Felts Field (Spokane)

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 1/15/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8464
Felts Field, Spokane's historic airfield, is located on the south bank of the Spokane River east of Spokane proper. Aviation activities began there in 1913.  In 1920 the field, then called the Parkwater airstrip, was designated a municipal flying field at the instigation of the Spokane Chamber of Commerce. In 1926, the United States Department of Commerce officially recognized Parkwater as an airport, one of the first in the West. In September 1927, in conjunction with Spokane’s National Air Derby and Air Races, the airport was renamed Felts Field for James Buell Felts (1898-1927), a Washington Air National Guard aviator killed in a crash that May. Parkwater Aviation Field, later Felts Field, was the location for flight instruction, charter service, airplane repair, aerial photography, headquarters of the 116th Observation Squadron of the Washington Air National Guard, and eventually the first airmail and commercial flights in and out of Spokane. After World War II, commercial air traffic moved to Geiger Field (later Spokane International Airport).  Felts Field remains a busy regional hub for private and small-plane aviation and related businesses and services. In 1991 it was designated Felts Field Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Parkwater Airstrip

The area is a broad, level stretch of then city-owned property near the area called Parkwater, which temporarily became the name of the airfield as well. Prior to 1913, Spokane’s early aviators and exhibition flyers from elsewhere had used a variety of locations, including the fairgrounds east of the city and Glover Athletic Field along the river at the west end of downtown. In 1920, the year the Parkwater airstrip was designated a municipal flying field, the area had not been entirely cleared of stones, and during 1922 and 1923, “Spokane County chronic drunk and nonsupport prisoners [were allowed] ‘field exercise’ by removing stones from the flying field" (McGoldrick, 39).    

Parkwater Field was the scene of several historic aviation events in Spokane during the 1920s. In 1924, Spokane beat other Washington cities to become the headquarters of the state’s Air National Guard/116th Observation Squadron. The Guard designated its portion of Parkwater Field as Camp Earl Hoisington. Spokane aviation boosters staged a successful Air Circus in 1925.

Felts Field 

In September 1927 the airfield was renamed Felts Field. That month saw two major events: on September 12, the landing of Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974) during a nationwide tour in his Spirit of St. Louis, and from September 21 to 25, Spokane’s Air Derby and National Air Races, one of the first and most successful of such events in the United States.

In August 1929, Felts Field hosted the spectacular cross-country endurance flight by Nicholas Bernard “Nick” Mamer (1897-1938) in his Spokane Sun-God. Mamer and his mechanic and copilot, Art Walker, were in the air continuously for 120 hours and covered 7,200 miles, with the plane refueled in flight. Their feat of endurance established several United States records.

Commercial aviation activities of the 1920s, many extending into the 1930s, included the Inland-Eaglerock Sales Company, the Bigelow Johnson School of Aviation, Mamer Air Transport and Flying Service, the Spokane Aviation Company, Spokane Airways,  and others. Several hangars were built during this period, and local aviators formed enthusiastic flying clubs. The late 1920s saw the beginning of the “Tin Goose” era, during which the fragile biplanes and monoplanes of plywood and cloth gave way to enclosed metal aircraft capable of carrying more passengers. These big Ford tri-motors flew out of Felts Field until the mid-1930s, though not always successfully. The first of the three Spokane Airways tri-motors crashed on nearby Moran Prairie southeast of Spokane on November 23, 1928, killing four Spokane flyers.

Airmail and Passenger Service

An important development of the late 1920s was the coming of airmail service to Spokane. By 1926, Pasco, Washington, already had airmail service through Varney Airlines, a forerunner of United, and “Spokane was envious” (McGoldrick, 146). The Chamber of Commerce launched a publicity campaign and commissioned a survey of the route. The first direct airmail flight from Spokane took place on September 15, 1929.

Prior to the 1930s, various companies at Felts Field had provided passenger service mainly on a charter basis. Modern passenger service from Felts Field began during the early 1930s, first with United Airlines, a consolidation of Varney, Boeing Air Transport, and several other airlines. United’s early Spokane service was in a 10-passenger Boeing all-metal twin-engine transport.

Soon Northwest Airways of St. Paul, Minnesota, added Spokane to its “Northern Tier” route that Spokane’s Nick Mamer had proven feasible in the late 1920s. Both United and Northwest had passenger and administrative operations in the art deco terminal building constructed in 1932 and eventually serving 137 cities. Mamer Air Transport could not compete with United and Northwest, so Nick Mamer sold his planes and hangar and went to work for Northwest as Western Operations Manager and chief pilot on the Twin Cities to Seattle route that he had pioneered. In 1934 Northwest Airways became Northwest Airlines and, with its fleet of Lockheed and, later, Douglas planes, was soon the major carrier out of Spokane.

Pioneers of Flight

On January 10, 1938, Nick Mamer, his copilot and eight passengers were killed in a crash of a Northwest Lockheed near Bozeman, Montana. On May 30, 1939, the Mamer Memorial Clock was dedicated at Felts Field.

In addition to the men, a number of Spokane women learned to fly at Felts Field. The women, excluded from the men’s air races and derbies, hosted their own “All Women’s Air Frolic” at Felts Field in 1936. Female aviators from all over the Northwest competed in stunt flying, racing, and exhibition flying. The event was marred by several crashes, but no one was killed.

During the 1930s, considerable improvement had been made at Felts Field with Civil Works Administration funds and Works Progress Administration labor.

The Shift to Geiger Field

Beginning early in World War II, Felts Field was used as a training site for the Civilian Pilot Training Program while continuing to serve as the municipal airport. The skies and runways were becoming crowded, and, by the late 1930s, the Spokane Chamber of Commerce had realized the need for a larger, more modern airport, a “super airport,” to keep up with Spokane’s position as a regional transportation and business center. The chamber convinced the Civil Aeronautics Administration and the two airlines serving Spokane to conduct a survey to determine the location. County commissioners agreed to purchase the recommended land west of the city.

Concurrently, city leaders proposed to the federal government that Felts Field be used as an Army Air Corps installation. The War Department turned down this proposal in favor of the 1,280 acres already under development as the new “super airport,” officially called the Sunset Airport (or Sunset Field).

In 1939 the city agreed to lease the area to the military for one dollar a year, banning civilian use. The Works Progress Administration and the army jointly prepared the runways. In 1941 this airport was named Geiger Field in honor of Major Harold C. Geiger (1884-1927).

The Washington Air National Guard moved from Felts Field to Geiger when called to active duty during World War II. After the war, all passenger service was located at Geiger Field, which was renamed Spokane International Airport in 1960.

Felts Field Historic and Busy

Meanwhile Felts Field has continued to serve as the airport for private and small planes of all kinds, even seaplanes, because of its location along a smooth stretch of the Spokane River. Felts Field is also a center for the restoration of vintage planes.

The airfield continues to provide charter services and flight instruction. In 1968 a new control tower was added. The Skyway Café, attached to the Terminal Building, is a popular place to enjoy a meal while watching the planes landing and taking off. 

Sources: James P. McGoldrick II, The Spokane Aviation Story, 1910-1941 (Spokane: Tornado Creek Publications, 2007), 40-79; Carolyn Hage Nunemaker, “Inland Military Empire: Spokane Area and World War II Facilities,” Columbia Vol. 20, No. 2 (Summer, 2006), 23-24.

Related Topics:   Aviation

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