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Moab Historic Happenings October 2004

A Short History of Aviation
in Grand County

by
Jeff Richards

Although the Wright Brothers’ first flight took place over a century ago, on Dec. 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, many years passed before the full impact of the achievement was realized.

The remarkable exploits of Wilbur and Orville Wright were duly noted by major newspapers around the country at the time, but they apparently did not attract the attention of smaller rural newspapers such as Moab’s own weekly Grand Valley Times (forerunner to today’s Times-Independent). A computer database search of the Grand Valley Times issues from 1896-1922 indicates that the paper made no mention of airplanes or aircraft until 1914, the year that World War I began in Europe. In addition, Moab’s first airport wasn’t built until the late 1940s, after the second World War had ended.

Even so, a couple of native Moabites made aviation headlines in the 1920s. In 1927, Ida Larsen (later Ida Nichols) became the first woman to take a commercial airplane flight from Utah when she rode in pilot Jimmy James’ Douglas M-2 from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. The plane, a two seat aircraft with an open cockpit, was so noisy that the only communication possible between pilot and passenger was via written notes exchanged between them. Eventually, the late Mrs. Nichols’ notes and her plane ticket were donated to a Western Airlines museum in Los Angeles.

The other Moab aviator of note during the 1920s was J.J. Williams, an Army lieutenant who was one of the so-called “Three Musketeers of the Air” who performed in aerial race shows around the country in the late 1920s (the other two members of the trio were Thad Johnson of Celeste, Texas, and W. L. Cornelius of Antlers, Okla..) The trio was based at the famed Selfridge Field in Michigan and toured with Charles Lindberg around the United States and Canada. Williams was killed during an air show in Los Angeles on Sept. 11, 1928, when his plane crashed in front of the grandstand containing thousands of spectators.

Construction on Moab’s first airport began sometime around 1947. The airport was located in Spanish Valley, about seven miles southeast of Moab City. During the area’s uranium boom of the 1950s, airplanes became a popular mode of travel, as well as a means of transporting mining supplies around the rugged country. An article in the December 1956 issue of McCall’s magazine called Moab the “richest town in the USA,” and noted that many of the town’s millionaires had their own private planes (Moab reportedly had the second highest airplane ownership per capita in the nation at the time). Pilot Dennis Byrd, a close friend of Charlie Steen’s, took over management of the airport in the mid-1950s.

In July of 1959, Frontier Airlines began daily service to Moab, flying DC-3 aircraft to and from destinations such as Salt Lake, Denver, Albuquerque, and Farmington, N.M.. Just over a decade later, a second airport was built 18 miles northwest of Moab, and Frontier Airlines then reportedly switched to Convair 580 aircraft. In 1974, Sun Valley Key Airline Company took over the air service for Moab, and the air service contract has since changed hands numerous times. Currently, Salmon Air operates a dozen round-trip flights from Moab to Salt Lake City each week.

When the lease on the old airport in Spanish Valley expired around 1971, ownership of the land reverted back to the BLM and private owners. The old hangar and the crumbling remains of the runway, with some three dozen new homes in a nearby subdivision are all that remains of the old airport today. The old airstrip was used for drag racing for awhile in the early 1970s, but now the asphalt is in a severely deteriorated condition.

Officially known as Canyonlands Field Airport (CNY), Moab’s current airport is home to approximately 20 planes, and sees an average of 44 aircraft operations per day.

Another noted aviator from Moab is Tim Martin, the “arch flying cowboy” who flew his small plane through arches and rock formations during the 1980s, before current restrictions against such low-level flights were imposed. Although Martin has long since retired from making such daring flights, some of his daring flights have been preserved via remarkable photographs and videos.

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