Sky Harbor made Aviation History

November 24, 2002, Dan Whittle, The Daily News Journal

A June 1941 aerial view looking northwest at Sky Harbor hangar, showing the hangar & terminal, and over a dozen military aircraft on the field.

Before there was a Nashville International Airport and historic Sewart Air Force Base in Smyrna, there was Tennessee’s Sky Harbor on the Old Nashville Hwy.

Today boats are manufactured at the site between Murfreesboro and Smyrna.

In fact, before there was any other commercial airport in Middle Tennessee, Rutherford County landed Sky Harbor in 1929 … a historic facility that brought professional aviation to the Mid-South when most folks still referred to those newfangled flying machines as airships.

Sky Harbor brought Rutherford County and Middle Tennessee into the age of modern day aviation, said former Sewart Air Base pilot Steve Fitzhugh.

“A lot of famous early flight pilots, such Jimmy Doolittle flew through Sky Harbor,” noted Fitzhugh.

Some of the most notable personalities of early American aviation, and the American scene in general, came through Sky Harbor at one time or another, including world-famous humorist author Will Rogers.

Will Rogers kept a diary of most of his stops around the world, including being at Sky Harbor during the Great Depression on May 18, 1933: “Going (through Sky Harbor) as a delegation of one of the American Comedians’ Association to get some aid from the Reconstruction Finance.  No industry has been hit worse than professional humor.”

Will Rogers loved flying, judging from the fact he was America’s first civilian to fly coast-to-coast with U.S. Mail pilots in 1927, two years before Sky Harbor was opened initially as a dirt field.  As fate would have it, Will Rogers later perished in a plane crash with famed pilot Wiley Post at the controls.

It was the expansion of U.S. Air Mail service that led to Sky Harbor’s construction.

“No doubt, Sky Harbor was a bog economic and political feather in the cap of Rutherford County business and civic leaders,” said modern-day president Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce President Steve Benefield.  “It brought aviation to the Mid-state area.”

It’s noteworthy to point out that ‘harbor’ was used to describe the early air facility before the word ‘airport’ had been coined to describe early-era aviation facilities.

But Murfreesboro had already produced pilots who eventually worked at Sky Harbor when it came online in 1929, according to historic information shared by John ‘Bubba’ Woodfin.

“Much of the credit for the success of Sky Harbor is due to the untiring of O.T. ‘Tom’ Ridley, a Murfreesboro boy who was a pilot overseas during the war (World War I).  Tom has given his entire time and thought to Sky Harbor since the movement was launched and Interstate Air (the forerunner to American Airlines) officials feel they were fortunate in procuring his as a member of their staff.”

Murfreesboro watch maker Charles Mullins Sr. remembers the first plane that landed at Sky Harbor when the field was dedicated in 1929.

“I was a big boy, maybe 15, when it happened in 1929.  I grew up on a farm on Burleson Lane Road about a mile from Sky Harbor,” recalls the 86-year-old Mullins.  “I saw the first plane as it came in overhead.”

“As boys, we all ran to Sky Harbor, for it was quote a big sight for our first airplane on the ground.  We had only seen planes in the air until that point.  Jimmie Doolittle, a man who was later to become word famous, was there too.”

Sky Harbor’s dedication on October 14, 1929, was a huge local event.

A promotional keepsake booklet was published, featuring advertising of prominent businesses of that era, including the Woodfin & Moore Ambulance Service, Jackson Brothers Chevrolet, the Dann Mill & Grain Company, Rutherford County Creamery Association, McCord Furniture Company, James K. Polk Hotel and the Byrn Motor Company.

Woodfin helped preserve the early air history by republishing Sky Harbor’s day-of-dedication booklet in 1996.

“Since my grandfather, the late John Woodfin Sr., had helped advertise our ambulance service in the original booklet in 1929, I wanted to do what I could to preserve the history, so I republished about 50 of the booklets in 1996,” Woodfin noted.

“Sky Harbor is a very significant step in Tennessee’s early aviation history.  I also have four chairs from the old restaurant located within Sky Harbor’s hangar, thanks to Mrs. Richie Ferguson.  And thanks to Fosterville resident Craig Lynch, I also have the train depot sign from the old Florence Railroad Station.”

The historic booklet records that the original Sky Harbor was built by the Murfreesboro-based Bell Brothers & Company contractors.

Bubba Woodfin also remembers Sky Harbor as a source of boyhood recreation, too.

“My father would take me and my two sisters, and Mother, out to Sky Harbor in the ambulance,” Bubba recalls.  “I remember watching the death-defying air shows in the 1930s and early 1940s.  Of course, due to the shortage of fuel during World War II, the air shows were discontinued.”

Tennessee Park Ranger Thurman Mullins, whose father Charles Mullins, Sr. worked at the Sky Harbor’s site in the early 1940s helping repair World War II fighter trainer planes, produced information about Rutherford County resident ‘Bud’ Vanderford attending airshows at Sky Harbor.

“Bud, for $1 admission, attended the Barnstormers Show at the old Sky Harbor where he took his first flight in an airplane.  He described the experience as ‘noisy and slow, but it was a good old airplane.  It’s top speed was about 75 mph.'”

Vanderford later worked at Sky Harbor and assisted with the nightly weather flights when the planes went up in the 1930s after midnight with weather instruments strapped to the wings.

In 1938, Vanderford went onto Eastern Airlines, and three years later, was promoted to station manager at Nashville’s Berry Field at what is now called the Nashville International Airport.

During its years of operation from 1929 to 1937, Sky Harbor had sleeping quarters for pilots and passengers, a club house, cafe, soda fountain, rest rooms bath facilities and lounging quarters.

“In addition, a beautifully equipped roof garden was on top of the building, and during summer months, was open to the public at all times,” Woodfin’s booklet records.

Interstate Airlines was the Mid-South’s first air mail and passenger line to operate in Middle Tennessee.

Prior to 1929, Interstate had been operating air mail between Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis and Evansville, Indiana.

Part two December 1, 2002

It was a cold, rainy, pitch-black winter night.

The midnight hour had just struck on the big wall clock and the roar of a low-flying airship jarred the Mullins family from their slumber.

That chime still rings as clearly in the ear of Murfreesboro watch maker Hershel Mullins, Sr. today as it did nearly70 years ago.

“At the time, we lived at Florence, and I remember hearing this plane come over, really low,” Mullins recalled.

“It woke me a Daddy up,” he said.  “They were trying to find Sky Harbor Air Field.  We figured the plane was in trouble.”

“They came back over our house several times, trying to locate the field.  And then, one last time, it came over our house, again real low.  And that’s when we heard this terrible crash.”

Mullins and his father threw on their clothes and ran down the road, looking for the crashed plane.

“I was one of the first ones there.  They had a type of ambulance there already, that was stationed at the air harbor.”

The 86-year-old watchmaker still remembers the seriously-injured pilot as a hero.

“The crash, for all practical purposes, scalped the pilot, but he was still going around helping all the passengers,” Mullins remembers.

“Miraculously, no one was killed.  The crashing plane cut down a bog cherry tree as they were crossing the road (Old Nashville Hwy.).  You could smell gasoline.  They were warning us not to strike matches.

“They were getting people out of the plane.  It was a two-motor air ship.  The pilot was courageous, the way he helped other injured folks, and kept his thinking straight despite being scalped.  About 18 people were passengers on the plane.  They just carried two of them to the hospital,” Mullins said.

The following day, State Representative John Hood’s father, the late Emil Hood, carried a small box Kodak camera to the accident scene.

It was a memorable community event in 1936, since it was the first major crash after Sky Harbor had introduced mail and passenger flights to the Murfreesboro/Nashville area back in 1929.

“My Dad made the pictures with his little box camera,” said Hood.  “I remember him taking me to the crash scene.  But that’s all.  Our family has saved the pictures all these years.”

Mullins’ skills as a watchmaker helped out at Sky Harbor during wartime conditions of World War II despite the principal services of the old-fashioned air harbor being relocated to Berry Field in Nashville.  The former Sky Harbor is now occupied by the pleasure boat manufacturer Marine Group, LLC near the intersection of Florence Road and the Old Nashville Hwy.

“In the early 1940s, they’d being in primary military flight training planes for repair at Sky Harbor’s old hargar building,” Mullins recalls.  “They were mostly two-wing crop duster-type planes used to train boys to fly.  We rebuilt them there at the main hangar.

“I did instrument repair, after Mr. Jess Victory came by my shop in Murfreesboro one day, telling me they needed precision watchmakers out at Sky Harbor where trainer planes were being rebuilt,” Mullins said.  I did clocks, tachometers and oil pressure gauges on the planes.  I worked there about five years, ending in mid-1943.”

Area resident Mrs. Joe Lane also remembers working at Sky Harbor’s kitchen and dining operation.

“They put sandwiches that we made on the planes and sometimes we prepared full meals that were taken to the planes,” Lane said.  I wasn’t in management or anything, being very young at the time.  They had a very nice kitchen and dining room.  A good many community folks also came by to eat at the facility.”

“They operated Sky Harbor from 1929 to 1937, and then the airlines moved to Nashville,” Lane said.

She and Mullins remember some famous people of that era who passed through Sky Harbor.

“I remember seeing Will Rogers.  And U.S. Vice President John Nance Garner was through there,” Lane recollected.  “And Jimmy Doolittle was in and out of there several times.”

Many of the pilots were characters right out of the barnstorming era.

“I remember one pilot who was very colorful.  His name was Tommy Farr.  His claim to fame was a heavyweight boxer who once fought, and lost, to joe Louis,” reminisced Mullins.  “He was one of the pilots who would fly the trainer planes in for us to repair.”

Murfreesboro resident G.E. Lowe, Jr. grew up around Sky Harbor when it was Middle Tennessee’s first airport, and he worked on the old grounds later.

“It was the late 1930s, and I came home from Atlanta hungry, since there was not much money to be made in flying those days,” said pilot Lowe, now age 79.  “We flew my plane in from Atlanta, the the old tie down area of Sky Harbor that was now closed.”

“As we taxied in, a fellow, Dick Pinkerston, an advance man for Air Utilities Company, came walking towards us from the old Sky Harbor administration building,” Lowe recalled.  “We virtually landed into jobs, since me and my buddy, the late Bill Humphrey, were licensed pilots.  Air Utilities had a government contract to refurbish PT-17 trainer planes.”

“I only worked there about six months before going to the South Pacific with the Navy when World War II got started,” Lowe remembered.  “Later, I remember that Air Utilities got out of trainer planes and into research and making of carbon products that were used over in Oak Ridge.”

“They ground carbon out there, and then, during the Korean War-era, the made water-drop practice bombs,” added Lowe.

Murfreesboro resident jack Goodrich remembers Sundays spent as a boy excitedly watching planes land and take off at Sky Harbor before its operations were moved to Berry Field in Nashville.

“One day, famous British actor David Niven landed at Sky Harbor, and as a ten-year-old, I remember running up to him and getting his autograph,” Goodrich said.

Larry James remembers his father, the late Howard James, didn’t have to serve in the military during WWII because of ‘sensitive military research work’ he was part of at Sky Harbor.

“People my age, 57, don’t realize how big an impact Sky Harbor was in the area, and to the world, and the subsequent scientific and flight research that took place there.

“For example, my father and his associates helped work on two parts that, according to information passed down in our family, went into making the atomic bomb being assembled at Oak Ridge in the early 1940s,” James shared.  “They didn’t know what they were making or what it would be part of, but they did significant atomic bomb research and development there.”

His father, who died in 1998, knew a regionally-famous test and weather pilot named Frank Knapp, now deceased, whose pilot license was signed by non-other than Orville Wright, one of the founders of flight.

“My father worked at Sky Harbor from late 1930s to the 1940s, and recalls pilot Frank Knapp, would test fly the planes,” James related.  “Dad described that Frank would take a plane up, fly it around a little while, and lastly, would take the plane straight up until it stalled.  If the wings didn’t fall off, the plane was deemed safe.”

James’ father described air shows at Sky Harbor.

“He told of one dramatic air show event that involved a plane that got away … running around on the ground without anyone at the controls, and Mr. Knapp is credited with grabbing hold of a wing and wrestling and steering the plane to keep it’s big propeller from plowing into the crowd,” James recalled.  “Finally, someone got to the plane and shut it down.”

Lowe also knew Frank Knapp.

“During the early years of Sky Harbor operations in the 1930s, pilot Knapp would fly weather instruments up to measure conditions,” Lowe said.  “I still have the barometer that Knapp and other weather pilots flew to measure weather conditions.”

Murfreesboro City Manager Roger Haley’s grandfather – the late Joe Jernigan – worked at Sky Harbor during the Korean War era of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

“In the main building, they made 25-pound test bombs used to train pilots in making bomb runs,” recalled Haley.  “Sometimes, folks who worked there would take a test bomb home and make lamps out of them.  I bet some of those old lamps are still around.”

Lowe would like for there to be a reunion of people who worked on the site.

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