Stover family would remain in the Iowa City area for many years to come. One of their descendants, Russell William Stover, would be born on Linn Street in 1888 -- and go on to start the famous "Russell Stover Candy Company") *
Iowa City's first powered flight
Story excerpted from "Iowa Takes to the Air", by Ann Pellegreno
The first flight in Iowa City didn't launch from the Stover farm, but rather from the open fields of the old Johnson County Fairgrounds, located not far from present day City High School on Iowa City's east side.
In 1910, as word spread that two aviators had successfully demonstrated powered flight in Sioux City, cities across Iowa began vying to obtain an aviator of their own!
Baldwin was requested to fly over the city, but knowing the scarcity of landing fields available in the event of engine failure, he declined, stating "You would have to give me $20,000 instead of $2,000 to fly over the city, and I hardly think I would want to do it for that."
On October 12, 1910, strong winds made flight dangerous, but Captain Baldwin wanted to please the huge crowd and made several runs across the field, the machine lifting briefly into the air. Then he decided to attempt a flight.
Taking off to the east, he flew over the trees at the edge of the grounds. There the biplane swerved as air currents hit it. Baldwin brought the "Red Devil" under control, but was afraid to turn in such a strong wind and landed safely in a meadow about a quarter mile east of the fairgrounds. The dissatisfied crowd -- which had undoubtedly expected a perfect flight demonstration and did not understand the vagaries which accompanied these early attempts at flight -- received "Wind Checks" which entitled the bearer to free admission the following day.
Then heading north, Baldwin flew directly over the grandstand, circled the field, and landed in the center of the grounds. The crowd cheered and clapped; this was the type of flying they had anticipated!
By the time of Baldwin's flight the land that would one day be the Iowa City Airport had become W.J. Benjamin's cow pasture -- an open plot of land located just south of Iowa City on the Iowa River's flood plain. Later in the decade it had also become a popular landing strip for local pilots and their newfangled airplanes, mostly because -- unlike much of Iowa City -- it was flat as a pancake, and clear of trees and obstructions.
"AVIATION FIELD ONE AND ONE HALF MILES SOUTHWEST OF THE POST OFFICE WEST OF RIVER ON RED BALL HIGHWAY. SEVEN-TENTHS OF A MILE FROM STREET CAR. CITY PHONE IN FARM HOUSE. TRANSPORTATION AVAILABLE AT POST OFFICE. PROPERTY OF W.J. BENJAMIN. FIELD 440 YARDS SQUARE. FOUR WAY LANDING, NO TREES OR BRUSH. NO BUILDING FOR AIRPLANE. TEMPORARY MARKINGS ONLY. WIRE MARKINGS DESIRED. AVIATORS REPORT FIELD FIRST CLASS."
Just five months later, in May 1920, Smith was killed in a plane wreck -- an all-too-common fate for the early airmail pilots. Shortly thereafter, the Iowa City Airport was renamed "Smith Field" in his honor.
* Historical information provided by Ellinor Goodwin Green, a descendant of Jeremiah Stover and former resident of Iowa City.
1921: Transcontinental Air Mail
Five months later, in February 1921, Smith Field was designated as a fuel stop on the first transcontinental day/night air mail attempt. This flight tested the feasibility of flying the mail around the clock, in all weather conditions -- and very nearly ended up in disaster.
Two westbound pilots and two eastbound pilots took off from opposite coasts of the United States, headed toward Chicago, where they planned to exchange mail and reverse course. Both westbound pilots were forced down by snowstorms before reaching Chicago, and one eastbound pilot crashed in Nevada. The other eastbound pilot made it safely to North Platte, Nebraska, where pilot Jack Knight was waiting to take over the mission.
Jack Knight and the Iowa City connection
Courtesy of the National Postal Museum
The ultimate goal of the Post Office Department was to provide coast-to-coast airmail service. Spanning the continent was accomplished in gradual phases, beginning with the establishment of flights between New York and Chicago in 1918. Later, airmail service was extended further west. Transcontinental service was put into operation in 1920. By 1924, scheduled airmail service between New York and San Francisco regularly required only 34 hours.
Jack Knight was part of a relay team that flew 2,629 miles across the country on February 22-23, 1921. These pilots were tasked with proving to a skeptical U.S. Congress that airmail could travel both night and day.
Jack Knight's airmail odyssey illustrates the determination of those early aerial pioneers. Knight was originally scheduled to fly just one leg of the first day and night-time transcontinental airmail trip. He began flying the mail eastward to Omaha well after dark. About midnight, near Kearney, Nebraska, he encountered snow.
Landing at Omaha by the light of burning gasoline drums placed along the runway, Knight found that his relief pilot had not arrived. By this time, the snowfall had become a blizzard. After refueling his plane, Knight took off for Chicago at 2 a.m. with only a road map to guide him over terrain he had never crossed before.
With deep snow preventing a landing at Des Moines, Knight put down at an emergency landing site at Iowa City, Iowa, using the light of railroad flares which were set out by the field's night watchman, the only person there at the time. Knight refueled and took off again, heading toward Lake Michigan, which would serve as a "landmark" for him to find Chicago. When the snow stopped, he encountered fog.
Finally, with daybreak, the fog burned off and Lake Michigan was sighted. When Knight landed at Chicago's Checkerboard Field he was greeted by a throng of people who had gathered to see if the daring young pilot would finish his remarkable flight. His mail was relayed onto Cleveland and then New York, finally arriving 33 hours and 20 minutes after leaving San Francisco. Jack Knight was a national hero. He saved the first continuous coast-to-coast airmail flight from certain failure.
Having covered 830 miles in nine hours, Knight proved that the airmail could move, even in darkness and bad weather. Although he downplayed his role, he did concede once that "if you ever want to worry your head, just try to find Iowa City on a dark night with a good snow and fog hanging around." * He survived his harrowing days as an early air mail pilot, retiring as Vice-President of Safety at United Airlines in 1938.
The country now knew that air transportation was feasible, and here to stay. Congress appropriated over $1.2 million dollars for the expansion of air mail service throughout the country, and the Post Office was soon erecting electric light beacons to guide night fliers along its routes.
The Department of Commerce took over responsibility for the airways in 1926 and eventually expanded it to 18,000 miles of airways, with more than 1,500 beacons. (The 500 million candlepower beacon that once lit the skies over Iowa City was but one of them.
* Air & Space Smithsonian, March 2006, p. 52, by Peter Garrison
1927-1939: Boeing Air Transport comes to Iowa City
The first commercial passenger flight into Iowa City took place on July 1, 1927, and was covered "from inside the plane" by Jane Eads, a reporter (and the sole passenger) from the Chicago Herald newspaper. The flight from Maywood, Illinois was uneventful, although the reporter confessed that during the Boeing biplane's landing in Iowa City she actually thought the plane was crashing! The plane was piloted by Ira A. Biffle, of Lincoln, Nebraska -- Charles Lindbergh's first flight instructor.
Under the terms of this agreement with Iowa City, Boeing assumed the responsibility not only to deliver the airmail, but to run the airport -- AND to improve and maintain it.
Later, on September 30th, National Air Transport (NAT) took over the Chicago-to-New York routes. In 1931, BAT, NAT, Pacific Air Transport, and Varney Air Lines merged to create a management company called the "United Airlines."
The level of legal entwinement between Boeing and the City grew exponentially between 1927 and 1930. This is graphically illustrated by the 1930 lease agreement, a 50-year lease which had grown from just three pages in length to an all-inclusive 11-page document.
A massive structure, the Boeing/United hangar was built largely of brick on a metal frame, and represented one of the largest clear-span enclosed spaces built up to that time. Severely over-engineered, it was designed so that airliners of the day could taxi in one side, and out the other. The doors would be closed for boarding and de-planing, allowing passengers the luxury of boarding out of the weather -- truly revolutionary in this "pre-jet way" era.
Unfortunately, this feature also guaranteed its ultimate obsolescence, since aircraft would eventually grow too large to "taxi through." Today, the hangar is home to a new flight school, Eastern Iowa Pilots Association, and still houses the occasional transient aircraft&. One of only seven original air mail hangars still left standing, local pilots are attempting to get it listed on the National Historic Register of historic buildings.
Some airport improvements, like the runway paving project in 1936, were performed by the depression-era Works Project Administration. Everything else, from the cost of adding a weather station in 1932, to the installation of runway border lights in 1938, was borne by Boeing and United.
Also during this time, activity at the airport began to attract other businesses to the area. As early as 1930, a restaurant owned by businessman Henry Kobes opened on the field. (An airport restaurant would continue in operation until the early 1970s.)
Paul Shaw, founder of Shaw Aircraft Company and the airport's FBO (fixed base operator) from 1928 to 1959, related this story of what flying was like in the 1930s:
"On a Sunday night in June I took off from Iowa City about midnight with a load of passengers. At the east edge of the field the engine quit. It just died completely. I knew where I was and that there was a field to the left of me. I turned on both landing lights and saw that I was a little too high and too close to the field; so I did a side slip to lose altitude without going forward very much. Of course, when I kicked it off into a side slip, the lights became useless. So I stayed with the side slip as long as I could until I was in danger of hitting the ground with a wing. When the lights came back on the ground I was 25 feet high and about in the middle of the field. I stalled on the ground and made a perfect landing."
"The field was planted with oats which were almost as high as the fence posts. The landing lights were on the lower wing. I was completely down in the oats and the lights were useless after I got on the ground. We were sitting in the dark. We rolled about 200 feet on the ground and I decided it was time to get stopped because I knew there was a drainage ditch ahead. I didn't have any idea how far over in the field I was by that time. So I got on the brakes. The field was soft. It had rained all week and the oats held the water."
"When I hit the brakes I pushed the wheels right into the mud. The airplane started to go up on its nose and it came up so slowly I thought it would stand on its nose, which airplanes do once in a while. It kept on going and went over on its back. We got out. Of course, nobody was hurt." *
Long before Cedar Rapids ever dreamed of becoming an airline hub, flights like these were arriving and departing daily from Iowa City. In 1928 Northwest Airways became the first airline to establish an air-rail network, with daytime travel provided by air, and nighttime travel provided by train. Connections were formed with the Rock Island, Great Northern, Northern Pacific, and Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroads, and weekly flights into Iowa City, Sioux City, and Omaha, Nebraska were added in 1930.**
By the 1940s, United had three daily flights out of Iowa City, going both East and West, making Iowa City a major aerial crossroads.
* Airline Pilot Magazine, May/June 2002, p 24, by Susan Duxbury
** "Early Flying in Iowa"; Author: Paul Shaw, Published 1985.
1939-1945: The World War II years
But all was not roses with the airport during this time. The Works Project Administration had begun a major expansion of the airport, and was literally in the middle of paving the runways when Congress dissolved the WPA in favor of wartime priorities! This incredible turn of events led to an increasingly desperate series of letters between the City and virtually every elected official in Congress who would listen, literally begging for assistance in completing the half-finished runways.
Every attempt to convince the U.S. military of the strategic value of the Iowa City Airport, through the CAA (forerunner of the FAA) was made.
Also in '43 a letter describing the on-going military activity at the airport was sent to Senator Gillette, in an effort to convince the Senator to go to bat for Iowa City.
All of this effort was to no avail -- the runways were left usable, but only partially extended, until after the war.
Also during this time, emergency wartime requirements for transport aircraft forced United Airlines to discontinue passenger service into Iowa City -- "for the duration." This left the city with a sudden power vacuum, since United had been acting as airport manager as well as providing passenger service. Thus, in 1944, after several years of unsuccessful attempts to manage the airport with existing city staff, the first elected Airport Commission was inaugurated -- an organizational structure that continues to this day.
Despite this disarray, military training for the U.S. Navy expanded rapidly in Iowa City. Paul Shaw, founder of Shaw Aircraft Company, ran the airport's FBO (Fixed Base Operator) from 1928 until 1959, and presided over the "Golden Era" of air transportation in Iowa City.
An idea of the size of Shaw's operation is apparent in this excerpt from his memoir: "In 1941 the government decided to pay subsistence for the cross country trainees, and they allowed us fifty dollars a month per student. This covered a room and their meals. They had to pay their own laundry bill. The government also paid this subsistence allowance for the Instructor Training Program. The program got big enough so that I rented rooming houses from people who were renting to male students here in Iowa City. I paid for the rooming houses by the month because I had to have that much housing always available to take care of my students. We had a good restaurant at the airport and we would buy a couple of hundred dollars worth of meal tickets at a time and these were issued to the boys as they needed them." *
In 1941, this training program fell under the newly formed War Training Service. This was the beginning of the United States Navy Pre-Flight School, which trained Navy cadets in Iowa City until they progressed to the point where further flight training was provided, often at the nearby Ottumwa Naval Air Station.
The last cadets entered Pre-flight School on May 11, 1944. The school closed in August, 1944, almost three years and over 5,000,000 miles after it all began.
* "Early Flying in Iowa"; Author: Paul Shaw, Published 1985.
1945-1959: Post-war aviation booms
Much to the surprise of the "experts," the arriving former G.I.s were more interested in starting families and buying homes than in purchasing aircraft. The expected boom in privately-owned aircraft fizzled.
A partial list of these post-war breakthrough aircraft includes:
- 1946 Douglas DC-6 Introduced
- 1946 Convair 240 Takes to the Air
- 1946 Last Douglas DC-3 Produced
- 1949 Boeing Stratocruiser Goes Into Service
- 1949 The First Jet Airliner -- the DeHavilland Comet
- 1950 Lockheed Super Constellation Takes to Air
- 1953 Douglas DC-7 Introduced
- 1954 Boeing Rolls out First Jet Airliners
- 1956 French Unveil the Caravelle
- 1958 Douglas Introduces DC-8 Jet Airliner
- 1958 Pan Am Starts Boeing 707 Service
Iowa City shared in this boom, with airline service and an expanding charter industry -- but the new, larger aircraft meant that newer, larger runways would be required.
As early as 1946, shortly after the resumption of peace-time passenger service into Iowa City, it was obvious that United was no longer interested in maintaining their historic relationship with Iowa City. A 1946 letter from United to V.W. Bales, first Airport Commission Chairman, documents the fact that United Airline's management was acutely aware that the air transport situation had been changed forever by the introduction of new, longer range, high altitude airliners.
Thus began a long, drawn-out dance between the CAB (Civil Aeronautics Board) -- which governed the closely-regulated airline industry of the day -- the Iowa City Airport Commission, and United Airlines, as United's management delicately tried to extricate themselves from the historic agreements they were locked into, supposedly until the year 1980.
However, despite these undercurrents that foretold the future, this was the period of greatest growth for the airport. The runways were finally completed, and a 1947 Master Plan depicted the airport as we know it today. A new aircraft repair shop, separate from United's facilities, was built, and plans for a new airport terminal building were being discussed.
Accompanying this increase in activity, the Airport Commission appointed its first Airport Manager, R.W. Cochrane, allowing United Airlines out of their contract obligations and acknowledging that the daily operation of the airport was beyond the scope of an elected committee.
1959-1972: Iowa City loses airline service
In an error of judgment that echoes down to this day, an anti-development faction of the city council voted to deny United's request. Partially as a result, in 1959 United discontinued airline service into Iowa City, consolidating its operations at the rapidly expanding Cedar Rapids Airport.
In 1959 Ozark Airlines, a commuter airline serving dozens of small Midwestern communities, picked up the Iowa City air mail contract from United, and added Iowa City to its Chicago-to-Des Moines passenger route.
With this decision, the Post Office -- instrumental from the start to the early success of Iowa City's airport -- dealt the airport a nearly fatal blow.
1960-1997: The E.K. Jones years
Acting as both airport manager and fixed base operator under the oversight of the local Airport Commission, Jones was able to leverage his unique position to make the Iowa City Airport profitable for the community, his family, and local pilots.
His company, Iowa City Flying Service, picked up where Paul Shaw's company left off without skipping a beat, employing many flight instructors and providing charter service to the University of Iowa and area businesses for decades.
Stories of E.K's business acumen -- and the occasionally "creative" use of his position and authority -- are legion among local pilots. On more than one occasion, it is told, a pilot's position on the "hangar waiting list" was directly influenced by which brand of airplane he was flying. Not surprisingly, pilots flying brand-new Pipers -- E.K. was a long-time Piper Aircraft dealer -- often found themselves at the top of the hangar list with amazing speed!
It was only when E.K. was diagnosed with terminal cancer that he and his family began to relinquish the reins of what had almost become their own private airport. It was with sadness and reluctance that E.K. retired in early 1998, passing away soon thereafter.
1998-present: Chaos to resurrection
The giant new hangar came with a giant monthly lease, which -- unknown to the City -- PS Air was barely able to afford. Charter expansion, necessary for PS Air to remain profitable, did not come to pass. Gradually things began to unravel for PS Air, with charter pilots unable to refuel at far-away airports due to overloaded credit cards, and employees racing to the bank to cash their paychecks before the account was empty. Rumors grew that they were trying to re-negotiate their lease with the city, and that the city was unwilling to bend.
Then, literally in the middle of the night, PS Air disappeared. One day they were there, the next day they -- and all of their computers, desks, maps, and files -- were gone. Suddenly, there was no one to open the doors, staff the desk, pump gas, or fix the planes. Chaos reigned.
A group of pilots organized themselves into the Iowa City Aero Club, and it was this group that stepped into the breach, keeping the doors open for many months. They even started a small charter service, and were able to win the loyalty of many local pilots and grass-roots supporters with their home-spun service and devotion to the airport.
Soon, however, their lack of capital and aviation business background began to hamper them, and the city decided it wanted an FBO that would attract and support more charter business. The city opened bidding to find a new FBO, and Jet AIr, Inc, from Galesburg, Illinois, won the business over Iowa City Aero.
Ominously, however, in order to lure a new FBO, the city was forced to rent the maintenance hangar below actual cost -- and far below what PS Air had been paying -- sowing the seeds for future budget deficits.
In a bold and brilliant diplomatic move, Jet Air hired one of the best-liked main players from the Iowa City Aero Club, Ron Duffe, to run the local FBO, thus assuring the loyalty of local pilots and business owners. Ron laid the ground work for success in Iowa City (and has since moved on to other challenges) -- but Jet Air continues to operate at the Iowa City Airport, presiding over the resurrection of the airport, with a rapidly expanding flight school, charters, and rental aircraft fleet.