Mr. Tulsa Aviation Flew By the Seat of His Pants
By CHARLES CANTRELL
TOUCHING DOWN IN TULSA: A Spartan C-3 lands at Tulsa Municipal Airport. The C-3 was the type of plane Willie Brown wanted to build based on his experience in the air force during World War I. He and W. G. Skelly agreed this design of plane would be the first built by Spartan Aviation in 1928.
Courtesy Tulsa Air and Space Museum
Editor’s Note: This is the third 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 contribution 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.
In the early 20s there was abundant evidence of wealth in Tulsa. The Tulsa Chamber of Commerce claimed to have fifty millionaires on its finance committee. Many of those millionaires were building their own company buildings, giving rise to the Tulsa skyline. J. Paul Getty, at one time labeled “the richest man in the world,” made Tulsa his home. Every evening in the marble pillared lobby of the famed Tulsa Hotel, everybody who was anybody in oil showed up to swap information, hustle business and each other. Often the lobby was the site of million dollar deals made by men with names like Sinclair, Getty, McFarlin, Chapman and others. In this mix was one such oil baron who would more than any other pave the way for aviation in Tulsa.
William Grove “Bill” Skelly, dubbed Mr. Tulsa Aviation, grew up in the Pennsylvania oil fields and came to Tulsa in 1912 already well versed in the intricacies of oil production. He soon started Midland Refining Company. In 1919 he merged that company with other holdings to form Skelly Oil and began amassing his fortune, some of which would go to jumpstarting and sustaining the growth of aviation in Tulsa, the nation and eventually the world.
Skelly’s interest in aviation probably started in 1926 when he got word of an airplane being built in Tulsa by a young man named Willis Brown. Skelly sought out the young man and his airplane dubbed “Brown’s Mule” and was so impressed he eventually procured enough stock to control the company, Mid-Continent Aircraft, and keep Brown on to run it. Brown had a different name for his airplane; he called it a “Spartan C-3.” Skelly decided to rename the company Spartan Aircraft.
He then moved into facilities at Virgin Street and North Sheridan Road in what is currently the location of Crane Carrier Corporation positioning the company just down the road from Tulsa Municipal Airport, the airfield that came about due in large part to his concerted efforts.
It was the former Pennsylvania oilman who in 1927 was instrumental in getting “Lucky Lindy” Lindbergh to stop in Tulsa during his goodwill tour after his flight across the Atlantic. Also in 1927, Henry Ford brought his nationwide Ford Reliability Air Tour to McIntyre Airport to encourage growing municipalities like Tulsa to start building public airfields to accommodate the new wave of transportation. Skelly, in his second term as president of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, followed up Lindbergh’s visit with a well coordinated campaign signing up most of the city’s business leaders to finance Tulsa Municipal Airport. In a little less then seven months the airport opened. The feature attraction of the several day grand opening celebration was the bigger and better 1928 Ford Reliability Air Tour.
Air tours were all the rage in the late 20s as people with a vested interest in the growth of aviation pulled out all the promotional stops to convince the public that flying was in their future. Great sums of money were being invested to create a market for aviation travel and products. Skelly understood this. Shortly before the opening of the Tulsa Municipal Airport Skelly Oil helped sponsor Oklahoma’s first air tour promoting aviation in the state. Imagine the attention the sound of two dozen airplanes would get flying low in formation over a quiet Oklahoma community in those times. Needless to say the curiosity generated by such a spectacle would draw the town out to wherever the planes landed to see and hear all about flying. The tour worked its wonder helping aviation off to a running start across Oklahoma. Skelly also used the event to promote his newest products Skelly Aviation Gasoline and Tagolene Motor Oil.
Not long after opening the doors to Spartan Aircraft Company, Skelly saw the growing need for well trained, competent aircraft mechanics and pilots. His answer was to open the Spartan School of Aeronautics. The school helped solve the problem faced by General Jimmy Doolittle in 1928. America couldn’t train enough pilots to meet the demand of the fledgling air force of the First World War. The school turned out thousands of first-rate pilots and mechanics. When England came under attack by Germany years later Spartan School trained hundreds of pilot to fly the famous spitfires of the Royal Air Force credited with winning the Battle of Britain, the air war that brought down the German Luftwaffe.
And so it was whenever early Tulsa aviation needed a boost W. G. Skelly was there with the solution and the resources. Whether it was an aircraft manufacturing company creating innovative aircraft, a promotional air show tour, a municipal airport to serve the city, a much needed school to train pilots and mechanics or specially formulated petroleum to fuel new, more powerful aircrafts, Mr. Tulsa Aviation was there putting the pieces together to form the foundation on which the city would build its aviation industry.
At the time economic and market force were compelling many to venture into the exciting world of aviation; consequently Tulsa probably would have entered the fray had there not been a Skelly. The real question being would the beginnings of Tulsa aviation have been as auspicious without someone of Skelly’s fearless, determined spirit and business acumen.
The stock market crash of 1929 would change America’s perspective. It would also change Skelly’s focus from aviation supporter to oil company matters. This shift in emphasis set the stage for another Tulsa oil baron, J. Paul Getty to take over the Spartan aircraft facility. The aircraft company would prosper for the next thirty years producing various model biplanes, monoplanes, a Navy primary trainer and the Spartan Executive, probably the finest corporate aircraft of its time. But most important W. G. Skelly, Skelly Oil Company and the Spartan Aviation Companies had laid the groundwork for aviation to flourish in the Oil Capital of the World.