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Aviation in Texas

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Aviation in Texas

  • Courage, Perseverance, and Innovation

The year 2020 represents 110 years of powered flight in the Lone Star State. 

Over the past century, Texas has grown to become a world leader in the aerospace industry. The state’s complex and profound history of aviation, intertwined as it is with those of other regions and nations, involves every facet of air and space flight. It’s a story Dr. Barbara Ganson has related in detail in Texas Takes Wing: A Century of Flight in the Lone Star State (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014). Here, we’ve asked her to touch on a few high spots, to give our readers a framework for understanding more about the destinations and personalities described in this issue.

Follow along as we meet inventors, pilots, manufacturers, instructors, business leaders, and other visionaries of civilian and military aviation.  

Texans Pioneered new technologies and revolutionized air travel. Texans established several of the country’s major airports, airlines, manufactured and designed extraordinary aircraft, raced across America, circumnavigated the world, traveled in space, and even walked on the moon. Texas has far more fixed-based operators (FBOs)—airport aeronautical services—than nearly any other state in the union and is the site of six major international airports, Austin-Bergstrom (KAUS), Dallas/Fort Worth (KDFW), Dallas Love Field (KDAL), George Bush Houston Intercontinental (KIAH), Houston Hobby (KHOU), and San Antonio International (KSAT).

Texas is also the home of more major U.S. airlines than any other state in the country. Texas has also been pivotal in military training, in aircraft manufacturing during wartime, and in defending national interests in peacetime, as well as in providing services for the agricultural industry and commercial, military, and general aviation. Bell Textron and American Eurocopter helicopters, built in Texas, have been perfected to perform search and rescue work, provide emergency medical transport services, control the nation’s borders, carry out military operations, serve the offshore petroleum industry, and deploy after natural disasters. The Air Tractor, built in Olney, Texas, is used throughout the world in agricultural aviation and has demonstrated success in fighting forest fires.


On February 18, 1910, a crowd of some 3,500 aviation enthusiasts gathered at Aviation Camp in South Houston to observe French flyer Louis Paulhan. Onlookers cheered after he flew a Farman biplane for several minutes near the city. In the absence of documentation of flights by other aviators, Paulhan is credit with performing the first heavier-than-air powered flight
in Texas.


As aviation gripped the public’s imagination across the country, the state of Texas became a primary center of military aviation training in the United States. 

While teaching himself to maneuver the Wright flyer at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Lt. Benjamin D. Foulois made improvements in airplane safety and design. Originally from Connecticut, Foulois was sent to Fort Myer, Virginia, in 1909 to master the U. S. Army’s newly acquired Wright flyer. The lieutenant logged fifty-four minutes of training time with Wilbur Wright while there, but the plane was damaged before he could complete his solo flight. 

The Army decided to transfer Foulois, the plane, and a group of mechanics to San Antonio. “Your orders are simple, Lieutenant,” General James Allen told Foulois. “You are to evaluate the airplane. Just take plenty of spare parts—and teach yourself to fly.” 

On March 2, 1910, Foulois completed his first solo flight in the Wright flyer at Fort Sam, marking the first military flight in Texas. He kept a logbook, or record, of his flights, noting his successes, failures, and improvements as he carried out his mission. “Much of my time at San Antonio’s storied Fort Sam Houston that spring was spent writing to Orville Wright, asking him how to execute basic maneuvers, how to avoid basic disasters-in short, how to fly an airplane. As far as I know, I am the only pilot in history who learned to fly by correspondence,” he wrote.


Even prior to America’s entry into the Great War in 1917, Texas aviators volunteered to fly for France as part of the Lafayette Escadrille,. while others, like the Stinson family, took on the responsibility of military flight training at home in San Antonio. After attending the West Texas Military Academy, Edgar Tobin (1896–1954) joined the Army Air Service during World War I. He first served with the 94th Aero Squadron with Eddie Rickenbacker and then the 103rd. He earned ace status after shooting down five aircraft and one observation balloon and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and the Distinguished Flying Cross. 

After the war, Tobin served as an assistant in charge of Kelly Field, San Antonio. He then established Tobin Aerial Surveys, which became the largest aerial mapping firm in the world.


In the aftermath of World War I, pilots risked their lives introducing the airplane across America as aerial performers. Texan Ormer Locklear (1891–1920) thrilled crowds by creating a national craze of wing walking and performing daredevil stunts, including midair transfers from one plane to another. Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman (1892–1926), who grew up in cotton fields in northeast Texas, became one of the most famous barnstormers in the country. She was the first native Texas woman to earn a pilot’s license—and the first licensed pilot of color in the world.


Across the nation during the interwar period, pilots captured the public’s attention by setting altitude, endurance, distance, and speed records. Thousands of people showed up at local airports simply to watch aviators take off and land. Aviation helped define how people thought and perceived themselves; the entire state, country, and the world began to look to the sky as the future.

Eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes (1905–1976) stands out as one of most important figures in the history of aviation during the twentieth century. Along with fellow Texan Wiley Post, Hughes set key records during the 1930s, as well as made notable contributions to development projects during World War II, and to the avionics industry in the postwar era. 

In 1933 Hughes had his engineers design a number of notable aircraft, including the H-1 Racer, the most meticulously built aircraft of its time, with its flawlessly smooth surfaces and innovative streamlined design. In 1935 Hughes set a landplane world speed record of 352 miles per hour in this plane, breaking the established record by a margin of 38 miles per hour. In 1937 he piloted the H-1 on a record-breaking transcontinental flight in seven hours and 28 minutes in an average of 327.1 miles per hour—a record that stood until 1946. 

In July 1938, Hughes and his crew set a new record by flying a Lockheed 14 near the top of the world in three days, 19 hours. In New York City upon his return, Hughes received a hero’s welcome with a ticker-tape parade down Broadway. Tens of thousands of fans showed up to greet him in Chicago and his native city of Houston.


After the first World War, military airplanes were transformed from minor war machines to serious tactical instruments such as the B-24 Liberator and the B-17 Flying Fortress. World War I airplanes could damage a military camp, a house, or several buildings—but military craft of the mid-1930s could sink ships or annihilate entire cities. Airplanes became a threat that could determine the outcome of a global war. 

Texas served as a major training ground, not only for pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps, but foreign cadets even before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. 


Dora Jean Dougherty Strother McKeown (1920–2013) was one of only two Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) selected  by Col. Paul Tibbets—the Air Force commander who would later pilot the Enola Gay—to demonstrate the B-29 Superfortress. Born in 1920 in St. Paul, Minnesota, Dora Jean Dougherty grew up in Long Island, New York, and Winnetka, Illinois. She learned to fly in the Civilian Training Pilot Program in 1940 and in 1943 graduated in the third class of the WASP.  

First assigned to the Air Transport Command at Dallas, Love Field, then to Camp Davis, North Carolina, she flew the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver on tow-target missions. Women pilots were used to encourage male military pilots to fly this large, intimidating bomber, under the assumption that if a woman could fly this airplane, anyone could. Dougherty was checked out as pilot-in-command on a total of 23 different airplanes. She earned an airline transport rating with instrument and flight instructor ratings. Among many other accomplishments, Dougherty earned the PhD in aviation education from New York University in 1955 and set two world helicopter records in 1961.


Black American pilots in Texas fought stereotypes and dealt with the challenges of diversity to help win the right to fly military aircraft during World War II. In July 1941, the Army Air Corps began to train a number of native Texan pilots and mechanics at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, in a program called the  Tuskegee Experiment. Walter L. McCreary (1918–2015) was among the one thousand pilots who fought for his country, risking his life for freedom, at a time when African Americans lived under segregation and Jim Crow laws. 

Born March 4, 1918, in San Antonio, McCreary was raised by his grandparents. He enrolled in Tuskegee, majoring in business administration and graduating in 1940. 

In 1941 McCreary entered the Civilian Pilot Training Program. He soloed in a Piper J-3 Cub in late 1941, flew a Waco biplane, and earned his pilot’s license as a civilian. His military flight training as a cadet in the Tuskegee program began in August 1942. After nine months of training, he earned his military wings in March 1943 as a second lieutenant in the Tuskegee class of 43-C. He then did some operational training at Selfridge Field, Detroit, Michigan. 

 In January 1944 McCreary was sent to Italy, where he became part of the 100th fighter group and flew the P-39, P-47, and P-51. McCreary flew eighty-nine missions over France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Rumania, Greece, Hungary, Rumania, and Yugoslavia. Although he flew some strafing missions in which he shot up Axis airplanes on the ground, McCreary mainly did his assigned job, flying escort to protect the bombers. 

On October 14, 1944, McCreary was flying on his eighty-ninth mission, over Lake Balaton in Budapest, when he was shot down. After parachuting safely to the ground, he was turned over to the Germans, who put him on a train to Budapest. Contrary to expectations, while in the U.S. blacks served in segregated units, the Germans held McCreary along with white officers in the Luftwaffe’s prisoner of war camp designated for airmen. McCreary would spend the rest of his wartime duty at Stalag Luft III along with some 10,000 British and American officers. 

After the war, McCreary returned to San Antonio, working at Brooks and Kelly Fields in San Antonio in the top-secret U.S. Air Force Security Services and eventually retiring from the Air Force in 1963 as a lieutenant colonel.


Nearly two dozen native Texans have joined the ranks of American astronauts since the dawn of the space age. Among them, Edward H. White II of San Antonio will always be remembered for the distinction of being the first American to walk in space.

Born November 14, 1930, White earned a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Military Academy and a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Michigan. Lieutenant White became a test pilot for the U.S. Air Force and in 1962 was selected as pilot for Gemini IV, a four-day
earth-orbit mission. 

Project Gemini served as the proving ground for new technologies and developing the necessary skills for astronauts to walk on the lunar surface. During Gemini IV, the first space flight directed by Mission Control in Houston, White was tethered to the space capsule by a twenty-five-foot long “umbilical cord.” He performed his extravehicular activity (EVA) during the third revolution of the Gemini IV spacecraft, which orbited the earth 62 times. 

White was later selected as command pilot for the Apollo I program. On January 27, 1967, a fire on the ground at the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, took the lives of the three Apollo I astronauts, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Roger B. Chaffee, and White, who was just 36 years old. This tragic loss put the space program back at least two years and in jeopardy. Yet engineers at NASA and other personnel persevered, sending the first men to the moon on July 20, 1969, within the time frame originally set by President John F. Kennedy.


Visionaries in Texas aviation continue to look toward the future. Tomorrow’s airplanes will be more automated, carry more passengers and cargo, and travel the earth faster using newer green technology, particularly new composite materials, which will make the aircraft far more fuel efficient. New green technologies might also solve problems of the sonic boom, unacceptable greenhouse emissions, high operating costs, and noise. 

According to state statistics from the Office of the Governor, aerospace and aviation directly employs over 130,000 Texas workers at 1,300 establishments. The state is home to fifteen active military bases, with more than 170,000 military personnel.

NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center is the hub for the world’s operations in outer space. And here on earth, Texas has 26 commercial airports serving 22 cities and a robust civil aviation culture.

SpaceX’s Brownsville facility is expected to create 300 jobs, pump $85 million in capital investment into the local economy, and serve as the nation’s first commercial rocket launch facility. Elsewhere in the state, one of the world’s largest helicopter repair facilities is located in Corpus Christi, while the cities of Waco, Amarillo, El Paso, Wichita Falls, McAllen, and Harlingen support manufacturing facilities for Fortune 500 aerospace companies.

Many aviators, aviation enthusiasts, and air travelers alike will continue to turn their heads toward the sky in hopes for greater convenience, comfort, entertainment, and with the expectation that perhaps more affordable space travel will become possible in the near future. If innovations of the past decades serve as a guide, the horizon of space flight for common humankind might be far closer to what we can imagine.

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