October 28, 1994
Please bear with me this morning while I shed a tear over the passing of one of the great landmarks of my youth. They’re going to tear down the hangar at the abandoned airport two miles west of my old hometown of Britton, Okla. With it will go a lot of memories.
It was the workplace of many of my early heroes. It was the original headquarters for the airline founded by Paul and Tom Braniff of Oklahoma City, and Braniff pilots who lived in Britain would come into my dad’s drug store. They would be in uniform, and they would speak to me, and I’d be walking on air.
My uncle, Bill Garthoeffner, learned to fly there in 1930. I saw him take his first lesson in a Waco biplane, and after he got his license and bought a tiny Viele Monocoupe, I was one of his first passengers. I held the control stick while he said, “keep the wings level in the nose on the horizon.”
My brother Al work there before he went away to become a Navy pilot. He flew in World War II, flew for United and Pan-American after the war, and then went back to the Navy and made it a career.
Wiley Post used the hanger to prepare his Lockheed Vega, named Winnie Mae, for his historic solo round-the-world flight in 1933. He was visited at the field by Will Rogers, and they would die together in 1935 when the plane Post was piloting crashed on take-off near Point Barrow, Alaska.
But even before that happened, the airport west of Britton was renamed the Wiley Post Airpark, honoring his many flying feats, and the Oklahoma City Airport still is known today as Will Rogers International. There’s a new Wiley Post airport now, not far from the original.
When the airport at the corner of May Avenue and Britton Road opened in 1928, it was called The Curtiss-Wright Flying Service, and it was one of 27 operated across the country by the company. Braniff took it over in 1932 and stayed until it moved its headquarters to Dallas in 1937.
Another Brittonite, Johnny Burke, took charge then and formed Burke Aviation Corp., training pilots, selling and servicing aircraft, and actually building biplanes called Wiley Post’s, powered with Ford V-8 engines.
During World War II, it’s estimated some 15,000 men learn to fly planes and gliders at the field. In 1955, Burke closed it and developed it into a residential addition.
But the old hangar stayed. First it was turned into a shopping center, then a church called the Christian Center Transdenominational, a name as big as the structure. Now it’s vacant, and it will be removed to make way for an auto sales lot. That may be progress, but they can’t remove the memories.
Uncle Bill, even before he learned to fly, often took me to the airport. He like to look at the planes and talk to the pilots. Then, one day he walked out of the hangar wearing a flying helmet and goggles, and a parachute. I couldn’t believe it.
But he climbed into the biplane with his instructor, pulled down his goggles and away he went. He reminded me of daredevil pilots of the movies, like Richard Barthelmess, Ben Lyon and Richard Dix. He kept flying until he was so old they made him quit. He became one of the best-known pilots in Oklahoma, and in his career owned seven planes.
When my mom and dad moved from Britton to Durant in far southeastern Oklahoma, Uncle Bill often flew there and brought my mom back to Oklahoma City to visit. There always was room in the plane for my dad, but he wouldn’t get near one. He never left the ground.
A lot of aviation history was made at the old airport. I remember that some woman set a record there for consecutive parachute jumps. I saw some of them. She get in a plane, go up, jump, swap chutes, go up, jump, on and on. It was history in the making, but pretty boring.
Another time, two pilots another time, two pilots set an endurance record for the number of days aloft. They circled the airport, and regularly took on fuel and food from a plane that would maneuver above them and drop a fuel hose and a food basket to them. Topeka’s 190th couldn’t have done it better.
Almost every Sunday, there was stunt flying there by local pilots and by barnstormers. And you could always buy a short hop in some kind of plan for as little as $5.
The best part of my early flying career came when Braniff Pilots would fly their mighty Lockheed Vegas from the Britton Airport, where they were serviced, down to Oklahoma City, where their flights originated. Often they would invite me and my brother on the 10-mile flight. Uncle Bill would drive down to pick us up.
The old hangar will remain as much a part of family lore as the drug store on Main Street, our house on East Stewart or the one two doors away where Uncle Bill and his family lived. It was a great place to grow up.