Pilot Maj. Gilbert H. Eckerson, circa 1928, when the landing strip was downtown. Passenger Thomas Aldwell stands in front. (North Olympic History Center)

Pilot Maj. Gilbert H. Eckerson, circa 1928, when the landing strip was downtown. Passenger Thomas Aldwell stands in front. (North Olympic History Center)

BACK WHEN: Clallam County’s William R. Fairchild International Airport rich in history

LATER THIS MONTH, on May 21, Airport Day will be celebrated at William R. Fairchild International Airport in Port Angeles from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Scheduled events should be fun and give us an opportunity to remember the airport’s rich history and remind us how important it is to us.

The area’s connection to aviation started more than 100 years ago. During World War I, the benefit of aircraft to the military became obvious as did the need for a proper supply of wood to manufacture said aircraft, specifically spruce. We had an abundance of it, and so began the Spruce Production Division.

On July 11, 1919, the first airplane, piloted by Lawrence Grant of the American Aircraft Corp. and John Durham of the Royal Flying Corp., landed in Port Angeles on Front Street between Oak and Valley streets. The city had completed its regrade in 1913, and the streets were made from wood planks.

In 1926, some marshy land between Oak and Cedar streets adjoining Marine Drive was filled in, and for the time being, airplanes landed and took off from here.

Aviation was a dangerous novelty, but some didn’t give it much thought. Some local enthusiasts, including Herb Crisler, formed the Port Angeles Flying Club to try to stimulate more interest in flying, promoting the thrill of flying in an open-cockpit airplane and getting to wear flyers’ jumpsuits and goggles.

In 1928, a group of residents, including Thomas Aldwell, invested in a new company called Port Angeles Air Transport (PAAT), which purchased a Waco No. 10 biplane from a dealer in Medford, Ore. Maj. Gilbert H. Eckerson delivered the plane. He was a skilled pilot who flew in air shows, barnstormed and flew in cross-country races, and he spent time in Port Angeles, training pilots and giving airplane rides.

In May 1928, Eckerson flew local Kiwanis leaders Hazen Bastien and Leonard Barrett to Mount Vernon for a Kiwanis luncheon. While there, Eckerson took several people for short flights. For most, it was their first experience flying.

In the days before aviation safety regulations, Eckerson, in 1930, took off in a Breese monoplane to attempt a cross-country flight with only one fueling stop. A new engine cowling funneled exhaust fumes into the cockpit, and as he was attempting to land near Butte, Mont., he was overcome by the fumes. He suffered severe injuries and died three years later in Aberdeen.

When the weather was good, PAAT offered scenic flights, pilot training and air taxi services, serving most of the Olympic Peninsula. They also could land on beaches and on river sandbars.

Soon, business was too brisk for a two-seat airplane, and PAAT later bought a six-seat Stinson Detroiter.

In 1933 during some of the bleakest days of the Great Depression, PAAT went out of business.

Aircraft were steadily getting larger and faster, and the short landing strip downtown was no longer enough. So, in 1934, the airport was moved to Cooke’s Prairie, an area of land west of Port Angeles.

The airport was called the Clallam County Municipal Airport and was significantly improved through the Works Progress Administration, an employment and infrastructure program created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The William R. Fairchild International Airport, the current facility, is still situated here adjacent to Lincoln Park.

By April 1934, the airport was half-complete, and a renewed push for WPA to finish work was fueled by a collision between the Waco biplane and a car. The WPA built concrete runways, hangars, beacons, fuel tanks and an observation tower. When the work was done, the airport was state-of-the-art.

The airport received a $100,000 grant to make necessary improvements in 1936. At this time, the airport was situated on 105 acres of land. To receive the grant, Clallam County was required to purchase additional land to expand the airport.

World War II stimulated increased federal involvement at the airport. In 1941, $211,000 was allotted to expand the facility further. The airport also received $22,000 to extend taxiways the same year.

The Army Air Corp took over control of the airport in 1942, stationing a squadron of P-38 Lightnings here during WWII. To provide safer approaches, they removed trees around the airport and lengthened the runway to 5,000 feet. They also installed, and paved with asphalt, taxiways. A second runway on a northwesterly line also was built as well as a second observation tower, larger and higher than the first. The U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Postal Service also used the airport.

In 1944, the Navy assumed control of the airport.

But by the spring 1946, the need for a military facility ceased, and the Coast Guard’s presence on Ediz Hook was considered enough.

On June 19, 1946, the Navy declared the airport surplus, and the 578 acres of land were deeded to Clallam County. In August 1951, Clallam County deeded the airport to the Port of Port Angeles.

The federal improvements attracted commercial air service, and West Coast Airlines began passenger service between Port Angeles and Seattle in May 1946. Air freight also increased. In 1952, it was estimated that 8,000 passengers, 27,000 pound of freight and 11,000 pounds of mail came through our airport.

Angeles Flying Service was created in 1953 by Bill Fairchild, and it supported University of Washington’s research on Mount Olympus’ Blue Glacier. Fairchild was one of the few pilots capable of landing on a glacier. He was also the first airport manager.

In February 1969, a crash during takeoff tragically took 10 lives, including those of pilot Bill Booze and copilot Bill Fairchild. The airport soon was renamed William R. Fairchild International Airport in his honor.

Our airport has a very rich history, and the facility we have today is the direct result of the war effort. I think it is apropos that Airport Daywill include WWII reenactments, Cascade Warbirds and airplane and helicopter rides. The complete title for this event is Armed Forces and Public Safety Airport Appreciation Day and Fly In. Come see and appreciated our airport.


John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at woodrowsilly@gmail.com.

John’s Clallam history column appears the first Saturday of every month.

The Clallam County Airport in the 1950s with WPA-built observation tower in the foreground, and the Army Air Corps-built tower in the background. (North Olympic History Center)

The Clallam County Airport in the 1950s with WPA-built observation tower in the foreground, and the Army Air Corps-built tower in the background. (North Olympic History Center)

An airport fly-in in about 1946. The WPA tower is on the left, and the Army Air Corps tower is on the right. (North Olympic History Center)

An airport fly-in in about 1946. The WPA tower is on the left, and the Army Air Corps tower is on the right. (North Olympic History Center)

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