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The nation’s midsection is often derided as “flyover country,” which may very well be true for those shuttling to and from coastal cities. But Amarillo represents an exception to that dismissive statement. Air travel has been part of the local landscape for more than a century, reflecting the city’s beginnings as a transportation hub, first for rail, then later by air and highways. From here north to Canada, only one airport—Rapid City Regional in South Dakota—comes close to Amarillo’s annual enplanement and deplanement numbers.

That’s only the passenger side of the equation. Once you factor in military, freight and private aircraft, around 200 flights a day come into and out of Amarillo. And it all started in very unexpected places.

Cleared For Landingand Take-off

The first documented landing of an airplane in Amarillo proper happened in 1918, somewhere along the 500 block of North Polk Street, which was pasture at the time. The plane rolled south to what would be the corner of Northeast Fourth Avenue and Polk, where it refueled, and then took off once more. It may not have been ceremonious, but it was a start.

The next year, the Panhandle Air Service and Transportation Company formed, then Bivins Field and a flight school opened in 1920, all financed by Lee Bivins and H.E. Fuqua. Apparently, that one brief refueling stop raised eyebrows to the possibility of more air travel in and out of Amarillo.

The casual observer may never notice where Bivins Field was once located. The area bounded by Southwest 10th Avenue on the north, Southwest 15th Avenue on the south, Georgia Street on the west, and Travis Street on the east, comprise the Bivins Addition. At street level, nothing may seem odd, but pay attention to the overhead view of the awkward intersection of North Julian Boulevard and South Julian Boulevard. Those two streets run perpendicular to one another, then veer off at 45-degree angles east of Bonham Street. Tree-lined medians grace both roads.

A developer’s whimsy? Not so fast. Those two streets were originally the runways of Amarillo’s first airport, and a hangar once stood near Southwest 15th Avenue and Crockett Street. The houses filling out those runways were built in the mid-1940s to early-1950s, long after the airport ceased to exist.

In 1928, Bivins built the new Bivins Flying Field three miles northwest of town, in part to sidestep increasing car traffic in town. Harold English soon assumed management of the fledgling airport, and the operations were renamed Bivins-English Field. The next year, though, much happened in Amarillo’s aviation scene, with the building of the Old Municipal Airport (known as “Old Muny,” and owned by the city). It was located along the north side of NE Eighth Avenue (aka Amarillo Boulevard), between Columbine and Evergreen Streets. Instead of hiring English to manage it, the city chose Otis Williams, which raised English’s ire.

Later that same year, Bivins-English Field relocated outside of town along US Highway 60. At this point, it was rechristened English Field, the result being competing airfields. The parent company was Amarillo Airport Corporation, headed by English and his brother-in-law, Thornton Oxnard, a strong-headed duo intent on being a thorn in the city’s side. English also bought out Bivins’ interests in his airport.

It was Old Muny, though, that had the notoriety of welcoming Western Air Express service to town a couple of days after opening. Charles Lindbergh himself was there for the first flight. But the luster wore off quickly for Old Muny, because in 1930, English lured Western Air to his airport. Southern Air Transport and Braniff Airways followed shortly thereafter. The war was on, and English was determined to win it in the end. But before the rest of Amarillo’s aviation history could unfold, Amarillo helped play a role for a short time in the delivery of U.S. airmail, something that was not in any airport developer’s business plan.

Delivering Air Mail

In the 1920s, the first air mail was carried by independent Contract Airmail pilots, who flew their own planes, day and night, without sophisticated navigational tools. It wasn’t that they flew under the radar. There was no radar.

Amarillo became a U.S. mail distribution hub from 1926 into the early 1930s, when pilot navigation meant looking for 70-foot-long concrete arrows placed every 10 to 15 miles, or watching for blinking red lights atop 50-foot-tall beacon towers by night. When in doubt, pilots followed the “iron compass” of railroad tracks, which typically went to the same destinations. From Amarillo, the mail split into multiple airways.

The Los Angeles-Albuquerque-Amarillo Airway was the westward leg of an airway that ultimately connected to New York City, but only after many bounces on the tarmac along the way, dropping off and picking up mail, as well as refueling. Flights through Amarillo were in and out of both the Municipal Field and English Field.

Heading north and east, the Amarillo-Kansas City Airway saw pilots following the same breadcrumbs. From an altitude of roughly 1,000 feet, those arrows and beacons were relatively easy to follow, especially considering there was little or no competing light pollution at the time.

This primitive method of air mail delivery did not last long, thanks to rapid improvements in airplane technologies and radio communication. Many beacon towers were scrapped during the war effort, and the concrete arrows destroyed to keep enemy pilots from an easy potential road map. A handful of the arrows from both of these airways still exist on private land in New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas. They point to and from Amarillo.

Finding Our Wings

The subsequent years found Amarillo aviation growing in fits and starts. English died in a car crash in 1935, leaving Oxnard alone to run the airport. In 1937, a fire nearly destroyed English Field. It was rebuilt from 1939 through 1943, but during that time, in 1941, the city bought English Field. It then added paved runways and ramps.

Local aviation was not limited to airports. “Practically every ranch had a runway,” says Dr. Amy Von Lintel, a professor of art history at West Texas A&M University, and author of the forthcoming Art Stories of the Texas Panhandle, which includes a chapter on aviation.

The JA Ranch even used its runway and vast land holdings to host a 1940 fly-in. Brothers Monte and Dick Ritchie held the First Aerial Roundup in April that year, with 102 planes and 205 attendees. No small affair, guests stayed at the Herring Hotel in downtown Amarillo, where they also dined and danced the night away. Elaborate invitations were sent, and a pilots’ airplane was his “brand of admittance,” according to Von Lintel. Planes parked at nearby English Field, and ground transportation was provided. She reports the guests came from far and near, creating unique visual and auditory memories as they would circle and descend en masse.

In 1942, with World War II demanding reallocation of human, technical and natural resources, the Air Technical School adjacent to English Field became a training site for Flying Fortress mechanics and technicians. It opened in May 1942, and was renamed Amarillo Army Airfield. It remained in operation throughout the war, closing in September 1946, at which point it was returned to the city.

Tradewind Airport opened on the southeast side of town that same year. The privately-owned public use airport focused on general aviation back then and still does today. “It was established in 1946 by Shelby Kritser, who was part of the crew to fly the first transatlantic flight for Pan Am,” says Jon Kuehler, manager of the airport.

Tradewind started with post-WWII surplus round-top hangars, which were wiped out in a 1949 tornado. Kritser rebuilt by 1951, then found success as a dealership. “Tradewind was the first Beechcraft sales center in the country. A very large number of Bonanzas were sold here,” Kuehler continues.

Krister died at English Field during an airshow crash in 1966. His estate sold the airport to Jimmie Whittenburg, who then sold to Perry Williams in 2001. Williams continues to own the airport, and has made many modernizations, including more than 20 hangars. “It’s one of the busiest airports in the Panhandle and West Texas. We have more than 140 airplanes based here,” Kuehler says.

Amarillo Air Force Base

Old Muny survived until 1951. Its last tenant—Amarillo Flying Service—left in June 1950, moving to Tradewind Airport. English Field remained the only airport that could handle commercial passenger flights. It took a decade, but the city realized that one airport was enough for it to run. They subsequently renamed the field Amarillo Air Terminal in 1952 and invested in a new terminal in 1954.

It was also in 1951 that Amarillo received another boost from the federal government, which reopened and redesigned the old Army Airfield as the Amarillo Air Force Base. As many as 5,000 students were on base at a time during the 1950s.

The base was declared a permanent installation in 1954. The runway, which measures 13,502 feet and is one of the longest in the U.S., was built in 1959 and would one day be considered an alternate landing point for the Space Shuttle Challenger. Thousands of mechanics and repairmen trained at this important Strategic Air Command base, which grew to more than 16,000 personnel.

By 1964, though, the Department of Defense announced the base would close, and on Dec. 31, 1968, the facilities were transferred to the city and other entities—with the proviso that the U.S. government had the right to reclaim and reuse it should a national emergency occur.

The city then broke ground in 1969 on a new terminal along the south of the runway. It opened in 1971—atop an area formerly used for B-52 parking—signaling a new era in Amarillo aviation. Five years later, a U.S. Customs Point of Entry office was established, and the name was changed to Amarillo International Airport.

A variety of carriers have come and gone in the decades since. The Air Base and English Field facilities are still visible across the tarmac, reminders of a memorable history of air travel in the city. The airport also has the distinction of being one among only three airports in the U.S. that once had Route 66 running through the property. A tiny fragment of 1920s-era Portland cement roadway is still visible just inside the east fence along Northeast Eighth Avenue, running under a second shorter runway, and then the tarmac and longer runway to the west.

The 1990s presented challenges for the airport when the last full-sized jet service from Amarillo to DFW Airport—via American Airlines—changed to commuter jets. The city had to subsidize American Airlines $1 million a year to keep full-size jets in operation, worrying that failure to do so would cripple the local economy.

The 21st Century

This century, the airport has continued to evolve, first being renamed Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport in 2003 following the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy. In 2011, the airport was completely renovated, removing two concourses and rebuilding it as one arc with seven gates. Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and United Airlines service passengers today.

Like all airports across the world, our airport took a hit during COVID. For fiscal year 2020 (which ended in October), arrivals and departures stood at 403,000, down from 705,000 the year prior. It took until 2022 for the total to return to that level. But last year, passenger service surged forward, totaling 777,000 arrivals and departures.

“If you read the numbers nationwide, business travel is still down, but I don’t think for the foreseeable future we’re going to see any downturn in the leisure market,” says Michael Conner, director of aviation at RHAIA.

While there remain only three carriers at RHAIA, Conner is satisfied. “From an air-service standpoint, the carriers that we have serve the markets that are needed, for the most part,” he adds.

Today, the airport is modernizing safety applications, relying on services provided by Esri, the global market leader in geographic information system software. “There’s been a big push from the FAA to move our record and record retention to digital platforms. It helps us with which items need to be repaired,” says Thomas Oscarsson, assistant director of aviation at RHAIA.

The airspace over Amarillo may have many flights passing by at 35,000 feet, but there are many swooping down to leave and pick up passengers. We’ve come a long way since that first touch-and-go back in 1918. 

Author

  • Nick Gerlich

    Nick is Hickman Professor of Marketing at West Texas A&M University, where he has taught since 1989. He led the College of Business in their transition into online teaching in 1997, and has taught more than 125 online courses since then. In his spare time, he travels around the country, including his beloved Route 66, in search of vintage signage and other outdoor advertising. He can be found on Instagram @nickgerlich.