Wartime: Tulsa Oil and Aviation Always in the Fray
By CHARLES CANTRELL
HISTORIC HANGAR: Still standing proud is the former home of the first aviation unit of the Oklahoma National Guard named the 125th Observation Squadron. Today the building, which is made from quarried, native stone, serves as offices for Tulsair Beechcraft.
CHARLES CANTRELL for GTR Newspspaers
Editors Note: This is the 17th 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.
Back in the first decade of the 21st century, when starry eyed youths, unencumbered by the doubt and caution that comes with age, were throwing together their own versions of delicate flying machines in woodshops and barns across the Midwest. It’s unlikely any of them would have entertained the notion of an airplane as a weapon of war. For that thought to dawn on anyone would take the cataclysmic impact of two horrific world wars. How American aviation went from barnstorming to dog fighting, to high altitude strategic bombers circumnavigating the globe to invisible airplanes, provides ample grist for anyone’s fascination mill and gives us opportunity to look at how Tulsa oil and aviation played a vital role in the history of American military aviation.
The first recorded incident of two airplanes locked in mortal combat came during World War I. The summer of 1914 marked the beginning of the first of two protracted, large-scale world conflicts. “War” at that time often meant quick and decisive action that would take a couple of months at most to complete. In this way empires were built and declined. But many factors were evolving worldwide to create the kindling for the great bonfires to come. Bonfires that would last for years, significantly depleting human and natural resources of the combatant countries. Humanity was poised to take war to the next level.
Not the least of these early modern era developments feeding big, widespread wars, was the growing segmentation of the European world into fervent nationalities. National pride fueled the growth of conscripted armies in each country proudly standing at the ready to defend against invasions, or in some cases to initiate conflict often at the drop of a proverbial hat. The industrial revolution was providing machinery to propel bigger and more destructive weapons of war: machines that require petroleum based fuels. It was into this scenario that aerial combat entered as a mere smidgeon of what would come.
French-made Nieuport 28s and S.P.A.D.s (Sociere Anonyme Pour l’Aviation et ses Derives); British S.E.5s, and Sopwith Camels; and German Fokkers were first used for reconnaissance to identify enemy troop movement and direct artillery fire. Soon the use shifted to rudimentary strafing of enemy soldiers using hand held pistols and rifles and finally grenades were tossed onto soldiers below giving rise to the first bombers. Then came the airborne conflict between planes called “dog fighting” fraught with not only the expected dangers of being shot down in a fiery ball of flaming wood and canvas, but also the life-altering prospects of a plane unraveling in midair due to the stress brought on by extreme maneuvers of avoidance. There were some fixed wing airplane successes derived from the bombing of hangars for observation zeppelins, but it was not until pilots ceased waving hello to one another as they passed on the way to a mission and began interfering with one another’s mission by throwing bricks, dangling ropes in one another’s propellers or just simply exchanging pistol shots that air combat and military aviation was born.
Meanwhile back in Tulsa, the outlet valve at the Glenn Pool Oil Field, at the time holding the largest known oil reserves in the world, was running full open fueling the war effort, something it would do repeatedly over the next five decades. As for Tulsa’s aviation industry, it was still in its infancy. Oklahoma provided a few military aviation “aces” to those early days of wartime aviation along with much needed aircraft mechanics, and many nearby farmers made their mundane but significant contribution by growing bumper crops of castor beans yielding castor oil, an essential lubricant for the high performance engines of early day warplanes. But returning pilots brought back eye-opening stories of magnificent European military aircraft like the French S.P.A.D. with its 235-hp Hispano-Suiza liquid-cooled, eight-cylinder in-line engine reaching speeds of 119 mph with a range/endurance of two hours. The sentiment was most likely, “if the French can do that, just think what we could build.” When the next big war rolled around the aviation situation in Tulsa would be very different.
As described in many of the previous articles in this series, Tulsa aviation blossomed between the two great world wars of the 20th century due to the city’s unique position on the world energy stage. Tulsa’s unique and potent mix of visionary entrepreneurship and oil wealth positioned the city to be a major contributor to American military aviation before, during and after World War II. But while oil barons and city leaders were moving and shaking on the world stage, everyday Tulsans came forth to support America’s military by providing exemplary work skills as mechanics, flight trainers, assembly line workers, pilots and managers.
One such Tulsan was Charlie Short, a World War I pilot who, after surviving those early, harrowing days of air combat to return home, manage Tulsa Municipal Airport from its inception in 1928 until 1955 and put his mark on Tulsa aviation. He did so in part by procuring the first aviation group of the Oklahoma National Guard called the 125th Observation Squadron in 1940. Short made sure the unit had adequate facilities by initially housing it in one of Spartan School of Aeronautics’ hangars. Shortly thereafter at the urging of Short, the citizens of Tulsa voted a one-mill levy providing funding to build a permanent home for the 125th squadron. The building wasconstructed of quarried native sandstone in the style of the Oklahoma National Guard buildings prevalent around the state. It is still standing on the grounds of Tulsa International Airport. Cities everywhere were all vying for an Air National Guard unit because it was both prestigious and provided revenue to the city and the airport on which it was located. But as far as Tulsans were concern the real feather in Short’s cap was he got Tulsa a unit before Oklahoma City got theirs.
Tulsa’s Air National Guard is Charlie Short’s legacy and it has served the city, state and country over the years with distinction. Its continued presence here is evidence of Tulsa’s long-standing and on-going involvement and commitment to military aviation.
The next article in this series will be the last in the series and will take a look at the present and future of the aviation industry in Tulsa.