New Wave of Hopeful Pioneers Land in Tulsa

Associate Editor

EARLY AVIATION PIONEERS: From left, Phillips Petroleum Co. vice presidents L.E. Phillips and Clyde Alexander, pilot Arthur Goebel Jr., and legendary oilman Frank Phillips framed by the 1927 racing airplane, “Woolaroc,??? along with barrels of Phillips Nu-Aviation gasoline. The plane was named after Frank Phillips ranch outside of Bartlesville and stands for woods, lakes and rocks.

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth 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.

Long after covered wagons filled with hopeful pioneers came to settle the heartland of America, after Boomers and Sooners had settled down to farm and ranch the tall grass prairie and even after oil strikes had attracted the early adaptor and entrepreneurs of the petroleum industry, a third wave of pioneers were drawn here by circumstances that are unique to Tulsa’s storied aviation past.

Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 was an auspicious moment in American aviation, catapulting a shy, young pioneer pilot into the spotlight. But the 3,500-mile, 33-and-a-half-hour non-stop flight connecting two continents was about more than fame and fortune for the reluctant hero. For those financiers of Lucky Lindy’s flight, it was an event designed to help lay to rest the prevalent notion of the day that air travel was not yet safe enough for commercial transportation. Convincing a skittish public that air travel was a viable option to rail or automobile would take more than a single successful flight between New York and Paris. It would take a national hero proclaiming the viability of air travel. To that end, before his newsworthy value subsided, Lindbergh would launch into a whirlwind air tour of the United States to proclaim before community leaders, chambers of commerce and the general public the bright future of air travel.

During this promotional tour, Lindbergh and his supporters were persuaded by Tulsa oilman William Grove “Bill” Skelly to include the city as a destination. Skelly, aka Mr. Tulsa Aviation, most likely called the promoters’ attention to the growing synergistic relationship between the aviation industry and Tulsa’s booming oil industry. He would have mentioned the coinciding of the International Petroleum Exposition and the Tulsa State Fair providing a ready-made audience. He might even have referred them to a typical ad for “Oklahoma’s Premier Airport,” McIntyre Airport, stating “the time of every man in the oil industry from the highest executive to the driller and field man is valuable. Time is money when drilling a well, handling fishing jobs, when obtaining leases in newly opened territory and when engaged in any activity in the industry.” The ad also stated that the quick response time capabilities of flight saved oilmen money and got them where they needed to be sooner to close the deal. Whatever Skelly said convinced the tour promoters to include Tulsa and Lucky Lindy with his airborne entourage landed at McIntyre Airport on Sept. 30, 1927. It would mark the first of many visits by famous aviation pioneers to the soon to be oil capital of the world.

A famous Tulsa pilot in his own right by the name of Art Goebel flew in one of the four planes dispatched to meet and escort Lindbergh’s tour to Tulsa. His fame came from winning the prestigious Dole Flight air race from Oakland Calif. to Honolulu, a dangerous 2,437-mile trek across the Pacific Ocean that sometimes claimed the lives of aviation pioneers. But not Goebel. He was lucky to be flying a plane called the Woolaroc, named after the ranch owned by one of his enthusiastic sponsors, Frank Phillips of Phillips Petroleum Company in Bartlesville. On the evening of Lindbergh’s visit to Tulsa, Goebel would join him at the head table during the gala evening celebration. It was a mutual honor for both aviation pioneers and the only time it would ever happen.

Just as the long distance flights of Lindbergh and others were serving to promote the acceptance of aviation in the public’s mind, so too were exciting promotional events like the Great Pacific Air Race of 1927. The racing events were also driving the development of better and faster aircraft. Other Oklahomans besides Goebel achieved fame in this venue of flight. Well known and respected on the 1920s air race circuit were the husband and wife team of Mary and Jimmie Haizlip. Mary set a long held speed record during her racing career and later became a test pilot for Spartan Aircraft Company. Jimmy became an instructor at the Spartan School of Aeronautics.

While other aviation pioneers were testing the limits of distance and speed, one of America’s greatest aviation pioneers, Oklahoma’s own Wiley Post, was literally reaching for the sky. Post wanted to fly a plane six miles up into the layer of the earth’s atmosphere called the stratosphere. It was a dynamically stable strata well above the threatening weather of the lower troposphere and it was hopefully the home of something scientists were calling the jet stream. Not surprising, his major sponsor for this effort was Frank Phillips, whose financial support of innovations in aviation was mostly driven by an unconditional love of flying.

In 1932 Tulsa’s new Municipal Airport with its 1,500-foot asphalt runway was dedicated. It was an event made possible by city leaders, and oil wealth and was prompted by Lindbergh’s visit when he admonished city leaders for not having such a facility. Present at the ceremony were Wiley Post, Jimmy Doolittle, Art Goebel, Frank Hawks, Duncan McIntyre, Billy Parker and many other local and world-renowned aviation pioneers of the times. It marked the beginning of a new area for Tulsa aviation and the presence of so many flying notables was testament to the city’s emerging prominence in a growing industry.

In today’s jargon, Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic was a tipping point in American aviation history. The media and public frenzy that followed and the promotional air tours across the country pumped new energy into an already growing enterprise and ushered in the “Golden Age” of Tulsa aviation. Aviation pioneers would continue pushing the outer limits of flight to see how far, how fast and how high humans could fly. Tulsa and Oklahoma oil money poured into many of these ventures through paychecks to courageous pilots, and innovative aircraft manufacturers and the successes this generated made the city and the state a destination for many and sometimes even home for a few of the greatest of America’s aviation pioneers.

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Next issue the series will focus on additional aviation pioneers who passed through Tulsa, most notably, Wiley Post who was considered by many to be Oklahoma’s most famous aviation pioneer.

Updated 11-12-2007

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