The Depression Years: Tulsa Aviation Flew Through the 1930s
By CHARLES CANTRELL
TOUCHING DOWN IN TULSA: on June 17, 1931 Emila Earhart came to Tulsa flying the Autogiro, an experimental craft in which she had set a high altitude record of 18,415 feet in April of 1931. It was a cross between a fixed wing aircraft and a predecessor to the helicopter. Featuring a pair of stubby short wings and giant rotor blades for lift, it proved to be an unstable craft at best and prone to crashing as evident by the many near fatal mishaps Earhart experienced during the planes inaugural, promotional air tour sponsored by Beechnut Gum Company. One such mishap came during the Tulsa leg of the tour and prompted Earhart to stay in town while the Autogiro was repaired.
Courtesy Tulsa Air & Space Museum
Tulsa’s “Golden Era” of aviation is considered to have been between the 1920s and 1940s. The decade of the 1920s was characterized by enthusiastic aviation innovators teaming with brave and skillful pilots financed by burgeoning oil barons and resourceful entrepreneurs to create a synergistic energy that helped catapult the aviation industry onto the national stage. The aviation successes of the 20s would position Tulsa to be a major player in the war effort of the 40s. But before the “Big One” there came the 30s presenting unique challenges and opportunities for Tulsa aviation.
If “Black Tuesday” of 1929 wasn’t enough with its wiping out of fortunes in a matter of hours and the Great Depression that followed, Oklahoma and much of the Midwest was dealt the added blow of a decade long drought of biblical proportions devastating its farming industry along with the culture and communities it fostered. The world looked on as the much-envied United States economy faltered and then simply collapsed. It is hard today to comprehend the magnitude of the pall that fell on the land of the free and the brave. The “Roaring Twenties” had hit an economic wall and the fallout from that collision would be evident as lines began to form outside soup kitchens. Optimism bowed to fear and trepidation throughout the land. But in this troubled sea of despair, islands of hope remained and there were even those who refused to abandon their dreams.
A potent combination of oil, optimism and entrepreneurship fueled Tulsa aviation in the 1920s and when optimism came into short supply in the 1930s, oil and oilmen often filled the void and helped keep aviation moving forward. Because the United States was too far down the road to industrialization, helped in part by the growing aviation industry, life in the United States without oil was no longer an option. Hence Tulsa’s energy-based economy held up well during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl years. Certainly the growing demand for petroleum products slowed, but oil money continued to flow into the city. Enough in fact to keep hope alive for aviation enthusiasts.
Oklahoma and certainly Tulsa were well established in the 1920s as prudent stopovers for the many air tours of the day designed to seed the market for aviation. Because Tulsa was one of those islands in a storm during the 1930s the visits of aviation pioneers and innovators continued.
The most famous woman pilot of all time, Amelia Earhart, and her financial backers saw fit to conduct aviation tours across Oklahoma. The first tour in 1928 was a stunning success prompting the second state tour in the summer of 1931 called the Beechnut Tour. The Beechnut Tour was to promote a newly developed, high performance airplane called the Autogiro. There was also the goal of strengthening the state’s aviation industry. Earhart also came through Tulsa for the second time in three years to pay her respects to the aviation power brokers of the day.
Due in part to the large turnout of Tulsans present to witness her arrival, she decided the next day to stay over and put on two demonstrations of “aviatrix.” Problems developed on the plane and Earhart extended her stay in the city. Tracing her itinerary during that stay helps illustrate the prowess of Tulsa aviation in the early 1930s.
She stayed in the Travis Mansion, today’s home of the Tulsa Garden Center, as a guest of successful merchant and aviation enthusiast J. Arthur Hull. She took the opportunity to travel by air to Bartlesville to have dinner with Frank Phillips. The plane she rode in was owned and piloted by C. J. Lucus and accompanying her on the flight were Nettie William McBirney (later known as Tulsa World culinary columnist Aunt Chick), wife of Tulsa banker Sam McBirney, along with Charles W. Short, Tulsa’s airport manager.
The conversation that evening in Bartlesville would likely have focused on the many new petroleum products being developed by Phillips Petroleum – fuel and lubrication products that would revolutionize aviation making possible more powerful engines enabling planes to become more efficient and therefore profitable. Phillips would probably have updated Earhart on the most recent efforts of her good friend and aviation colleague, Wiley Post, a sponsored beneficiary of Phillips. Finally, before leaving Tulsa, she might have touched base with any of the city’s illustrious oil entrepreneurs such as W. G. Skelly, W. K. Warren, J. Paul Getty, Thomas Gilcrease, Walt Helmerich and Joseph A. LaFortune, any of which were potential financial benefactors to her and other flyers with aviation causes.
In the same year as Earhart’s visit and as the country continued to languish economically, Charles Short with the help of other influential Tulsans managed to attracted one of the nations major aviation events to the city. It was the National Airport Conference, and it was the first time the event had been held west of the Mississippi. Delegates and dignitaries from across the country came to see what Tulsa was all about and left impressed.
Despite the economic hardships of the 1930s, Tulsa leaders went full speed ahead to put on a series of successful International Petroleum Exhibitions as always, showcasing the advancements in petroleum energy based products and technology including a healthy dose of new aviation fuels and lubricants. The message was clear: not everywhere was the economy failing in the 1930s, not in aviation, not in Tulsa.
Just as Tulsa’s energy based economy failed to miss a beat during the country’s and the state’s darkest decade, so too did the advancement of aviation. President Roosevelt’s inaugural speech historically proclaiming, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” was not lost on those who believed in and understood the potential of aviation. And even as nature’s wrath temporarily blew away much of Oklahoma’s thriving agriculture economy, Tulsa oil with all its economic benefits stood up against it all and helped move the country’s aviation industry forward.
The next installment in the series will deal with the post war era in Tulsa aviation.
Editor’s Note: This is the 11th 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.