Days Past: From prairie dog town to airfield: Ernest A. Love Field, Prescott
Note: What follows are excerpts from past articles by Terry Munderloh and Mary Woodhouse.
Prescottonians were first introduced to the newfangled flying machines at the 1913 Northern Arizona State Fair held in Prescott. Aviator L.F. Nixon piloted his airbird over the fairgrounds and astounded the crowd. At the 1914 and 1915 fairs, more airplanes joined the festivities. In those days, airplanes were primarily flown for entertainment rather than transport. And entertain they did!
During World War I, well-armed fighters capable of aerial combat at 2-mile altitudes at speeds up to 130 mph were being produced, but the world in general had hardly been introduced to aviation. By 1924, Charles Lindbergh was still three years away from making his historic trans-Atlantic flight, but the board of directors of the Yavapai County Chamber of Commerce could see what flying machines would mean to the remote community of Prescott. They entertained the idea of a permanent airfield.
Prescott's first airfield was literally just that: a field located on ranch land near what is now Route 89, eight miles northeast of Prescott. The crude field's inaugural events began on July 4, 1926, as part of the Northern Arizona State Fair and Prescott Rodeo Days. A dedication and air show commenced with civilian pilots thrilling the crowd with wing-walking, parachute jumping and flying exhibitions. Army and Navy pilots demonstrated formation flying.
In 1928, the Chamber of Commerce accepted a 10-year lease with the Fain family for the plot of land where today's Prescott Municipal Airport stands. On Aug. 26 (84 years ago today), the airport was rededicated and named in memory of Ernest A. Love, a 23-year-old Prescott pilot killed in action during World War I. By Aug. 25, Prescott's air space resounded with the drone of incoming aircraft. Seventeen Army planes from March and Fort Sam Houston fields, two Navy planes from San Diego, the Air Force show teams of six formation pilots from North Island flying single-seat pursuit planes, a big Ford tri-motor airplane owned by Scenic Airways and several additional civilian planes landed on the airfield. It was the greatest gathering of aircraft ever seen at that time on an Arizona field. Raffle tickets were sold for airplane rides to raise money for a hangar.
In 1938, when the Fain lease expired, the City of Prescott had the foresight to buy sufficient land for a permanent airport, which could expand and handle larger airplanes. The city bought 320 acres from the Perkins Cattle Company. In 1978, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University opened its Prescott campus.
In 1969, a group of citizens had considered changing the name of the airport to honor Max Conrad, the second man to fly a single-engine light plane solo across the Atlantic Ocean after Charles Lindbergh. Gail Gardner wrote to The Courier that although Mr. Conrad was a "fine citizen," the airport should remain in memory of Love. "Ernest A. Love, a Prescott boy, a 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, was killed in aerial combat in World War I and it is for him that our airport is named," Gardner wrote. (Actually, in WWI there wasn't an Air Force branch and most pilots were part of the U.S. Signal Corps.)
Gardner continued by describing the dedication ceremony of 1928: "There wasn't a building of any description on the airport, the County Engineer had bladed out the long runway and the short East and West runway, and we, of the Chamber of Commerce Committee, had taken a sack of lime and marked out by hand a 100-foot circle where these runways intersected, then we went up and down both runways with shovels leveling the mounds and filling up the holes made by the hundreds of prairie dogs that infested the field. We got a long metal pipe, a motorcycle hub and installed a wind sock, we bought a great coil of 1-inch rope, and gathered up all of the old Model T Ford axles in town, this in anticipation of tying down the host of military aircraft we had invited to the dedication. We erected a speaker's platform, built a couple of very primitive comfort stations quite far away and our airport was in business."
Photographs of that day show that the speaker's platform was actually two flatbed trucks backed end to end and decorated with a dozen or so flags. The stiff summer winds from behind the speaker's stand meant speakers were dodging flags while they spoke.
A copper plaque dedicating the airport to Love had been built by John Hennessey, and the committee built a stand for it out of cement and colorful rocks. It eventually disappeared from the airport, rocks and all.
Over the years, the airport has remained a vital asset to the community. Thousands of pilots from around the world have learned to fly from its runways through both the prestigious Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and private flight schools. Many of Arizona's most active and skilled general aviation pilots have called Prescott home and today, Love Field is one of the nation's busiest general aviation airports.
Next week: Ernest Alexander Love (1895-1918), for whom the airport is named.