The story under the headline told of the three-day “Air Circus” that culminated in the dedication ceremony Sunday, April 28, 1929, for Tracy’s American Legion Airport.
The 80th anniversary of that opening weekend of the airport — now Tracy Municipal Airport — will be celebrated this Saturday with a full day of activities at the airport south of town.
Eight decades ago, the large crowd attracted to the airport that Sunday in April 1929 was described as the largest gathering in this area’s history, so large that many people could not reach the airport itself and had to watch the activities from cars parked along roads “for miles around.”
What they saw were stunt planes performing aerobatics, other planes competing in air races and parachutists floating to earth while bands played. Over the three days, a number of Tracy residents took rides in open-cockpit planes.
The April 1929 opening weekend culminated nearly a year of effort to build an airport for Tracy.
In 1928, members of Tracy’s James McDermott American Legion post attended the state Legion convention in Stockton, where Legion leaders urged the development of airports throughout the state.
In September 1928, the American Legion Airport Committee was formed under the leadership of H.J. “Hap” Frerichs and C.L. “Casey” Jones, two World War I veterans.
The Legion committee convinced the Tracy City Council to purchase 158 acres south of town for the airport, stipulating that the Legion post would develop the property. The site was chosen at the 200-foot elevation in an effort to be above the tule fog that lies low in the Central Valley each winter.
In agreeing to purchase the airport property, the council allocated $1,500 to provide materials for the Legion members to level a gravel runway and build hangars.
The Legion operated the airport for three years, but dreams of developing an airport with regular air service never materialized. With the Great Depression taking hold, the city took over the airport in 1932.
During the 1930s, several operators leased the airport from the city without any real success.
Finally in 1940, the airport took on a new life. The Boeing School of Aeronautics, which trained pilots for United Air Lines, realized that its original location at Oakland Airport was too congested and opted to come to Tracy at the urging of the Tracy Chamber of Commerce.
From October 1940 through December 1941, the school trained some 120 young pilots. All were college students who had already learned to fly. In Tracy, they lived at the Tracy Inn, took ground-school classes next door at the old Central School and practiced visual and instrument flying at the airport.
The training in Tracy ended soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The West Coast was considered too vulnerable to a possible attack. Early in 1942, the school was moved Cheyenne, Wyo., and later to Denver.
The young student pilots who trained in Tracy later became United’s senior captains, proudly known as “Tracy Aces.”
During World War II, the Army Air Corps took over the airport as an auxiliary landing field for student pilots at Stockton Field training for multi-engine aircraft. The Army constructed two 4,000-foot concrete runways and a third of 3,400 feet. Two parallel landing strips at New Jerusalem were also constructed.
Following the war, the Army returned Tracy airport to the city along with the New Jerusalem facility that included some 250 acres of farmland. The stipulation was that both airports would remain in aviation use.
In postwar America, interest in flying sprouted with the growth of general aviation. At Tracy airport, Frank Duarte operated Tracy Flying Service, and pilots formed the Tracy Flying Club. The flying club sponsored sports-car races at the airport in 1958 and 1959.
Frank Haley, George Boys and Carl Trinkle launched their crop-dusting service at the airport, and Haley later managed the airport. His daughter, Jean, learned to fly at the airport and became the second woman pilot hired by United. She is a UAL captain today.
Fourth of July air shows were an annual event at the airport in the 1960s, and balloonists began using it for liftoffs. Marion Springer operated a gyro-copter school at the airport.
Because the airport has no tower and traffic is “uncontrolled,” it has become a popular site for student pilots to practice takeoffs and landings. A number of experimental aircraft have made their maiden flights at the airport, some with fatal consequences.
In the 1970s, the airport was the site of operations to cut apart and dismantle hundreds of DC-6 propeller airliners that had been replaced by jets.
The city used funds generated from leasing New Jerusalem farmland as seed money to gain federal funds to resurface runways, build hangars and tie-downs, and to develop new fueling facilities.
A recommendation by the Tracy Airport Committee to extend the main runway to 5,000 feet to accommodate private jets never got off the ground.
Lloyd McFarlin succeeded a series of airport operators and was the fixed-based operator for a decade, beginning in the 1990s, offering flight training, airplane maintenance and 24-hour fueling. In 1998, an airport master plan calling for further airport development was approved.
In 2001, a park developed at the airport was dedicated as American Legion Park in recognition of the Legion’s role in establishing the airport in 1929.
A “box” for aerobatics was established near the airport before it was moved to New Jerusalem.
The city of Tracy will celebrate the airport’s 80th anniversary with live entertainment on a main stage, a hot air balloon liftoff, airplane displays and all sorts of food and commercial booths. Numerous planes are expected to fly into the airport for the day.
Along with the fun, the airport also hopes the event will be a chance for people who use the airport to meet people who live nearby, or anyone in the city who wants to learn more about what goes on at the airport.