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Dirt Runways


Elko, NV Airport - 1919 to the Present

Lt. Col. Norman M. Rockwell, CAP

The novelty of man flying through the air in a machine was barely 15 years old when the Elko airport was constructed. After three years of planning and experimentation by the Post Office Department on the idea of transcontinental aerial mail service Elko was picked as one of the stations on the transcontinental route. This route was to be balled toe Woodrow Wilson Aerial Highway. 

On March 10, 1919, the Elko mayor received a telegram from the Post Office Department asking that a 600' by 1,200' area, sufficiently hard enough to drive a motorcycle over, be cleared near the town. The telegram also asked that a 20' cloth cross be laid to mark the field location and that a stick, with a 5' cloth tied to it, be installed in a corner of the airdrome to show wind direction. A survey group was scheduled to be in at a later date to investigate the completed airfield. A plot of ground immediately north of Southern Pacific corrals west of town was selected, leveled, and rolled. Elko had an airport.

On May 8, 1919, almost immediately after the airport was leveled and rolled for the first time, three airplanes landed on Trosi Field. Although this name was used twice in the newspapers recording the event, nothing could be found on its origin or reason. 

On August 3, 1920, more than a year after the Post Office Department telegram, the survey group, including the World War 1 (WW1) air ace Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, arrived. Nine days later the landing area was approved as a "Class B" airport and it was announced that Elko would be a flight station. The station was opened in December, 1920, to aid the fliers. One operator, using an arc transmitter, gave weather reports using a drug stare thermometer for temperature and visual sightings for ceiling and visibility. [The flight station, as of 1970, remained as one of the four original facilities in continuous operation since 1920.] County crews then cleared a larger area until the field was a "four-way" 2,300' by 2,300'. A landing sign, 30' x 40', was constructed and painted white. WW1 tent hangars were erected to get the airport in operation as quickly as possible. The Post Office Department named the airport Rickenbacker Field and that designation was used until 1926. 

On September 9, 1920, the first plane on the new transcontinental air mail route flew into Elko. The plane was a standard air mail plane, a 12 cylinder de Havilland DH-4, commonly called the "Flying Coffin". 

In February, 1921, a plane flown by airmail pilot W. F. Lewis crashed on takeoff from Elko and Lewis was killed, the first recorded death at the airport. Elkoans rechristened the airport Lewis Field

In 1921 William Arthur Keddie, a local rancher, and E. M. Barber, the first field superintendent, had assembled the first Nevada-built airplane using parts from two aircraft. In fact, one wing was shorter than the other. On July 17, 1921, pilot John Austin "Jack" Frost and Keddie, were taking off for the Holland Ranch north of Elko. At 300' altitude the plane crashed and both bodies were burned beyond recognition. The airport was renamed Keddie Field

In 1925, the Kelly Act, passed in February, authorized Congress to contract with private air carriers for feeder lines into the main air mail routes, as army pilots had been flying the routes up to this time. Walter T. Varney, who ran a flying school in San Mateo, California, bid on C.A.M. 5 (Commercial Air Mail Route Number 5), a 487 mile mountain and desert run from Pasco, Washington to Elko. He was awarded the contract on October 7. On April 6, 1926 Leon D. Cuddeback flew 64 pounds of mail from Pasco to Elko. History was made that day. Elko was the terminus of the first commercial air mail flight in the nation. 

In November, 1926, Commander Richard E. Byrd flew into Elko in his Fokker tri-motor the "Josephine Ford". The whole town turned out to see the first man and plane to fly over the North Pole. Other equally famous flying personalities that stopped in Elko in later years were Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Wiley Post. 

United Aircraft and Transport Corporation, a holding company, absorbed Varney Air Lines, Boeing Air Transport, Pacific Air Transport and National Air Transport. In 1931 United Air Lines became a management company and, in 1934, an independent organization. 

NOTE [Although the author is listed as the preparer all information used, quoted, or paraphrased above, is from Dirt Runways, A History of Elko Airport, 1919-1926 and the Northeastern Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, Fall, 1970, as prepared by Howard Hickson. Mr. Hickson was the director of the Northeastern Nevada Museum from 1969 until his retirement in 1993.]

The following additional information by the author, a 28-year member of the Airport Advisory Board: 

After Keddie Field (and possibly 2 more name changes that can't be confirmed) the Elko airport was renamed Elko Municipal Airport, then Elko Municipal Airport - J. C. Harris Field in honor of Jess Harries, the local "flying sheriff". As the airport is the only commercial facility in northeastern Nevada it has since been renamed the Elko Regional Airport

The airport has seen numerous improvements, including: complete reconstruction of the main runway 6-24, taxiway, and associated lighting and signage; complete reconstruction of crosswind runway 12-30; and construction of a multi-million dollar terminal, ramp, deicing pad, and vehicle parking lot (in 2001), which necessitated a tunnel under runway 12-30. The next major construction contracts are: the removal of over 3 miles of existing 6' high chain link perimeter fencing, installation of 4 miles of 8' high chain link perimeter fencing, and installation of 2 miles of wildlife deterrent fence, all just awarded for $1.6 million; and, and airfield lighting vault, just awarded for $0.4 million. 

Elko Regional Airport is a full service facility with a 7,214' x 150' main runway, a 2,871' x 60' crosswind runway, FBO (El Aero Services) which offers basic flight instruction and aircraft repairs and fueling (including self-fueling), and commercial jet service to Salt Lake City via Sky West Airlines. Additional notables who have utilized the airport include, among others, presidential candidate Ronald Regan, Vice President Dick Cheney in a B757, and President George W. Bush in Air Force One (B747). 

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