Aviation in Tucson has a rich and colorful history. The story began in 1910 when Charles “the bird man” Hamilton landed his Curtis Bi-Plane over 13,000 spectators at the Elysian Grove Amusement Park downtown on the east bank of the Santa Cruz River. The following year Robert Fowler and Cal Rodgers competed for a $50,000 prize offered by William Randolph Hearst to the first one to fly coast-to-coast in 30 days or less. Fowler started from California, made a landing near the University of Arizona and continued his journey east. Rodgers started from the east coast and landed his Vin Fizz on East 9th Street in Tucson. He finally arrived in Long Beach, California, after 84 days (49 in the air) although he crashed nine separate times getting there. Neither won the prize, but both succeeded in carving their names in aviation history.
In 1915, Katherine Stinson, the Schoolgirl Aviatrix, performed aerobatics at the Pima County Fair. One of the first women authorized to carry mail for the United States, she dropped a mail pouch flying low over a vacant lot downtown behind the post office and established mail route 668.001, winning the hearts of many Tucsonans.
Captivated by the technology and intrigued by the possibility, Tucson built the first municipal airport in the country on the Old Nogales Highway, where the Rodeo grounds are today. Known as McCauley field and rechristened Fishburn Field, after Tucson City Councilman Randolph Fishburn, the airport was renamed Tucson Municipal Flying Field in 1923.
The field became a regular refueling stop for the Air Service and demand soon exceeded capacity. In 1925, the field relocated to a larger parcel of land where Davis Monthan Air Force Base is today. In 1927, Standard Airlines offered Tucsonans their first commercial air service and eventually became one the country’s largest carriers—American Airlines.
Tucson was one of the stops for Charles Lindbergh who, fresh from flying his way across the continent, landed here in 1927 to dedicate the new field. The event attracted a crowd of 30,000 people, more than 20% of the State’s population.
Then, as now, growth was a given, and by the 1940s it was clear the field at Davis-Monthan should be devoted to military operations and training.
The City purchased land at the current site of Tucson International Airport (TUS) in 1941. Six years later it was apparent that the City did not have the resources to support the operation of the airport. The Chamber of Commerce found a solution in 1948 when it brought together 15 municipal leaders, led by Monte Mansfield, as incorporators of a nonprofit corporation, the Tucson Airport Authority (TAA). With 15 incorporators, the organization borrowed $25,000, repaid it within three years, and hired Bob Schmidt, the first general manager of the TAA.
The Authority led the way for aviation in Tucson, creating and managing TUS, the economic catalyst for the community, and the 64th largest commercial airport in the country; as well as Ryan Airfield (RYN), one of the busiest general aviation airports in Arizona.
Tucson’s love affair with aviation began in 1910 when Charles “the bird man” Hamilton landed his Curtis Bi-Plane at the Elysian Grove Amusement Park downtown on the east bank of the Santa Cruz River.
The railroad brought more settlers to the West, and the desire for excitement and amusement grew. While some took to drag racing horseless carriages on a strip we now call Speedway, others were attracted to the sport of aviation. Large crowds attended air shows. Emerging pilots would land their planes anywhere there was a flat, cactus-free strip of desert.
By 1919, Tucson built the country’s first municipal airport on the Nogales highway, where the Rodeo grounds are today. Tucson Municipal Airport became a regular refueling stop for the Air Service and demand soon exceeded capacity.
So the airport moved to a larger parcel of land in 1925 where Davis Monthan Air Force Base is today.
In 1927 Standard Airlines offered Tucsonans their first commercial air service.
Charles Lindbergh, fresh from flying his way across the continent landed here where a crowd of 30,000 people – more than 20% of the State’s population, greeted him.
Passengers at Tucson Airport, which by then was the largest municipal airport in the nation, board aircraft form a Spanish-style terminal located near the corner of Alvernon and Golf Links.
As early as the 1930s, the Sunshine Climate Club was instrumental in marketing Tucson as a vacation and health destination.
The community grew rapidly, and by the 1940s it was clear the field at Davis Monthan should be devoted to Military operations and training. Civilian operations needed a new home.
The city had already acquired the land where the airport sits today. The U.S. military used the field’s three large hangars for B-24 modifications.
The Military built Ryan Field 12 miles west of Tucson to train WWII pilots. More than 6,000 pilots graduated from the Ryan School of Aeronautics by the time the base closed in September 1944.
Consolidated Vultee (now General Dynamics) constructed three large hangars on the west ramp for B-24 modifications.
The Chamber of Commerce brought together 15 municipal leaders, led by Monte Mansfield, as incorporators of a nonprofit corporation, the Tucson Airport Authority (TAA). With 15 incorporators, the organization borrowed $25,000, the Authority from the beginning ran as a nonprofit independent organization and repaid the money within three years.
After the Tucson Airport Authority was created, Bob Schmidt was hired as the airport’s general manager. In 1950, fuel sales triple over 1948 due to Bob Schmidt’s innovative marketing efforts attracting pilots from around the country.
Following suggestions in an issue of Vouge, Bob Schmidt has the control tower painted with red, orange, yellow, green, and blue stripes.
The end of the war brought many changes to the aviation industry. Commercial airline service took off in Tucson with the arrival of Frontier Airlines in 1950.
Back then, commercial passengers embarked on their journey from a modest building on the west ramp.
Tucson Airport Authority takes over operations at Ryan Airfield.
By 1958 a new control tower was constructed.
A new passenger terminal building was dedicated on the north side of the field. The airport boasted six airlines, the completion of a spacious modern terminal, and a new name, Tucson International. The airport – now TIA – became a federal inspection station with the arrival of U.S. Customs and the international airline Aeronaves de Mexico.
The Tucson Airport Authority: Committed to Serving Aviation
The Tucson Airport Authority (TAA) is a nonprofit organization created to manage Tucson International Airport (TUS) and general aviation reliever airport, Ryan Airfield (RYN). The TAA was formed by state charter on April 12, 1948, with the mission of promoting air transportation and commerce in Arizona and maintaining the airfields’ runways and other facilities.
On October 14, 1948, the City of Tucson and the TAA entered into a lease to manage airport facilities. The lease, which now extends until 2098, provides that the TAA has the obligation to operate, maintain and develop the airport as a public facility for the accommodation of air commerce.
The TAA is comprised of up to 60 women and men, with an 11-member Board of Directors that sets policy and appoints the President and Chief Executive Officer. The TAA has had five leaders since it was established in 1948. Danette Bewley serves as President and CEO and, with a staff of more than 230 employees, operates the TAA and its two airports. As a separate entity from local governments, the TAA does not receive any local tax dollars and has no taxing authority. Airport operations are funded through revenues from user fees for parking, space rentals, land leases, fuel sales, airline landing fees and concessions. Capital improvements such as runway and terminal construction are funded through federal and state grants and Passenger Facility Charges.
The ultimate objective of the TAA is to promote and develop the most complete, modern and efficient airports and air facilities to meet the needs of users and encourage economic growth in an ever-expanding Tucson and Southern Arizona region.
Robert W. F. Schmidt
Charles H. Broman
Walter A. Burg
Bonnie A. Allin
President/CEO, 2019 - present
Tucson International Airport: Where the World Begins
What began as an exciting sport for a few adventurers a century ago has transformed every aspect of our world. Aviation continues to thrill and unite us. It is the preferred mode of travel for billions of people, and in Tucson scheduled air service began with the arrival of Standard Airlines in 1927. In those earliest days Standard connected the dots on the map from Tucson to Los Angeles. In 1930, American, then known as American Airways, acquired the Tucson route and east to Douglas and El Paso where it connected to its service though Texas to Dallas and ultimately as far as Atlanta.
For the most part American operated alone until 1950 when Frontier Airlines introduced daily flights to Phoenix and Nogales.
Six years later, Trans World Airlines began a 36-year relationship with Tucson. In 1961, Continental landed, and a year later, Tucson Municipal Airport became Tucson International Airport with opening of a U.S. Customs Federal Inspection Station to serve Aeronaves de México, later Aeroméxico.
Since then, the list of arriving and departing carriers reads like a Who’s Who in the aviation industry. Not to mention the numerous foreign carriers that have conducted warm weather training at TUS, and visits by some fascinating aircraft including the exquisite Concorde, and the Antonov, one of the world’s largest airplanes.
Air service is a critical component of the community’s economic development efforts. The TAA partners with Visit Tucson, the Tucson Metro Chamber, the City of Tucson, Pima County, Sun Corridor Inc., Southern Arizona Leadership Council and the University of Arizona Office of Economic Development. For air service, these have been successful alliances. Today, TUS is home to eight airlines providing nonstop flights to 19 destination airports.
TUS Control Tower: A Treasured Icon
In October 1958, the Tucson Airport Authority (TAA) celebrated its 10th anniversary by opening a new $535,000 air traffic control tower across the airfield at what would become the future site of the new TUS terminal. At just over 119 feet tall, it was the third tallest structure in Tucson and it was hot! Red neon ran along the four corners of the building. There was no mistaking where you had landed, with white and blue neon lettering down two sides of the tower spelling out T-U-C-S-O-N to welcome arrivals to the desert city boasting a population of 100,000.
The tower was modern, enclosed, and had an elevator. Compared to the original tower perched on a wooden frame on the tarmac in front of the three hangars on the west side of the airport, this was first class.
Today the tower is a treasured architectural icon. It continues to support communications and is the airfield marker for pilots looking for U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s inspection facilities but after 58 years – to become the second oldest tower at a commercial airport in the United States – and almost 12 million aircraft operations, it has retired from active duty.
In 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration opened a new $40 million, 252-foot air traffic control tower on the south side of the airfield giving controllers better views of the entire airfield and equipping them with the latest technology and equipment for safety and efficiency. A 1,600-panel solar farm adjacent to the 13,000-square-foot building at the base was designed to generate enough power to support all of the facility’s electrical needs for several hours a day on sunny days.
Other environmental benefits of the tower include a light-colored roof that reflects the desert sun’s heat away from the building, insulated windows to reduce the amount of energy needed to keep the controller work area cool, motion detectors for the low-energy, indoor lights, and native desert plants that do not need watering.
Meanwhile, the iconic tower on the north side of the airfield continues to beam out its welcome to all to T-U-C-S-O-N.
Tucson International: A Multi-Billion Dollar Impact on Tucson’s Economy
Five years after the opening of a new air traffic control tower, the TAA celebrated another move: the relocation of the terminal to a new site across the airfield, adjacent to the tower. By this time, the 162nd Fighter Group of the Arizona Air National Guard had dedicated a new $2.5 million facility. Not only was the military flying at the airport, so was a foreign carrier. Aeronaves de Mexico moved in, along with U.S. Customs. Tucson municipal was now International.
An extensive remodeling in 1985 doubled the size of the terminal, from 150,000 to 300,000 sq. ft., and added jet-way boarding. Fifteen years later, the Authority embarked on another expansion, updating the facade with four barrel-vaulted structures that added 82,000 sq. ft. to ticketing and baggage claim, along with a separate rental car building and parking garage, designed to accommodate as many as 7.5 million passengers, forecasted in the next 20 years.
TAA celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2008 with another dedication: the completion of the TUS Concourse Renovation Project. Meeting the demands of a dynamic population that now exceeds one million, TAA strives to provide a first class travel experience for everyone who visits the airport.
A wide range of amenities await: welcome lounges in baggage claim; new food concessions; reconfigured security checkpoints; free WiFi; well-appointed meeting facilities available for rent; and nine rental car companies. TUS also offers inexpensive, close-in parking options with covered economy and garage parking; EasyPay automated pay stations; as well as a free cell phone waiting lot.
The airport is big business, and the TAA collaborates closely with local economic development agencies to attract not only new air service, but also new industry.
TUS is home to more than 100 businesses that provide important services to aviation interests. Besides the Arizona Air National Guard, the second largest flying unit in the country with a fleet of 100 aircraft and 500 full-time employees, major employers include Raytheon Missile Systems, Bombardier Gates Learjet, SkyWest Aviation, and a variety of other businesses.
Five airfreight companies are based at TUS, and the airport serves as an intermodal hub for the transfer of goods from land to air. It is a critical component of TREO’s (Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities) Inland Port Initiative.
General aviation is integral to the airport operation and TAA recently opened a General Aviation Park. A new Million Air franchise catering to general aviation opened in 2009 and the infrastructure for 60 acres is ongoing east of the terminal to support aviation-related industrial development.
Since its inception, the TAA has been a leader working to attract tenants that would provide economic benefits both to the airport and to the city, as seen in its mission: The mission of the TAA is to promote aviation and foster economic development by strategically planning, developing and operating the most effective, efficient and safest airport system for southern Arizona.