From the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
AVIATION. In the 1920s Cleveland emerged as a center for the early development of commercial mail and passenger flight operations, and since that time has become a focal point for the advancement of modern aviation and aerospace technology.
Cleveland’s initial contact with aviation began during World War I when the federal government provided incentive for its development by introducing the delivery of mail by air. Just as Cleveland benefited from its position on the New York-to-Chicago railroad corridor, its size and strategic location fit ideally into a coast-to-coast route for airmail delivery from New York City to San Francisco. In 1918 federal officials began constructing a transcontinental system of navigational beacons or “guide lights” to initiate coast-to-coast airmail delivery, and Cleveland, aided by enthusiastic support from the Chamber of Commerce and local business groups, was chosen as one of the principal stops. The first regular airmail service as far as Chicago was inaugurated in mid-December of that year when planes piloted by U.S. Army flyers arrived in Cleveland, landing on a grassy strip in Woodland Hills Park near E. 93rd St. and Kinsman Ave. Planes on these runs carried 850 lbs. of mail (letters cost $.06 to send) and the flights experienced few major difficulties. The first truly transcontinental airmail trips in the nation began 8 Sept. 1920, with planes making their Cleveland stop at Martin Field, located behind the aircraft plant (seeGLENN L. MARTIN CO.) on St. Clair Ave. The U.S. government considered these makeshift fields unsatisfactory, and in 1925, CLEVELAND-HOPKINS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT emerged when a team of city officials and Army Air Service personnel selected 1,040 acres at Brookpark and Riverside Dr. as the site for a new municipal airport. The much larger facility reflected good long-term planning, although the administration and passenger buildings did not open until 4 years later.
The timing of this $1.25 million airport expenditure was ideal because in 1925 Congress passed the Kelly Act, under which the federal government turned over operation of its airmail routes to private parties through competitive bidding. Civil aviation was born, and Cleveland benefited from the entrepreneurial spirit of the early airplane owners. Not only did private contract flyers carry mail to various cities, mostly in the Midwest, but these fledgling businesses began to seek passengers as well. Ford Commercial Air lines inaugurated daily trips between Cleveland and Detroit on 1 July 1925, and soon Natl. Air Transport, a future component of United Airlines, launched what would become the first continuous service. Four thousand planes cleared the new field in 1925; in 1926 the total reached 11,000; and a year later, volume had grown to 14,000. Travelers bound for Detroit in 1929 made the 100-minute flight from Cleveland in a Ford tri-motor metal monoplane paying a fare of $18 one way and $35 round-trip. Airline personnel continually reassured wary passengers that air travel was safe, pointing out that planes, pilots, and mechanics were licensed by the Aeronautics Branch of the Dept. of Commerce and a rigid daily inspection of equipment was made. Aircraft landing was indeed made much safer after 1930 when Cleveland’s municipal airport installed the world’s first radio traffic system. General airport upgrading in the mid-1930s also made for better flying, and pilots favored the Cleveland field because of its relatively obstruction-free approaches.
With the introduction of the improved Douglas DC-3 airplane in the late 1930s, the number of trips canceled by adverse conditions lessened significantly, making it possible for an airline to turn a profit on a flight without hauling mail. By World War II, 3 airlines, American, Pennsylvania Central, and United, dominated Cleveland’s commercial traffic. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the greater dependability and faster speeds of the planes, the lower fares, and the decline in intercity railroad passenger service expanded the market for air travel. Both passenger traffic and mail increased, as did the number of flights for airlines such as Eastern, TWA, United, and Trans-Canada, which connected Cleveland travelers to the major cities of the U.S. and Canada and to international flights around the world.
The most notable technological advance during the period was the advent of the jet engine and the rapid disappearance of piston-driven craft. Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 jets began to land at Cleveland Hopkins Intl. Airport, and in the late 1970s, the next generation of wide-bodied Boeing 747s and DC-10s regularly deposited passengers here. Only a few turbo-prop jets reminded passengers of the early jet age, and these craft belonged almost exclusively to small feeder lines such as the locally based WRIGHT AIRLINES, INC.. Massive improvements of Hopkins facilities were begun in 1973 involving a $60 million terminal-expansion plan which included rehabilitation of the west concourse and the longer runways needed to accommodate the jet age and the increase in passengers that it brought.
While physical improvements at Greater Cleveland’s 3 airports were readily apparent, the traveler, after 1978, also recognized that airlines themselves were changing as the revolutionary process of deregulation by the federal government swept the industry in the late 1970s. Competition increased and so did mergers as fares were lowered to attract more passengers. In order to maintain profitability, trunk carriers reduced the number of flights or ended service outright in what was rapidly becoming an intense rivalry. In spite of the volatility, however, a number of new airlines entered the field, and in 1992 Continental and USAir were major carriers operating out of Cleveland’s municipal airport.
Greater Cleveland had satellite airports as well. To relieve congestion, especially traffic generated by private aircraft, Cleveland’s downtown field, BURKE LAKEFRONT AIRPORT, opened in 1947 to provide ready access to the central business for travelers using their own or company planes or the regularly scheduled community flights. The other major landing strip at CUYAHOGA COUNTY AIRPORT on Richmond Rd. also served general aviation. Located in Richmond Hts., this field initially opened in the spring of 1929 when Ohio Air Terminals, Inc. acquired a 272-acre parcel for a flying school and related activities; however, it closed a year later after legal action was taken against the promoters because of airplane noise and danger. A pro-aviation climate after World War II prompted small-plane enthusiasts to win voter approval for the issuance of county general obligation bonds to rehabilitate the field. Although nearby property owners tried to block the plan, the Cuyahoga County Airport opened on 30 May 1950.
Cleveland aviation involved transporting freight as well as mail and people. In Feb. 1936, the Railway Express Agency’s Air Div. started air-rail express service through an interchange agreement with Pan American Airways that linked Cleveland with cities on 20 American airlines and most of Latin America. From the mid-1930s on, the forwarding of express and freight increased steadily. After World War II, air cargo service frequently became part of the individual carrier’s Cleveland operation. American Airlines, for instance, inaugurated such service between Hopkins and 42 other cities on its far-flung system in Sept. 1946. More recently, freight-only air forwarders have served the community, including Federal Express and the Flying Tiger Line.
In addition to the development of commercial aviation, Cleveland played an early role in the research and production of aircraft, beginning in 1918. That year inventor-entrepreneur Glenn L. Martin came to Cleveland and established a factory at 16800 St. Clair Ave. where he and his talented colleagues built the Martin MB bomber–acknowledged by military authorities to be superior in its class. The Martin-designed bomber, scheduled for quantity production when World War I ended, was produced here for the U.S. Army and Navy, for the Post Office, and for commercial use. Although Martin moved his plant to Baltimore in 1929, the GREAT LAKES AIRCRAFT CO. operated a portion of the former Martin facility until that company disbanded in the mid-1930s. Aircraft parts continued to be made here, however, by firms such as Cleveland Pneumatic Aerol Co. and Thompson Products (TRW). Cleveland returned to aircraft production during World War II, when the Cleveland Bomber Plant owned by the Dept. of Defense and operated by General Motors (GM) made the B-29 bomber adjacent to the municipal airport.
Aviation research and development was also furthered by the NATIONAL AIR RACES, which were held here intermittently throughout the 1930s and from 1946-49. In 1929 the quality of Cleveland’s airport and the organizational skills of the Chamber of Commerce, together with support from Glenn Martin and Thompson Products, made possible the first aircraft races and the satellite aeronautical exposition. Although the races popularized aviation and were a source of civic pride, they were also important in advancing aircraft technology. Contests such as the Bendix trophy race from Los Angeles to Cleveland and the Thompson Trophy Race–a 55-mi. closed course marked by pylons–were proving grounds to test the airplanes’ durability and performance under extreme conditions. Cleveland’s stature as a research center was affirmed when the Natl. Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) established an aircraft engine laboratory in 1940. During World War II, its investigations included the problems associated with B-29 engines which were being assembled here by GM. Renamed the Lewis Flight Propulsion Research Laboratory after the war, the NACA facility conducted research to improve jet engine technology. In 1958 the Lewis Research Center became part of the Natl. Air & Space Admin. (NASA) and became actively engaged in the Mercury and Apollo space programs.
Although aircraft production did not remain in Cleveland, the city retained a meaningful presence in the manufacture of airplane parts and the advancement of jet engine and aerospace research and development.
H. Roger Grant
Univ. of Akron
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Giblin, Ann M. “Aviation Enterprise, Technology and Law on Richmond Rd: The Curtiss Wright Hanger and the Cuyahoga County Airport,” in Journal of the Cuyahoga County Archives, (1983).
Morton, Jan. “Cleveland’s Municipal Airport,” in National Municipal Review (1926).
Aviation Library, WRHS.