In September of 1919, the citizens of Cheyenne were surprised to learn that their city was to be the center of an air race the likes of which the world had never seen.
Aviation was not a new concept to the people of our city. Flyers had come and gone from our skies since 1911, but that mode of transportation was more of a curiosity than a potential boon.
On Sept. 25, the day after President Woodrow Wilson was in the city advocating support for the League of Nations, a telegram arrived announcing that Cheyenne would be a major stop on a flying circus tour of the country. It asked that a suitable airfield be created to receive as many as 30 government planes on or about Oct. 8.
Immediately, Fort D.A. Russell sprang to action under executive officer Col. Bigelow. He reached out to the Cheyenne Industrial Club for support, and it was readily given. Many Cheyenne civic groups pledged their aid. Gov. Robert Carey and the superintendent of the brand new Wyoming State Highway Department provided heavy equipment to build the field. Warren Richardson, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, also agreed to lend machinery.
New construction began immediately on the field just north of the current F.E. Warren visitor center. The new field was to be 800- by 900-feet, with a large white cross painted on the ground at its center. The outer corners of the airfield were also marked in white so the boundaries could be seen from the air.
Thousands of gallons of special gas and hundreds of gallons of oil were provided for the aircraft. The Red Cross and the YMCA set up a canteen and warming tent for the pilots. The Rotarians arranged for electric lighting for nighttime illumination.
As the race approached, the scale of the undertaking became clear, and it was breathtaking. The race, officially known as the Transcontinental Reliability and Endurance Test, was unprecedented. Eighty aircraft from the U.S. Army would depart from both coasts and cross the continent, twice. Cheyenne was one of the main stops on the route, and all of the aircraft were required to come here.
The planes ranged in size from bombers to scout planes, and originated from the United States, Britain, France and captured aircraft from Germany. Gen. Billy Mitchell was behind the race as a means to garner support from Congress, and more importantly, the public. Local newspapers were eager to help, and ran every morsel of news they could get their hands on for the duration of the contest.
The race began on Oct. 8, and the first planes arrived at Cheyenne from San Francisco the next day. From the descriptions of their experiences, a worse time could not have been chosen. While it was clear in the West, the East was inundated with heavy rains, and temperatures were dropping fast. In Wyoming, the weather was the worst as pilots had to struggle to find their way due to snowstorms, drifting snow and gale force winds. Conditions at Green River were so dire that it had to be closed as a landing point.
Still, the race continued. On Oct. 10, Lt. Edward Wales lost sight of the Union Pacific rails he was following near Elk Mountain. The pilot decided to fly cross-country in the general direction of Cheyenne. He struck a steep slope in Overt Pass and earned the dubious distinction of being the first person killed in an air crash in our state. His crewman survived and was able to get help at the Paulson Ranch.
Mishaps continued throughout the race, especially in Wyoming. Plane after plane fell victim to the high winds and high-altitude flying conditions. At Cheyenne, two planes were flipped by strong winds; fortunately, no one was grievously injured.
Not all mishaps were bad. One pilot missed the city and landed south of the city in the dark. Another pilot followed the wrong railroad tracks coming west and arrived at Sterling, Colorado, before he made a rough landing, clipping telephone wires and smashing into a fence post before coming to a stop. In both instances, the pilots took off again and continued the race.
Ultimately, Lt. Belvin Maynard, one of the best test pilots in the Army and known as “The Flying Parson,” was able to win the race, having crossed from one coast to the other and back in 50 hours, traveling a distance of 5,854 miles. Mitchell was thrilled with the outcome and warned that the race proved that the nation could no longer consider itself isolated. The miles flown by Maynard were greater than the distance between Berlin and Denver.
For its part, Cheyenne’s new airfield was considered a success. Seventy planes arrived, with only two crashes and no fatalities. The military was pleased with its performance, and many expressed hope that this might be the beginning of something great.
It was. By October of 1920, Cheyenne became one of the principle stops on the Transcontinental Air Mail route – the first in history – with more glory to follow.