From Lindbergh to Lear, region’s aviation traditions rich
A Hollywood gossip magazine breathlessly reported in April 1932 that motion picture star Wallace Beery had flown his own airplane from Los Angeles to Reno for an overnight stay.
Beery, who piloted his plane home to Los Angeles the next morning, was hardly the first or the last celebrity to arrive in Reno by air.
And several of the most famed names in aeronautical history played leading roles in the development of a vibrant aviation sector in northern Nevada.
Start, for instance, with Charles Lindbergh.
In 1927, Lindbergh piloted a Boeing Model 40a aircraft a newly developed single-engine craft with just enough room for two passengers and 1,200 pounds of mail into Blanchfield Airport at the southwest edge of Reno.
Now the location of the Washoe County Golf Course, the Blanchfield Airport had served the airmail industry since 1920, and passenger service had begun in the same year as Lindbergh’s visit.
But after landing, Lindbergh said Blanchfield Airport wasn’t big enough to safely accommodate the new Boeing aircraft. That was no small worry, because the plane was developed to carry airmail between San Francisco and Chicago, a route that included Reno as one of its stops.
Almost immediately, executives of Boeing Air Transport the company that held the airmail contract began negotiations to purchase 120 acres on the Waits and Kietzke ranches at the southeast edge of Reno for development of a better airport.
Once again, one of the most important names in aviation history played a role.
Eddie Hubbard, an early-day pilot who had convinced military aircraft manufacturer William E. Boeing that there was money to be made carrying passengers, was sent to Reno to handle the negotiations. In recognition of his work, Boeing christened the new facility “Hubbard Field” in November 1928. (That’s the date that today’s Reno Tahoe International Airport considers its birth date.)
Boeing Air Transport, which changed its name to United Aircraft and Transportation Corp. in 1929 before it became United Airlines two years later, continued to purchase land, expand runways and build support facilities in Reno through the 1930s.
Hubbard Field was busy with a throng of divorce-seekers celebrities and others arriving in Reno to take advantage of the state’s lenient divorce laws.
With hometown pride, the Nevada State Journal reported that the airport was “one of the most modern in the West.”
With the onset of World War II came development of another significant aviation facility, now known as Reno-Stead Airport.
Developed in 1942, the Reno Army Air Base was originally intended to train soldiers in the Army Signal Corps. But it served through much of the war under the Ferrying Division of the Air Transport Command.
The air base north of Reno was mothballed in 1945 before it was taken over for training activities by a fighter squadron of the Nevada National Guard. During one of those training missions in 1949, Reno native Lt. Croston Stead lost his life in the crash of a P-51 Mustang. In 1951, the facility was named “Stead Air Force Base” in his honor.
The U.S. Air Force ran its survival school from the base in the early 1950s. From 1958 to 1965, the base was home to an Air Force school for helicopter pilots. The Air Force closed its operations at Stead in 1965.
In the meantime, dramatic improvements were under way at the Reno airport.
The City of Reno purchased the airport from United Airlines in 1953. Barely two years later, the International Olympic Committee approved a long-shot bid from Alexander Cushing, the founder of Squaw Valley, to host the 1960 Olympics at the tiny resort.
With thousands of visitors expected from around the world, Reno move quickly to build the new terminal building still in use that would provides its front door to the world.
Dedicated just in time to host Olympic visitors, the terminal building wowed residents of the region.
The Evening Gazette Newspaper called the terminal “the harbinger of a new era in aviation.”
And the newspaper said visitors would be impressed by “a huge lobby, efficiently designed ticket counters and plenty of space for the three airlines that used the airport.” (The airport today is served by six major airlines.)
As the airport steadily improved its facilities, its ownership was transferred in 1978 from the City of Reno to the newly created Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority. The change better reflected the airport’s role as a key piece of the transportation infrastructure for the entire region, not merely Reno.
And in 1994, the airport was named Reno-Tahoe International Airport, with the terminal building named for former U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon, a pilot who retired as a major general from the Air Force Reserve.
One the biggest names in aviation Bill Lear, creator of the Lear Jet (and, for that matter, the eight-track tape player) began making his mark on northern Nevada’s aviation history in 1968.
Lear bought the old Stead Air Force Base for $1.3 million, using the facility as the headquarters for Lear Motors Corp. and LearAvia Corp.
One of his early projects at Stead, development of a low-pollution engine that could run on steam, fizzled.
But Lear returned to aviation and designed a 12-seat business jet he called the “Learstar 600.” Canadair bought the manufacturing rights and renamed it the Challenger, one of the most popular business jets for decades.
At the time of his death in 1978, Lear was working on a radically new design for a seven-passenger plan with two turboprop engines that powered a propeller on the tail. The plane never was produced.
Lear’s legacy remains strong in northern Nevada.
Aerion Corp., a Reno company that’s developing a business jet that will travel at supersonic speeds, counts alumni of Lear’s organization at key technology positions.
“Reno is a perfect place for pioneers in our industry,” Krys Bart, president and chief executive officer of the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority told an industry conference a few months ago. ” Our air may be thin up here, but it is thick with aviation tradition.”
Sparks and aerospace
The role that facilities in Sparks played in development of America’s space programs are spotlighted this summer in an exhibit at the Sparks Heritage Museum.
An oral history completed by Dick Dreiling, a member of the museum’s board, details events such as the tests of rockets used for the first moon landing that were conducted by Rocketdyne at its Nevada Field Laboratory in Spanish Springs.
The museum is at Pyramid Way and Victorian Avenue. The “Sparks in Space” exhibit runs through August.
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