NEW HOME FOR THE MUSEUM

by
Jack Abercrombie

The new home for the Greater St. Louis Air & Space Museum is a portion of the historic Hangar 2 at St. Louis Downtown Airport (CPS) in Cahokia, Illinois less than 10 minutes (five miles) from the Gateway Arch.

Cahokia, the earliest continuously occupied colonial settlement along the Mississippi River (settled in the late 1690s), has been the site of many historic events predating the Age of Flight. During the early half of the 18th century, Cahokia was the center for French trade with the Native American population. During the American Revolutionary War, General George Rogers Clark negotiated treaties with several Indian tribes at Cahokia thereby preventing the British from taking over the northwest and the eastern shore of the Mississippi. Cahokia was named the county seat of St. Clair County by the new American government in 1787. In 1801, it was established as the administrative center for a vast region extending all the way to the Canadian border. In the weeks leading up to the formal transfer of upper Louisiana to the U.S., Cahokia was the most important community on the western frontier. After the transfer in March 1803, Cahokia remained the center of communication between Lewis and Clark and the U.S. Government.

Although the local citizenry would have witnessed much of the region's manned balloon flights during the 19th century and airplane flights beginning in 1909, Cahokia's real aerospace history began in 1927 when Oliver Parks moved his infant Parks Air College from Lambert Field to Cahokia near the southern edge of today's Downtown Airport. Parks Air College in a short time became the first major aviation school in the entire United States.

In 1928, a consortium including Mark Steinberg, Curtiss-Wright, Transcontinental Air Transport Service (TAT--later TWA), and the Pennsylvania Railroad Company began developing Port St. Louis almost adjacent to Parks Air College. Work soon began on development of a major airport, initially named Curtiss-Steinberg Airport. It was formally dedicated in November 1929, and initial flight operations began soon thereafter. By March, 1930, Hangars No. 1 and 2 were completed. Three months later, three concrete runways, 100' wide by 1600' long, were completed and in use. In August, a lighting system, the only one of its kind in this part of the country, was used for the first time with several test flights using a Curtiss Robin airplane. The lighting system included boundary lights, two floodlights, a revolving beacon, and a light for determining cloud ceiling.

Early airline operations were begun in the airport's first year of operation by U.S. Airways, TAT-Maddux, Curtiss-Wright Flying Service (charter flights), and Shelton Airlines. Columbia Airlines was added in 1935.

During the second year of operation, visitors to Curtiss-Steinberg witnessed an emergency parachute descent by Jimmy Doolittle (with Shell Petroleum's St. Louis-based aviation department) after his newly modified Travel Air Mystery Ship broke up during a low altitude, high speed test run. The airplane had undergone design changes to the ailerons which proved disastrous. While approaching 300 miles per hour, the ailerons began to flutter, and the wings disintegrated. Fortunately, the aircraft rolled inverted while climbing to about 400 feet altitude, and Doolittle literally fell from the cockpit. His parachute opened a moment before he hit the ground.

During the 1930s, the older, better financed Lambert field grew more rapidly than did Curtiss-Steinberg. Charles Lindbergh had recommended Curtiss-Steinberg as his first choice for TAT. (TWA) to establish its route structure. But since Missouri would be paying the bill, TAT selected Lambert for its operations. Growth at the Cahokia airport was steady, however, in spite of the Depression which enveloped the nation. Headlines about the airport were few, but a significant event of 1933 was an air express from Curtiss-Steinberg of the first two cases of Falstaff beer to be produced in the St. Louis brewery after the end of Prohibition. The beer was airlifted to the governors of Illinois and Missouri.

Numerous visitors to the airport during the 30s included Lindbergh, Doolittle, James Haizlip, Wiley Post, Amelia Earhart, Frank Hawks, and Wallace Berry. Oliver Parks became a partner and airport manager in the mid-thirties. Carl "Chub" Wheeler learned to fly at Curtiss-Steinberg in 1934 in a Curtiss Robin airplane and became a flight instructor. "Chub" and Bill Hart operated the East St. Louis Flying School charging two dollars per flying lesson. Their center of operation was Hangar 2.

By 1939, war in Europe was threatening, and there was concern the U.S. would soon be entering the war with too few military pilots. Consequently, a system of training schools was established with Parks Air College being one of the schools. Parks leased the airport in 1940 to enable the necessary expansion of his college, other civilian tenants were requested to leave, and the airport name was changed to Curtiss-Parks Airport. As enrollment swelled, Parks further expanded his facilities to include operations at Cape Girardeau and Sikeston, Missouri; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; and Jackson, Mississippi. "Chub" Wheeler became a flight instructor for Parks. Through the end of WWII, some 37,000 cadets were trained at Parks facilities; of these, 24,000 become commissioned pilots.

Following the war, Parks became sole owner of the airport, renaming it Parks Metro-politan Airport. He formed the Parks Aircraft Sales and Service to market small, private airplanes. Parks also began a feeder airline, Parks Airline, in 1950. The airline was later sold to Ozark Airlines who transferred terminal operations to Lambert.

"Chub" Wheeler was Airport Manager in the early 1950s. Walston Aviation had a fixed base operation but was unable to promote Parks Metropolitan. The growth of private aviation, so rapid immediately following the war, had leveled off, and the airport was no longer financially viable.

In 1958, it was announced that the airport was to be closed--Parks Aircraft Sales and Service, airport owner, was selling the land to Oliver Parks, home builder. Although a small residential community was built on airport land, the anticipated building boom at the location did not materialize. The planned 2500 homes in "St. Louis Gardens" were never completed, and most of the airport land remained dormant.

However, by 1961, Lambert Field was becoming so crowded that it was evident that a secondary airport for Greater St. Louis was essential. An extensive round of negotiations among various agencies culminated in the acquisition of the airport by the Bi-State Development Agency. After runway, taxiway, and infrastructure improvements, the airport was re-opened in 1965 with another name change--Bi-State Parks Airport.

The airport grew rapidly through the remainder of the 1960s. McDonnell Douglas operated a test facility for testing Gemini space capsules during water landings in a large reservoir, an Army Reserve helicopter battalion was stationed on the airport, and various aircraft were hangared on the field. Expansion continued through the rest of the 20th century--a new control tower, new 7000 foot runway, a new terminal building, and yet another new name: St. Louis Downtown-Parks Airport.

The current name, St. Louis Downtown Airport, removed confusion with nearby Parks College and emphasized the proximity to the heart of St. Louis. Bob McDaniel was named Airport Director in 2000--he returned to where he began his aviation career 33 years earlier.

Today, more than two-dozen tenant companies have facilities on the airport, including Midcoast Aviation, Parks College of St. Louis University, and Oliver's Restaurant. Nearly 250 airplanes utilize the airport as home base. The Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 64 has a home in Hangar 1 next door to the Museum.

The Greater St. Louis Air & Space Museum is proud to be a neighbor and looks forward to becoming part of the heritage of Curtiss-Steinberg / St. Louis Downtown Airport.

REFERENCES

1. Horgan, James J., City of Flight--the History of Aviation in St. Louis. 1984.
2. Faherty, William B., Parks College--Legacy of and Aviation Pioneer. 1990.
3. Web Page, http://stlouisdowntown airport.com.
4. Curtiss-Wright Review. June 1930, August 1930, September 1930.
5. Aviation. March 1930.
6. Aero Digest. April 1930.
7. Time. November 11,1929.
8. Shrader, Fifty Years of Flight…, 1953.
9. Time-Life, "Barnstormers and Speed Kings, 1981.
10. Matthews, The AOPA Pilot, "New Life for Historic Airport," 1965.
11. St. Louis Globe Democrat, October 12, 1979.
12. Infanger, Airport Business, "Downtown Rebound," October 2004.

© Jack Abercrombie 2005