Tucson, Arizona’s Place in Aviation History


On December 17, 1903 at 10:35 a.m., the Wright Brothers made their historic 12-second motorized flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Surprisingly, it was only seven years later that aviation debuted in Tucson, Arizona in 1910 when Charles “the Bird Man” Hamilton landed his plane at a downtown field. By November 20, 1919, Tucson had the distinction of opening the nation’s first municipal-owned airport, later christened Tucson Municipal Flying Field in 1923 at a site now occupied by the Tucson Rodeo Grounds.

First Air Mail

In 1924, the first air-mail traveled from Tucson to New York City and in 1926, the first scheduled commercial air service began in Arizona. That same year, Prescott, Arizona created a rural airport (becoming Love Field in 1928) and later, in 1935, what’s now Sky Harbor in Phoenix was created.

The City’s ultimate goal was to attract a military presence at the airfield and so military specifications were used with every up-grade when the air field was moved to 1,200 acre’s on the southeast side east of town. The military dream came true on September 23, 1927 when the “new” Tucson Municipal Airfield was dedicated as an Army Signal Corps base.

Flying ace Charles Lindbergh flew his “Spirit of St. Louis” there to preside over the dedication of what was now the largest municipal airport in the nation and the first to become a joint military base. With the help of Lindbergh, Tucson Airfield was renamed Davis-Monthan Field, after Lt. Samuel H. Davis, a Tucson High graduate, and Lt. Oscar Monthan, a native of England who had operated a nursery there. Davis-Monthan later became an Air Force base in 1948 and a major player in Tucson’s expansion.

Over the next decade, pilots the likes of Wiley Post, James Doolittle and Amelia Earhart touched down and Standard Airlines – now American Airlines – made it a regular stop. But by the end of the 1930’s, civilian and military aircraft sharing the runway was causing headaches so the city offered to move the municipal airport to its current location.

Tucson’s World War II Expansion

The outbreak of World War II caused the government to realize the need for a large quantity of aircraft – and trained pilots to fly them – and set the stage for nearby Ryan Airfield’s birth. Under U.S. Army supervision, nine civilian flight schools became the new “West Points of the Air.” One of these was the San Diego-based Ryan School of Aeronautics. The U.S. feared a coastal invasion following the attack on Pearl Harbor, so the Ryan school sought an inland training sight. Tucson’s weather and location was perfect.

On June 13, 1942, ground was broken in a field 13 miles west of Tucson and in three months the desert was transformed into an Army base with paved runways, aprons, hangars, barracks, mess hall, classrooms and recreational facilities. The San Diego operation closed and in one weekend planes, personnel and equipment were transferred to Tucson’s new Ryan School of Aeronautics.

The PT-22 planes used for training stood up well to heat, wind and dust storms. They were so rugged they went through the first 7,200 air hours with only one engine failure. A full course of flight instruction normally required four months, but at Ryan Field it was compressed into just nine weeks.

At War’s end, demand for pilots dropped and Tucson’s Ryan School closed in September 1944 – two years and 6,000 pilots after it first opened. The State of Arizona and the three-year-old Tucson Airport Authority executed a 10-year lease for the 906-acre facility in 1951. To make development opportunities more attractive to tenants, a 99-year lease was drafted and signed in 1954.

Throughout the earlier 1940s, other airports began popping up in Arizona and the military “discovered” the state for air bases. However, after the war it became clear that Tucson’s skies were too busy to handle both military and civilian traffic at the same airport: civilian operations had to move to make room for the expansion of Davis Monthan Air Force Base.

Tucson International Airport

In 1948, the city of Tucson asked the Chamber of Commerce Aviation Committee -headed by local car dealer Monte Mansfield -to set up the new city airport. This resulted in Tucson Airport Authority’s birth. The new municipal airport moved to 2,500 acres south of town where Grand Central was using an 11,000-foot airstrip and three massive Quonset-style hangars (which still remain on the airport’s west ramp) to modify and repair B-24 bombers for Korean War duty.

By 1950, Tucson’s population has reached 120,000 and by 1960 it nearly doubled to 220,000. Throughout the next two decades, TAA was busy attracting tenants and catering to the airlines. American Airlines was the first commercial carrier to make Tucson an operational base. They have been here since 1927 and still remain one of Tucson’s top three carriers. Frontier Airlines arrived in 1950, followed by TWA, and Continental.

The Arizona Air National Guard 162nd Fighter Group moved to Tucson International in 1956. Just two years later, a 10-story control tower opened, but growth soon mandated a new terminal building. In 1963, the current terminal building opened across the field. In 1985, 22 years after it first opened, the terminal building was remodeled and doubled in size.

Passenger traffic grew in the early 1990s when discount carriers arrived in Tucson, bringing with them highly competitive fares. In 1994, TIA experienced its largest increase in passenger traffic ever, with a 25 percent jump in arrivals and departures. By the end of 2000, the airport was logging more than 3.5 million travelers every year.

By the end of 2010, Tucson International Airport saw 3,740,675 passenger arrivals/departures, according to the Airport Authority.