Built in 1936 and funded by the Works Progress Administration, Everett's Paine Field was originally planned to be a commercial airport for Snohomish County. World War II changed the direction when it was used as a military airfield from 1941 to 1946. The site was renamed in 1941 to honor local World War I Air Corps pilot, Second Lieutenant Topliff Olin Paine (1893-1922). Paine Field continued to be used as a military base through the Korean War, and then saw mixed military and commercial use until the mid-1960s, when Snohomish County took over full management of the site and opened it for commercial development. In 1966 the Boeing Company chose adjacent property to build its 747, and with the Boeing connection, Paine Field became an important aviation and commercial center. Serious plans for commercial passenger flights at Paine began in 2012. Following court battles over impact on neighboring communities, a court ruling in 2015 made way for a public-private partnership with Propeller Airports, LLC, to build the terminal. Paine Field Airport's inaugural flight took place on March 4, 2019 with an Alaska Embraer 175 flight to Portland. In July 2023, Snohomish County officials changed the airport's name to Seattle Paine Field International Airport.
Beginnings: Snohomish County Airport
One of Snohomish County's largest relief projects of the 1930s Great Depression was the building of Paine Field, originally called the Snohomish County Airport. Planned by local Works Progress Administration officials and the U. S. Department of Commerce, the project was designed to create a first-class airport and bring both jobs and economic growth to the Pacific Northwest.
First recommended by pioneer Northwest aviator Elliott Merrill (1901-1992), the site consisted of 640 acres, then owned by Merrill Ring Logging and the Pope and Talbot Company. Situated eight miles southwest of Everett and 17 miles north of the Seattle city limits, the chosen location was unpopulated and offered fog-free conditions at an elevation of 576 feet. It lay on a direct route from Portland to Vancouver, British Columbia, and Alaska.
Snohomish County matched federal dollars, and the project commenced on September 10, 1936. In the initial phase, more than 300 workers were hired to clear, grub, and excavate land. A well was drilled to provide water power for the locomotives, a power line was installed by Puget Sound Power and Light, and temporary buildings were constructed on skids and moved along as the work progressed. When completed, the airfield was to have four runways.
World War II and Topliff Paine
World War II changed both the use of the airfield and its name. By the spring of 1941, the first Army Air Corps contingent arrived at the airport to develop a military base that would support the nearby Bremerton shipyards, the Boeing plant, and Boeing's Seattle airfield, which housed B-17 and B-29 bombers. The airport was renamed Paine Field, in honor of a World War I Air Corps pilot and Air Mail Service flyer from Everett, Topliff Olin Paine (1893-1922).
Born in Ohio in 1893, "Top" Paine moved to Everett with his parents in 1903. He graduated from Everett High School in 1911 and attended the University of Washington for two years. Paine began working for the U. S. Forest Service in 1914 and became a park ranger the following year. When the United States entered World War I, he enlisted with Everett's 12th Company of the Army Infantry, took flight training at March Field, California, and was commissioned a second lieutenant. After his 1919 discharge, he flew for various commercial concerns in California and Mexico, and in 1920 was appointed to fly the experimental Air Mail Service. Paine, who had several narrow escapes flying the mail in bad weather, met his death from a wound received while cleaning his gun on April 30, 1922. He died the following day. At first rumored to be a suicide, his death was later officially listed as accidental.
The Air Corps' stay at Paine Field lasted from 1941 to 1946, with some personnel on site until 1948. The military improved runways, installed and improved lighting, constructed more buildings, and added concrete aprons to the runways. Paine Field now had fueling capabilities for the patrolling B-26s.
In the early 1940s, Alaska Airlines established its overhaul and repairing service at Paine. They were joined by the Willard Flying Service, which offered training sessions and commuter services. Both enterprises continued at Paine for more a decade.
County Supervision and The Korean War
The military presence at Paine decreased following World War II. By 1946, administrators began turning over operations to county supervision, in hopes once again of creating a county airport. Plans were beginning when the Korean Conflict interceded in 1951. Following his tour of Pacific Northwest defense installments, House Representative Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983) recommended more military presence in the area and Paine Field was reactivated as a military airbase. An Air Force Aerospace Defense Command Unit was stationed at the field and the official name was changed to Paine Field Air Force Base. While the county relinquished most of its commercial facilities to house Air Force personnel and installations, the site did not have an exclusive military presence. In a shared-use agreement, the county rented to businesses such as Alaska Airlines. The military operated the control tower.
Paine Field was considered a vital Western Defense Command post, an alert-status military base with tactical radar installations and jet interceptors. F-89C fighters were the first generation of jets at Paine, and by the 1960s the field was able to accommodate the F-102 and the F-106. The field was now part of the 25th NORAD (North American Defense) region and supported the 25th Air Defense Command (ADC) station at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma. It was part of a horizon radar system of stations along the coast that linked to a central computer system able to transmit to all ADC bases.
The Civil Aeronautics Administration once again opened the way for economic expansion of Paine in 1953, allowing business and industry unrelated to aviation to establish at the site. This mixed-use function brought economic strength to the region. Now with sleek, supersonic jet interceptors, the military portion of Paine Field was expected to defend the Northwest against air attacks. An Aerospace Defense Command unit had ben stationed at the field in 1951 and land surrounding the Paine site was appropriated for military facilities and extended runways. The federal government acquired 205 acres east of the airbase in August 1957 for construction of a Bomarc Missile site that turned out to be obsolete before it was completed.
George Forbes (1910-1995) was hired as the first manager of Paine Field's commercial endeavors. Erecting a substantial terminal and civilian hangar, and planning expansion of air-terminal facilities as well as businesses, Forbes hoped that profits from business and industry at Paine would pay for improvements on the site. It was his plan to begin running regularly scheduled commercial flights. Money would also be earned from the rental of hangars and buildings, and from tie-down costs from emergency landings.
In 1960, George C. Petrie, a former Naval Commander and businessman flier, was employed as Paine Field's new manager. The county commissioned a comprehensive planning study by the firm of Anderson, Bjornstad and Kane, which recommended "incubator complexes." The incubator idea was to grant short-term leases to small, startup firms, allowing them the low overhead needed for fast business expansion. Paine Field followed this course, and within six years, the Polk's city directory listed 16 tenants in Paine Field’s industrial park. In addition, there were aviation-related businesses selling aircraft and offering charter flights and flight instruction.
In 1968, the Air Force quit operations at Paine Field when enemy missiles replaced manned bombers as the major threat and made ADC units obsolete. Military withdrawal from Paine Field once again left the site ready for either greater economic expansion or creation of a regional airport.
The Boeing Company determined the course taken when it purchased property north of Paine Field in 1966 as the site of its 747 plant. By 1969 Boeing was firmly established at this location, and there was still talk that the region needed a better airport.
Growth and Community
By the mid 1970s, a sizeable population inhabited the area near Paine Field and Boeing. When Paine Field was considered as a possible commercial air-carrier airport, local residents protested. Citing rising noise levels, devaluation of property, and reduced personal safety as issues, residents demanded alternatives. In 1978, a coalition of the Snohomish County Planning Commission and public-interest groups began working on plans to determine Paine Field's role.
Four options were considered, ranging from leaving Paine as it was to developing it as a major airport. On April 11, 1978, the County Commissioners Board approved a combination plan that allowed light aviation, commuter services, and aviation-related activity at the field. Improvements and additions were allowed to provide new hangar space, as well as maintenance and service terminals. A noise abatement plan was undertaken.
Business development accelerated in the 1990s, and Paine's mixed use as an airport and aviation-commerce site was well established. At 1,320 acres by 1999, the site again was being looked at for its potential as a major commercial airfield.
Commercial Passenger Service
Consideration to open Paine Field for commercial air travel began again in 1978 with the Snohomish County Airport/Paine Field Master plan, which looked at development prospects from 2002 to 2021. By 2000, Paine Field was surrounded by businesses and residences. Citizen groups formed, particularly in Mukilteo, to try to stop airport plans, citing potential impacts to their communities with noise and traffic problems, as well as possible devaluation of property. Mukilteo, Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace, and Woodway all issued resolutions opposing commercial flights from Paine, and a citizen group called Save Our Communities formed in 1992 to halt development of what they termed "Sea-Tac North." But airport expansion had many strong supporters as well.
The Snohomish County Council worked with citizens on a cooperative plan regarding environmental concerns and noise abatement. New plans included major airport improvements.
By 2015, commercial passenger flights at Paine became possible when the Snohomish County Council approved, in a 3-2 vote, a lease arrangement between Paine Field and Propeller Airports, Inc., a subsidiary of the New York firm Propeller Investments, to build an air-passenger terminal at Paine. Under the agreement, Propeller Airports would be given three years to design a facility and conduct the necessary environmental studies, a requirement before a contract could be signed. The City of Mukilteo and citizen group Save Our Communities filed a petition in King County Superior Court seeking to void the lease option, but in October 2015, King County Superior Court Judge Samuel S. Chung rejected the petition.
Everett's Paine Field Airport began commercial passenger flights on March 4, 2019, when dignitaries and politicians invited by Propeller Airports left for Portland aboard an Alaska Embraer 175. Two Alaska Airlines flights left the field later that day, with United Airlines announcing it would begin service to Denver and Phoenix on March 31, 2019.
Opening of the two-terminal passenger airport enhanced Everett and Snohomish County as tourist destinations, particularly for aviation enthusiasts, with its close proximity to the Future of Flight Museum, the Boeing Tour Center, the Museum of Flight Restoration Center, the Flying Heritage Collection, and the Historic Flight Foundation. The facility also is near Mount Baker National Forest, the Hibulb Cultural Center at Tulalip, and the ferry terminal to Whidbey Island. Although Snohomish County's economic base includes agriculture to aerospace, the Boeing-Paine Field complex is one of Snohomish County's largest employers.
In July 2023, Snohomish County officials changed the name of the airport from Snohomish County Airport Paine Field to Seattle Paine Field International Airport. "Officials hope the new name will boost its visibility and promote Paine Field as an alternative to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport," reported the Everett Herald. "By adding the name of the city that’s over 10 miles south, the 'airport aims to guide more travelers, tourists, and investors to Paine Field and reinforce its geographic proximity to the globally recognized city of Seattle,' the county said in a statement" (Podsada).