WAYNOKA, Okla. (AP) — At first glance, there is nothing remarkable about the large, rectangular patch of concrete in a cattle pasture northeast of Waynoka, in Woods County.
But, the unassuming appearance of the concrete slab, now used to store farm equipment and round hay bales, hides a rich history of aviation pioneers and historic firsts in commercial flight. It goes back 90 years, to July 1929, when the small town of Waynoka became a hub of transcontinental air transport that attracted some of the nation's wealthiest and most famous people.
Sandie Olson, of Waynoka, and her late husband, Rex Olson, inherited the half section of land, three miles north and two miles east of Waynoka, adjacent to the BNSF Railway line, from Rex's father and uncle, Miles and Harrison Olson.
The Olson brothers bought the land from Transcontinental and Western Air, now known simply as TWA, in the early 1930s. But, Olson said, to many of her generation and later, it was a little-known piece of history as to why TWA owned a patch of cow pasture in northwest Oklahoma in the first place.
"Growing up, I didn't know anything about the airport, until much later," Olson told the Enid News & Eagle.
The airport came into being after a group of investors formed Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) in 1928, and hired aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh as the new airline's technical director.
Passenger air travel was in its infancy in 1928, and TAT set the audacious goal of creating a coast-to-coast air transport line that would connect passengers from New York City to Los Angeles in 48 hours.
The following stories are from the Enid News & Eagle archives. Dates and times were valid as of publication date and may not be applicable today.
But, with the technology of the day, planes weren't equipped to fly at night, so passengers would have to fly by day, travel by rail at night, then connect with another plane the next day.
That meant finding a place where an airport could be built near a rail line, and at a good point for refueling along the air route between existing airfields in St. Louis, Mo. and Clovis, N.M.
By late 1928, Lindbergh was flying that route, scouting possible locations for the refueling and rail connection field. That winter, he flew over a flat section of ground about four miles northeast of Waynoka, that was immediately adjacent to the Santa Fe rail line.
Congress authorized in 1884 a right-of-way for the Harper and Western Railroad to build a line across the western third of the Cherokee Outlet. By 1910 the Santa Fe Railroad had taken over operation of the line and had opened in Waynoka a depot with an adjacent Harvey House — a restaurant and boarding house.
Lindbergh determined the location was ideal, and TAT soon arranged to purchase the half section of ground. In early 1929 a group of local dignitaries and TAT officials met at the field to break ground for a hangar, apron, utility building, garage and runways.
The new field would be a transfer point for TAT's line between Columbus, Ohio, and Clovis, N.M. For the entire transcontinental route, passengers would take an overnight train ride from New York City to Columbus, Ohio, then a flight in a Ford Trimotor from Columbus to Waynoka, with four refueling stops along the way. At Waynoka, they would board an overnight Santa Fe train bound for Clovis, N.M., where, the next morning, they'd board another Trimotor bound for Los Angeles, Calif., with three stops en route.
Fare for the one-way trip was $360 — valued at more than $5,200 today.
Two Trimotor crews would live in Waynoka, flying passengers into the field to meet the train each evening and flying eastbound passengers to Columbus each morning.
The inaugural flight into Waynoka's TAT field was on July 9, 1929, with pilots Howard Hall and Earl Fleet at the controls of the Ford Trimotor. One of their passengers was aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, also an officer with TAT.
Earhart returned to Waynoka at least twice, as a TAT passenger in September 1929 and in her private plane in 1932. Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared and were presumed lost at sea during an attempted round-the-world flight in July 1937.
Other visitors to Waynoka included movie stars like Greta Garbo, famed columnist Ernie Pyle and a host of other celebrities and socialites, who often would dine with Waynoka locals in the Harvey House at the Santa Fe depot.
But, the excitement surrounding the TAT transcontinental air-rail line was short-lived. On Sept. 3, 1929 a TAT flight crashed into Mount Taylor, an 11,000-foot peak in New Mexico. Eight people died in the crash, dampening desire for the costly Ford Trimotor route.
On October 29, 1929, TAT took a significant hit, along with the rest of the country, in the Black Tuesday stock market crash, which plunged the United States into the Great Depression.
Will Rogers, namesake of Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, took a dim view of the stock market crash the next day, while traveling the TAT route through Waynoka.
On October 30, 1929, the columnist and humorist filed the following piece from the Sante Fe depot in Waynoka:
"What does the sensational collapse of Wall Street mean? Nothing. Why, an old sow and a litter of pigs make more people a living than all the steel and General Motors stock combined. Why, the whole 120,000,000 of us are more dependent on the cackling of a hen than if the Stock Exchange was turned into a night club."
But, for TAT and many other companies, Black Tuesday had a lot more consequence than cackling hens. Despite lowering its fares by more than half in an attempt to lure more passengers, the airline lost $2.7 million in its first 18 months of operation.
In February 1930 TAT merged with Maddux Airlines, adding more aircraft in an attempt to bolster the reach and financial health of the combined company. On October 1, 1930, TAT-Maddux merged again, with Western Air Express, to form Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA).
But, it was technology that dealt the final blow to Waynoka's pioneering airfield and its railway connection. By the time TAT merged into TWA, passenger planes and navigation techniques had improved to the point they could fly at night, making the rail connection at Waynoka unnecessary. TWA announced its plans to close the field not long after the company was formed.
Today, there is not much left of the TAT airfield. The concrete pad, a few iron tie-down points for the aircraft, and a crumbling garage and electric utility building are all that remain.
But, despite the short history of TAT, its transcontinental air-rail route and its place in Waynoka, Olson said she hopes others will take note of the cattle pasture where aviation greats like Lindbergh and Earheart once made history.
"All history is important, and I've always enjoyed history, and I think other people would enjoy this too," Olson said.
As president of the Waynoka Historical Society, she hopes to have signs placed leading visitors to see the site of the former TAT airfield. She and other volunteers also keep the history of the TAT airfield and the Santa Fe Railroad alive at the Waynoka Air Rail Museum, which includes original artifacts, displays and information boards in the restored second-story of the original Harvey House.
"Knowing the significance of this place is important," Olson said, looking over the concrete pad where aircrew and travelers once blazed a path for today's airline industry. "We've had some of the most recognized names in aviation history — Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart — right here."
Information from: Enid News & Eagle, http://www.enidnews.com