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Aviation history: Wyoming's impact

Mechanics work diligently on a Untied Airlines aircraft in Cheyenne, Wyo. (Image courtesty of Wyoming State Archives)

Mechanics work diligently on a Untied Airlines aircraft in Cheyenne, Wyo. (Image courtesty of Wyoming State Archives)

The early days of aviation in Cheyenne, Wyo. (Image courtesty of Wyoming State Archives)

The early days of aviation in Cheyenne, Wyo. (Image courtesty of Wyoming State Archives)

1038 - Cheyenne Transcontinental Airport, Wyoming (Image courtesty of Wyoming State Archives)

1038 - Cheyenne Transcontinental Airport, Wyoming (Image courtesty of Wyoming State Archives)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- This is part one of a two-part series about Wyoming's role in aviation history.

What city throughout the first 50 years of the 1900's was home to daring pilots flying through blizzards with no flight instruments? Where B-17 bombers were being modified in a matter of days to fight in World War II? And home to the world's first stewardess's school?

The city may be closer to home than you think.

Michael Kassel, curator of collections at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum, grew up in Cheyenne, Wyo., and attended Laramie County Community College, before moving to Missouri to finish his degree in Museum Sciences and Historic Preservation at South East Missouri State University.

Kassel eventually returned to Wyoming for his career and attended the University of Wyoming to earn his masters. While there, Kassel's professor, Dr. Phil Roberts, handed out a list of possible research topics for a paper on the history of the American West. One topic that caught Kassel's attention was the stewardess school in Cheyenne.

This research paper started his in-depth, eye--opening look at Cheyenne's rich, often overlooked, aviation history and developed into his thesis on aviation history in Cheyenne.

"I started working on [the thesis] in 2003 and I worked on it for four years, and eventually came up with 274 pages of really cool stuff," said Kassel.

Kassel said as his research progressed he had the question of why United Airlines was in Cheyenne in the first place. Wanting to find the answers and the original sources, Kassel contacted United.

"I was able to go Chicago to the United Airlines' headquarters," said Kassel. "They opened up this vault and here are these boxes, just stacks and stacks of boxes going as far back as I can see and sure enough there were boxes from Cheyenne as the airmail depot, Boeing Air Transport and United Airlines."

"They gave me copies of anything I wanted and that's where I really started putting some great stuff and great material together," said Kassel.

Kassel's research led him through Cheyenne's aviation importance, beginning around 1900 and continuing up until roughly the end of World War II.

One of the first major events to affect Cheyenne aviation happened on Oct. 4, 1919. Gen. Billy Mitchell announced the Transcontinental Reliability and Endurance Test to support the theory that aircraft could be flown to either coast from the other in defense of the country. Cheyenne was selected as a major stop because of the Sherman Pass over the Rockies, access to the railroad for supplies and a base already featuring an airfield.

"With the railroad already established in Cheyenne, providing visual markers--and also being the lowest point through the Rockies--it was a natural fit for the Boeing Co. and the airmail service," said Kassel. "It was a great place to service planes, being located halfway between Chicago, Ill. and San Francisco, Calif."

On May 1, 1920 an announcement was made that Cheyenne was to become a principal stop on the new U.S. Air Mail service route. The new air mail service was first implemented by the U.S. Post Office.

In July 1920, then Secretary of War, Newton Baker, refused use of the airfield at Fort D.A. Russell for Air Mail service, which lead to Cheyenne choosing a sight 1 mile north of downtown for the new airfield.

"The Secretary of Defense thought that Fort D.A. Russell should be a military airfield period," said Kassel, "he didn't want civilians on it, so they negotiated with the city to establish a new facility and that's where we got the airfield that we have today."

Cheyenne became the focal point of the Air Mail service, with the first flight of the world's first Transcontinental Air Mail Route landing in Cheyenne on Sept. 8, 1920.

Cheyenne continued to gain notoriety for being the best of the best, with a new administration building, four new hangars, sophisticated beacon and signaling systems.

"Cheyenne was known as the best airfield in the nation at the time," said Kassel. "Lt. J. Parker Van Zandt even wrote an article for National Geographic about the Air Mail service and gave the biggest amount of time to the happenings in Cheyenne."

In 1927, Boeing Air Transport Company won the bid to take over commercial air mail from the government and announced that it would consolidate all of its operations facilities in Cheyenne. In the same year Boeing 40 aircraft began to fly out of Cheyenne.

"It was to Boeing's benefit that most of the pilots and mechanics signed on after the company took over the air mail service," said Kassel.

Over the next two decades Cheyenne continued to be at the forefront of aviation technology. Aviation firsts were common in Cheyenne during these days, including: the first geared propellers being tested, the first engine oil cooling tanks ever installed on any aircraft and the first mechanics to come up with the use of Chromalloy steel in aircraft cylinders.

In a 1935 edition of Popular Mechanics, Cheyenne was featured as the largest airplane overhaul and repair base in the world with around 500 employees.

"The mechanics of this time were amazing," said Kassel. "These guys could strip a Boeing 247 down to its basic frame, rebuild and repair all its systems and have the aircraft ready to fly in four days."

B-17 modifications kept Cheyenne busy during the 1940's. Cheyenne was chosen for a new modification center, Modification Center No. 10, which would equip B-17's with the latest technology to fight the war in a variety of environments.

Cheyenne Modification Center No. 10 was responsible for the modification of 47 percent of all B-17 aircraft during World War II, 5,736 total aircraft. The center employed around 3,600 employees and by late 1942 averaged 60 aircraft modifications per month.

With the end of World War II and the advancement in aircraft technology, Cheyenne's aviation heyday came to an end. However, while it lasted, it had a real impact on the development of many areas of aviation history.

"An astronomical amount of cool things and cool people came through Cheyenne," said Kassel, "including the world's first stewardess's school."

Part two "Where the friendly skies began..." to follow next month.

(Some information in this article was obtained from Michael Kassel's master's thesis and a power point presentation presented to the Wyoming Air National Guard on Dec. 3, 2011)