Sky Harbor and the Beginning of the Modern Era

Honoring the 75th Anniversary of Sky Harbor, we continue our look at the Airport’s history, exploring the beginnings of what is known as the modern era and the development of the Airport from 1950 up to the 1980’s.

In 1935, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport started out with one runway in a rural area and was known by residents as "The Farm." Today, PHX Sky Harbor is one of the ten busiest airports in the United States for passenger traffic. Additionally, it is a significant and vital economic engine to both the Valley of the Sun and the state of Arizona.

Longtime employees at PHX Sky Harbor have certainly noticed the changes over the years. Indeed, the transition has been gradual, but the growth of the aviation industry in Phoenix has changed the look and feel of the Airport entirely.

"I had no idea that it would be that busy," said former Assistant Director of Sky Harbor Doug Carr. "During the years I was there (the late 1940’s up until the mid-1950’s), we always stayed close to number one, and occasionally we’d slip and go back to number two. I understand now that we’re among the nation’s busiest. It has just mushroomed. And, it just kept growing and kept growing and it is still growing."

Indeed, when Carr was Assistant Director at Sky Harbor in the 1950’s, things were beginning to change and become even busier.

"After the second World War, there were things that took place here then that really were kind of a stepping stone for its growth," said Arv Schultz, aviation enthusiast and author of several articles for Arizona Flyways magazine. "It really started to materialize at that time, and then the jet age came into play and that is where we are today. It has just grown exponentially all along."

Due to the growth, there was a strong need for construction of a new terminal. Terminal 1 was built by Mardian Construction Company at a cost of $835,000 and completed in September 1952. Perhaps one of the most unique features of it was a new state of the art control tower. This was quite a change from when local planes came in and their owners just parked them anywhere.

By 1957, the airport was ranked 11th in the US for flight operations. More space was needed to handle operations, and Terminal 2 opened in April 1962. The development included a 1,000 car parking lot, access roads, and a concrete aircraft parking ramp. The cost to build the facility was about $2.7 million and the new terminal handled the major airlines flying into Sky Harbor at the time. Arizona artist Paul Coze designed the mural The Phoenix for Terminal 2.

In September 1960, jet service came to Sky Harbor with American Airlines linking Phoenix with Chicago and New York on a daily basis on the Boeing 720. TWA began jet service in January 1961 with the TWA Convair 880 jet. In the 1960s, Sky Harbor also had several other notable aircraft visit including the Goodyear Blimp, the Mercury Space Capsule and a 15-passenger Ford Tri-Motor plane.

Schultz remembers learning to fly at Sky Harbor in the 1960’s. He also remembers his first solo flight off the field at the time when there were only two runways.

"I really considered Sky Harbor my home," Schultz said. "I learned to fly here. I soloed here at this airport. It was long before there was a lot of aviation activity with respect to the large aircraft." Indeed Schultz loved flying and aviation so much that he decided to make it a career and started in Phoenix with Apache Airlines before later working for Republic and Northwest.

John D. Driggs, Phoenix Mayor from 1970-1974, was instrumental in an airport revenue bond issue which would allow for the creation of the master plan for Sky Harbor. Driggs chaired the $173 million dollar bond program and led it to success. The master plan paved the way for the growth of Sky Harbor, including the addition of a new terminal. In January 1977, the Terminal 3 groundbreaking occurred. Terminal 3 would be finished in October 1979 and consist of adjacent parking for 2,700 cars with an eight story parking garage, as well as a new control tower. The cost of Terminal 3 with the garage was approximately $48 million.

Former Mayor Driggs was also involved in adding an entrance to the Airport from the East side.

**Information taken from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport the First 50 Years – Research from Pamela Jones as well as interviews with Doug Carr, Arv Schultz, and John Driggs.

First published: September 7, 2010


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