Stillwater’s Flight: From Barnstormers to Commercial Air Service

A dirt field served local aviators in July 7, 1944

Story by Roger Moore, Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History Director

Images courtesy of Sheerar Museum photo collections

Getting to and from Stillwater has not always been the easiest task.

In the early years following the Land Run of 1889 that included settlement of the Stillwater area, travelers loaded up wagons or rode horses to the nearest train station in Orlando or Perry. Long before paved roads, to say it was a bumpy and time-consuming three-plus-hour ride is an understatement. The railroad arrived in Stillwater in 1900 and access to the community and Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College (OAMC) became a little less cumbersome.

As the technology of national travel moved from rail to air during the first half of the twentieth century, a growing Stillwater joined the small airport business. Not unlike the early wagon and horse rides to Orlando and Perry ― but with much smoother roads ― getting to and from Stillwater still requires a hour’s drive from airports in either Tulsa or Oklahoma City with no local passenger airline service available. In August 2016, however, the extra few hours from Tulsa or Oklahoma City will be reduced to a short drive to the Stillwater Regional Airport.

On August 23 a daily jet service from Stillwater Regional Airport to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport begins. The airport and American Airlines will offer two direct flights to and from DFW, American Airlines’ largest hub. Not since 1984 has Stillwater had scheduled passenger airline service. It can also be considered another chapter of an already interesting history with some familiar names making significant contributions to that story.

Just prior to 1920, small aircraft often landed in pastures surrounding Stillwater. The early 1920s included barnstorming with locals paying a small fee for rides. In 1929, Mayor George Thompson received approval to acquire land, and after the purchase of 239 acres north of town, the first Stillwater airport was born. It included a half-mile grass strip, a steel hangar, and a 10×10 wooden-framed office and opened for business on December 7, 1929.

That first “air port” was managed by local aviation enthusiast George Searcy, son of M.G. Searcy, who ran a grocery store on the corner of Seventh and Main. Tragically, George Searcy was killed in a plane crash in the Lake of the Ozarks and M.G. took over operations briefly. U.S. Air Force pilot Arthur Kingman succeeded M.G. Searcy and renamed the airport Searcy Field in honor of George Searcy.

The long tenure of J. Alvin “Al” Guthrie began in 1936. A former barnstormer, Guthrie gave short plane rides, provided flight instruction and offered a limited charter flight service. In 1937 Guthrie had 18 students, all receiving college credit for the new and growing pilot program. With help from the Works Progress Administration the first office-hangar building materialized.

Another prominent local figure, OAMC President Henry G. Bennett, like Guthrie, was also an aviation enthusiast and a big proponent of air travel, promoting its benefits to the college. Bennett was once part of a demonstration that included a small plane landing in between the old gymnasium and Lewis Stadium on campus. In 1939, Guthrie, Bennett, and Stillwater Mayor M.J. Bradley were all influential in the establishment of a civilian pilot training program.

By 1940, with improvements to the airport, the city and college hoped to become a primary training school and serve as a feeder program for Randolph Field in San Antonio, Texas. In preparing proposals to the WPA it was believed consideration would be enhanced if it were submitted by the college ― and thus the longstanding confusion of airport ownership commenced.

In 1941, with World War II raging worldwide, Guthrie’s program became a secondary course for civilian pilots sponsored by the Civil Aeronautics Administration. Bennett offered use of Searcy Field and military pilot training commenced. A small program started by Guthrie became the 90th College Training Detachment, including 200 students who received 10 hours of basic flight instruction. Many of those pilots went on to advanced Air Force schools around the country. Eventually over 1500 pilots trained in Stillwater.

Aerial view of Searcy Field during the early 1940s when the field housed surplus military aircraft.
Aerial view of Searcy Field during the early 1940s when the field housed surplus military aircraft.

The U.S. Navy leased Searcy Field beginning in 1942 and for an additional six months following the end of World War II when the airport became a holding ground for 475 planes that served various purposes in Europe and nationwide. Four P-47s arrived from South Carolina. On the same day, seventeen P-40s arrived from Florida. Twenty-three B-24s followed from Alabama. Sadly, most of the planes were scrapped, sold to Hollywood stunt pilot Paul Mantz for just over $50,000.

During the war years a second airport operated southeast of Stillwater. The City leased 160 acres on Mehan Road and just over a mile east of Highway 177 to continue the student training program while the armed forces occupied Searcy Field. However, a weather-related natural disaster caused $25,000 in damages and by July 1944 training ceased at the South Airport. The year 1944 is also significant due to the August founding of the Oklahoma Flying Farmers organized by OAMC. An initial group of thirty eight farmers inspired the award-winning student pilot program known as the Flying Aggies, a group that still functions at Oklahoma State University in 2016 (http://www.flyingaggies.com).

President Harry Truman was one of several US Presidents to visit Stillwater via air travel.
President Harry Truman was one of several US Presidents to visit Stillwater via air travel.

In December of 1946 the City of Stillwater requested the U.S. Navy terminate its lease with Searcy Field and return it to Stillwater ownership. Two other significant contributors flew into the picture in October 1947 when Air Force pilots Hoyt Walkup and Russell Babb took over operations for the college-run Searcy Field. Walkup served as airport director until his death in 1982. Babb, chief pilot for the university, retired in 1985.

In 1949 OAMC took charge of Searcy Field at a cost of $1 for a period of twenty five years. The agreement stipulated the college would operate the airport with Gene Rucker serving as manager. Walkup assumed duties in 1952 and a year later Stillwater’s first “official” attempt at offering commercial service began with Central Airlines. The airline began daily flights into Stillwater in April 1953. The fare from Stillwater to Dallas was $15.40. Central Airlines merged with Frontier Airlines in 1968 and the flight service to Stillwater did not continue. In June 1984, Lone Star Airlines opened with services to Dallas/Fort Worth, Memphis, and additional cities. Three years later, Lone Star founder Phil Trenary moved his headquarters to Fort Worth and by 1998 the airline filed for bankruptcy.

When the 25-year lease ended in 1974, a new lease agreement authorized the university to operate the airport for five additional years. In 1977 Searcy Field became Stillwater Municipal Airport, the name changed by the City of Stillwater, who resumed responsibility of operating the airport in 1980 with Walkup remaining as manager. In March of 1986 Gary Johnson was appointed airport manager, a post he still maintains for the Stillwater Regional Airport—the name changed in 1999.

On August 23 an airport that once included barnstormers and grass runways, has seen the likes of Will Rogers, Wiley Post, U.S. Presidents, international diplomats and bowl-winning football teams, will add a new chapter to its history.

Sources: Aviation History of the Airport from 1917 to 2003, Spencer O. T. Spinks, 2003; Sheerar Museum Vertical Files; Oklahoma State University Centennial Series; Stillwater Newspress.

1917 to 2003, Spencer O. T. Spinks, 2003; Sheerar Museum Vertical Files; Oklahoma State University Centennial Series; Stillwater Newspress.