John Thun buys Puyallup airstrip (future Pierce County Airport -- Thun Field) in April 1949.

  • By Frank Chesley
  • Posted 11/26/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8383

In April 1949, John Thun (1917-2006) buys a rock-strewn airstrip and the surrounding 350 acres of land six miles south of Puyallup. Thun lengthens and paves the strip and opens a private airport, staffed mostly by his family. He will sell the property to developers in 1966 and in 1979 Pierce County will buy the facility. In 2007, the airport operates under the county's Public Works and Utilities Department and is overseen by Thun Field Advisory Commission, made up of airport and neighbor representatives. It is home to nearly 250 recreational and business aircraft, with about 89,000 takeoffs and landings a year. Its mostly aviation-related businesses employ nearly 300 people and the airport generates about $21 million a year.

The Dream of Flying

John Thun was 32 when he bought the unpaved airstrip six miles south of Puyallup in 1949.  Private developers had built the airstrip in 1944, similar to  others in the region, as an auxiliary training field for the U.S. Army, but were unable to develop it further after World War II.

Thun was born in Underwood, Washington, a small town on the Columbia River, and he had been a machinist, had served in the U.S. Army, and had worked in Alaska. “ ‘He bought the airport when he had just learned to fly,’ his daughter, Diny Robinson said. ‘He thought it would also be a good place to raise chickens, but he never got around to it. He got so interested in flying, he just did that’ ” (Montes).

Thun lengthened to strip to 5,400 feet, paved it, and opened it as a private airport. “By 1957, the Thuns (John, his wife, Vera, or “Babe,” and six children) who lived in the building where they maintained a coffee shop, had several buildings and 45 aircraft tied down at any one time, 15 with hanger space” (Price-Anderson, P. 135). As soon as the children were old enough, they were working at the field or in its coffee shop. Part of the acreage was used as an archery range and the Boy Scouts maintained a couple of camp sites.

Thun gave flying lessons, flew scenic charters around nearby Mount Rainier, and in winter sold Christmas trees off the property. Drag races were held until a dedicated drag strip could be built and auto enthusiasts of various stripes continue to gravitate to the field.

“Bigger than Life”

Dave Sclair, a writer for General Aviation News, called Thun “bigger than life,” and Bruce Thun, a son and operations manager at Thun Field agrees. “He was a character, yeah. He took over the airport and made it work. He wasn’t afraid to take risks.”

For the kids, said Bruce Thun, “It was an interesting way to grow up.” All of the children learned to fly but only Bruce remained in the business. He is Thun Field’s Airport Operations Manager.

Business had been good, but in 1966, after a 17-year run, Thun sold the airport to a group of investors who planned an industrial park at the site. However the park they envisioned did no materialize, and in 1979 Pierce County bought the property with federal and state help. John Thun died on August 31, 2006, at age 89.

Pierce County Airport

It is now known as Pierce County Airport-Thun Field, a branch of the county Public Works and Utilities Department, and is overseen by the Thun Field Advisory Commission. The field offers spectacular views of Mount Rainier, some 30 miles to the southeast. There are nearly 250 aircraft based at the airport, and approximately 89,000 take-offs and landings each year. Its runway at 3,650 feet long and 60 feet wide is long enough for business jets. “It’s a popular airport. It always has been. It’s in a good location,” Bruce Thun said. A number of aircraft-related businesses employ nearly 300 people and generate about $21 million annually.

But the activities at a 24/7/365 modern suburban airport and its need for growth clash with the growth of neighbors and their concerns about noise, accidents, and vehicular traffic. “Anytime you have growth around a public airport, you have people question the value of its existence,” Bruce Thun said. “We’ve been working with that since the mid-1980s.”

Most such municipal airports (such as the City of Tacoma’s Tacoma Narrows Airport in Gig Harbor) are money-losers, but Thun Field Administrator Michael Esher said, “We're in the black, but barely” (Gillie). Federal Aviation Administration grants, under its Airport Improvement Program (AIP), help maintain flight facilities, such as runways, lights, and weather station. AIP grants for Thun Field in 2006, including a new weather station, totaled $2.4 million.


Sources: Lori Price and Ruth Anderson, Puyallup: A Pioneer Paradise (Charleston, SC: Arcadia  Publishing, 2002), 135-136; Joseph Montes, “Aviation Pioneer Built Puyallup Airport,” Tacoma News Tribune, September 4th, 2006, Tacoma News Tribune website accessed November 9, 2007 (http://www.thenewstribune.com); Frank Chesley interview with Bruce Thun, November 15, 2007; Frank Chesley interview with Michael Esher, November 14, 2007; Dave Sclair, “Bigger Than Life: The world Needs More Characters Like John Thun, General Aviation News, April 20, 2007, website accessed November 12, 2007 (http://www.generalaviationnews.com/); John Gillie, “Little Airport Makes a Living,” Tacoma News Tribune, March 5, 2007, Tacoma News Tribune website accessed November 12, 2007 (http://www.thenewstribune.com).

Related Topics:   Aviation

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