Golden Age Tulsa Lands a ‘Safe’ Airline for City

Associate Editor

S.A.F.E.WAY AIRLINES FORD TRIMOTOR AT TULSA MUNICIPAL AIRPORT: The key to the success of Erle Halliburton’s S.A.F.E.WAY Airlines was the noisy but very reliable Ford Trimotor with its highly regarded safety record. Three overpowered engines could easily propel the craft in the event of one or even two engine failures. Fuel efficiency was not a strong point for the craft, but in the ‘20s fuel was cheap. Safely concluded flights were the main issue when it came to air travel.

Courtesy Tulsa Air & Space Museum

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh article in a multi-part series about the growth of the aviation industry in greater Tulsa and throughout the region. The series explores the many unique contributions made by Tulsans to what has become a major aspect of the area economy. The editors of GTR Newspapers want to acknowledge and thank the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and the Tulsa Historic Society for research assistance and the use of many of the historic photos that accompany these articles.

The oil wealth of Tulsa’s early years provided much of the financial underpinning to the city’s burgeoning aviation industry, but other sources of revenue fueled the growth of aviation as a new form of transportation. In the early 1920s the federal government began awarding mail delivery contracts across the country to owners of airline companies formed primarily to provide regional airmail service.

Oklahoma City was first in the state to offer airmail service and, in fact, delivered the first such piece of airmail on May 12, 1926. Tulsa would soon follow with its first airmail route with 186 pounds of mail flown from Tulsa to Ponca City and beyond on July 5, 1928. The plane carrying the mail was named Miss Tulsa after Miss Helen Paris, the official Miss Tulsa of 1928. Suddenly Oklahomans and particularly Tulsa oilmen were within 24 hours by mail of major commercial centers like Chicago, New York and San Francisco.

Even before aviation proved its worth for getting executives around the country to make deals and do business, U.S. Air Mail Service would provide amazing efficiency at getting mail from place to place. The 15-cent airmail stamp compared to the three-cent postage stamp for regular mail was no deterrent to sending important documents around the country by air. As for the contracted airline companies, airmail was proving to be a very lucrative business and was much preferable to transporting humans with their inconvenient needs for comfort and life necessities, not to mention avoiding the litigation calamity should, heaven forbid, a plane crash with passengers aboard. Because compensation for airmail was first based on weight, some ethically challenged airlines would add on weight to surpass the break-even threshold. Items such as bricks were often sent back and forth across the country in order to bolster the bottom line. The result of so much attention to airmail delivery stifled the growth of passenger travel until 1930 when things would begin to change.

In 1929 Walter Folger Brown was appointed Postmaster General by President Herbert Hoover and was tasked to study the aviation industry. Brown found there were some 44 airlines operating in the country ranging from successful to fledgling. In his view this was too many for the flight demand of the times. The main source of their revenue was airmail contracts and too much of the success of these airlines was due to the before mentioned cheating. There was little interest in passenger’s service when so much could be made flying mail. All this coincided with the passage of the McNary-Watres Act that attempted to consolidate the fledgling airline industry and laid the groundwork for government regulations and subsidies for airlines. The regulations would last until the deregulation of the 1980s.

Brown decided to call a summit meeting in Washington, D.C. and invited all the heads of the largest airlines. It was called the “Spoils Conference” and was designed to initiate consolidation in the industry and bring a little order to the airmail marketplace. His intent was to award three main airmail routes across the United States, the northern going to United, the central going to Transcontinental Air Transport and American Airlines received the southern route.

Into this fray would walk an uninvited Tulsa oilman by the name of Erle Halliburton, owner of a successful oil field cementing company out of Duncan OK, and a major shareholder in an airline he had created called S.A.F.E.Way Airlines that headquartered in Tulsa.
Halliburton chose Tulsa to headquarter his airlines because it was where both oil and aviation were happening. It was Tulsa’s golden age for aviation and oil. The city boasted quality airfields like McIntyre Airfield, H.F. Wilcox Airport, Garland Airfield, the North American Airlines Field and Tulsa Municipal Airport. It was also the location of four flight training schools including Garland, McIntyre, W. S. Collier at the H. F. Wilcox Airport and of course Spartan School. Because of Tulsa’s growing demand for business travel in and out of the Oil Capital of the World, Halliburton focused on passenger travel and branded the airline to overcome traveler’s reluctance to fly. Using very reliable Ford Trimotor aircraft, known for their unmatched reliability, the airlines boosted a perfect safety record and achieved limited success in attracting paying passengers. Investors in the airline included some familiar oil industry names like W. G. Skelly and Waite Phillips along with Erle’s brother, J. C. Halliburton.

But getting back to the uninvited guest to the Spoils Conference, Halliburton made his presence felt by letting William Mayo, his contact at Ford Motor Company, know of his intent to purchase $600,000 worth of additional Ford Tri-motor aircraft for his growing airline. When word of this got back to Henry Ford, he saw to it that S.A.F.E.Way Airlines had a seat at the conference table. Halliburton proceeded to wheel and deal himself in typical oil industry fashion into a merging of his airlines into American Airlines and walk away with a cool million dollars. That was the end of Tulsa’s first airline, but it didn’t end the city’s role in the growth of the airline industry.

S.A.F.E.Way Airlines had shown many doubters the economic viability of a safe airline service. Airplanes would continue to increase in size, safety and performance to the point that made air travel more affordable to the general public instead of only the wealthy. Other airlines would spring out of Oklahoma’s flourishing economy. In 1928 Paul Braniff began passenger service from Oklahoma City to Tulsa. Braniff would get a little help from Arthur Ramsey, a famous newsreel cameraman and the son of an Oklahoma City oilman, and build one of the nation largest airlines and eventually putting an end to the “plain plane.”

When it came to airline travel, once again oil and aviation came together to advance Tulsa, the state and the country toward the aerospace era.

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Next month: Chapter 8 – Big Names In Aviation Land in Tulsa

Updated 09-24-2007

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