An art deco jewel in Wichita's Air Capital crown.
In a city that has long traded on its legendary status as the world's Air Capital, one cannot be faulted for puzzling over the fact that promotion of our fine Kansas Aviation Museum seems to fall so low on the city's list of priorities. The museum, located in the city's original Municipal Airport building at the southeastern end of George Washington Boulevard, is a treasure too often overlooked.
In the early days of Wichita's flirtation with the nascent aerospace industry, numerous makeshift airstrips were hastily laid out to accommodate test flights, air shows and the occasional long-distance flyer coming in from elsewhere. The 1924 "Air Congress" dreamed up by local business boosters had drawn an astonishing 100,000 people and established the city as the world's leading Petri dish of aircraft development. It was clear that a proper facility was called for to handle the demands of the ever-increasing air traffic, and the city set out to build one.
A 640-acre parcel of unplowed buffalo grass called the "California Section" was purchased in 1927 and set aside for the purpose of building Wichita's city airport. By Feb. 1, 1929, contracts for its construction had been secured. The airport's architect was Glen Thomas, who had earned considerable respect in the community for his design of North High School and the adjacent Minisa Bridge only three years before.
The project moved along swiftly for a few months, but in the wake of the catastrophic stock market crash in October 1929, funds began drying up, and the project was shelved only a few months after construction began. It was not until 1934, when federal funds became available through the Works Progress Administration, that any further substantial work was performed on the facility. On March 31, 1935, Wichita Municipal Airport, also known as Wichita Air Terminal, was finally officially dedicated.
It is perhaps ironic that Wichita, in the heart of what is today considered "flyover country," was for 20 years a mandatory stop for practically all commercial aircraft traveling cross-country from east to west. Our airport was the last stop before the Rocky Mountains for westbound flights needing fuel and weather information and the first stop for eastbound flights just coming over the mountains. If you flew across America between 1935 and 1954, chances are you stretched your legs in Wichita.
Remember also that this was an era in which air travel was prohibitively costly for the average person; cross-country airplane rides were chiefly the domain of the rich and famous. Celebrities were frequently spied at Wichita's airport, biding their layover time in its restaurant or reading a newspaper in its beautiful southern atrium. Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Bob Hope, Gregory Peck, Howard Hughes, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh and many others spent enough time at the airport that it was jokingly called the "country club without dues."
With the Depression still lingering, locals who could not afford to fly could at least glean free entertainment from visiting the airport. During hot summer months it was common for people to enjoy evening picnics on the grounds while watching the planes take off and land; young lovers made dates of it. As the facility became the fourth busiest airport in the United States, with a plane taking off or landing every 90 seconds on average, there was plenty to see.
Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Wichita, acknowledged as a leader in aerospace, shifted rapidly into heavy military development and production. Stearman Aircraft's (later Boeing) factory near the airport worked closely with the Army Air Forces on the Kaydet trainer project and the airport itself was inundated with military personnel. A wing was added to each end of the building to house the local offices of the War Department's Army Procurement Division.
After the war, the military presence continued. The Korean conflict began, and in 1951, the Air Force announced it would build a training base in Wichita. The federal government made a deal with the city — creating not inconsiderable acrimony among the locals — and almost immediately, air traffic to the airport was restricted to military and commercial use. Three years later, Mid-Continent Airport opened and the original facility became Building 1 of McConnell Air Force Base.
And so it was for some 30 years, until it was considered outdated. In 1984, the Wichita Air Terminal building was mothballed by the Air Force. It sat empty, dark and half-gutted for the next six years, until the city made a deal with the government to reclaim ownership of the property on the condition that it be preserved. The Wichita Aeronautical Historical Association was given control of the project, and the Kansas Aviation Museum was born. The building is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, much work has been done toward the restoration of the building, and the museum's collection of aircraft is impressive and growing. Those who have not visited recently, or ever, are encouraged to visit and take some pride in the city's contributions to the modern age.