September 7th, 2008
A few years ago, Terah and I got to visit the beautifully-restored Kansas City Union Station. What a sight. A train station designed to hold 200,000 people, and saw over 200 trains pass through in its heyday. So many people had stories of traveling through Union Station, of arranging to meet someone under the station’s iconic giant clock. Maybe they were meeting a husband or wife back from a long trip or fighting in a war, or maybe they were meeting a relative they hadn’t seen for years. Walking through Union Station one quiet evening, you can almost hear all the activity still there. Taking the train there, walking in through Amtrak’s small boarding area, then stepping out into the dazzling expanse of the station is quite the experience too. It wasn’t just a static relic; it was a true piece of history that we can feel.
Decades ago, one of the busiest airports in the country was in Wichita, Kansas. At its peak, the Wichita Municipal Airport saw a flight land or take off every 90 seconds. Its beautiful art deco terminal saw off many an excited traveler. From the Wichita Municipal Airport, you could see buildings owned by Boeing, could drive a minute or two and see Cessna, and other major aircraft manufacturers were also in Wichita. The airport saw many cutting-edge flights, perhaps thanks in part to this. Movie stars were known to fly through Wichita frequently. And Wichita was part of one of the first cross-country air travel routes, New York to Los Angeles, which then took “only” 48 hours. Due to lack of radios and lighted runways, people would fly during the day and ride onboard a train at night to minimize travel time.
Due to an incredible fluke of history, the Wichita Municipal Airport terminal building and control tower still stand. I’ve never been in an airport that still feels like the 1940s. Other great airports of the era have continued to expand, grow, and generally be replaced as demands for jet service rendered them obsolete and unusable for air service.
You can walk into the building and stand on the main floor lobby (see photos) where people once waited to catch their flight. You can walk down the single departure gate to the tarmac. Obviously we were witnessing a different era — one in which planes carried only a few passengers each, not the hundreds that they carry today. Three to five planes would line up, and you would simply walk to yours and walk on up and into it. The control tower, a new addition in 1941, still has the high-powered red and green lights that were used to signal airplanes in the days before radio contact was common. The outside of the building has been beautifully restored, but the interior needs a lot of help (and funding) yet. You can still see some areas where the original decorative paintings and tile work survive, but all too many areas have been stripped to the concrete. Outdoors, you can find everything from one of the few surviving B-29s, to some of the earliest small airplanes, to a FedEx jet transport and other quite large planes.
Up in the control tower, they have a radio tuned to air traffic control frequencies. You can hear aircraft being routed to various Wichita airports. On the counter sit several photo albums. As you look down on the ground where historic airplanes sit, you see photos of airplanes lined up, ready to receive passengers. In this building, too, you can really feel the history.
Volunteers were all over. They were all eager to share about the building, the planes, everything they knew. One of the people working on the restoration of the B-29 saw us approaching, and excitedly asked, “Would you like a tour?” Of course!
Though you don’t really see 1940s airports anymore, this situation was unique. In 1951, the United States Air Force announced plans to seize the airport and use it to establish an air force base in Wichita. They intended to do so within three weeks. Due to much legal wrangling, including a landmark court case in which the Air Force was forced to honor a contract it had signed with the City of Wichita, the Air Force couldn’t quite kick everyone out until 1954, when a new airport in Wichita was completed.
Between 1954 and 1984, the building was an office used by the Air Force. It was abandoned between 1984 and 1991, when the City of Wichita purchased it for use as a museum.
Despite years of neglect, it still stands as a grand old airport. Standing in the airport today, you can see the sign for the Boeing Co. off in the distance, the runways in the other direction, and excited people scurrying about. In a way, it’s the same scene that you would have seen 60 years ago — though nobody was wearing a suit.