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Uncommonwealth: Fascinating facts, pictures fill new book on Blue Grass Airport history

ctruman@herald-leader.comApril 21, 2014 

  • CHRONOLOGY

    Bluegrass Airport

    1927: Lexington Municipal Airport at Halley Field off Leestown Road is dedicated on June 11.

    1928: Charles Lindbergh lands at Halley Field on March 28.

    1934: The city takes an option on a portion of the J. Blythe Anderson farm on Newtown Pike.

    The new airport is called Glengarry Field and later Cool Meadow Airport.

    1936: "Queen of the Air" Amelia Earhart speaks at the Henry Clay High School auditorium.

    1940: A site search begins for a new airport. The tract favored is Shenandoah Farm across from Keeneland on Versailles Pike.

    1948: The Goodyear Blimp makes first visit to Blue Grass Field.

    1955: An agreement is signed between Keeneland Association and the airport board acknowledging that the racecourse might be asked to remove trees on the grounds obstructing the approach to Runway 15 and to lower the infield flagpole if deemed necessary for safety purposes.

    1972: On Nov. 10, a Southwest Airways jetliner carrying 31 passengers departs from Alabama and is hijacked by three men. At one point, the plane is diverted to Blue Grass Field for refueling. Later the hijacked plane lands at Havana's airport, and the hijackers are arrested.

    1977: On Aug. 16, the airport's public address system announced the death of Elvis Presley, who had been scheduled to perform at Rupp Arena.

    1984: The name changes from Blue Grass Field to Blue Grass Airport.

    2006: Forty-nine of 50 people on Delta Comair Flight 5191 died on Aug. 27 during takeoff from Blue Grass Airport. The plane crashed in a hilly, heavily wooded area on a neighboring farm after attempting takeoff from the wrong runway.

    2011: A sculpture to honor the 49 lives lost in the 5191 accident is unveiled at the Arboretum.

  • Excerpt

    How the first travelers out of Blue Grass Airport were treated:

    "Routine travelers included those who worked for the government, large corporations or the military. During the 1940s, the male business traveler was every airline's main customer, and the expectation of service was high. The fiercely competitive airlines were only too happy to try to meet the expectations.

    "There were no rigid security screening checkpoints to navigate before boarding. In fact, families often eagerly greeted their returning loved on the airport's tarmac as passengers disembarked from arriving flights.

    "Passengers were personally welcomed aboard their flight by a friendly, smiling stewardess dressed in a crisp, freshly pressed uniform and wearing pristine white gloves, her pillbox hat perched perfectly atop her neatly styled hair.

    "Splendor was the standard. There was more room, more comfort and more personal service; more of everything. By today's criteria, every passenger was traveling first-class. Luxurious silver service was available on many flights. The finest beef was cooked and carved onboard, and passengers were served their meals on fine china accompanied by linen napkins and silver cutlery. Cabins were invitingly spacious and even had bars where passengers could leisurely smoke and drink as they desired."

Blue Grass Airport could have been Havely Field, in honor of Mayor T. Ward Havely, who worked tirelessly to see it built.

Had a court case that stalled construction taken another turn, the airport might not have been opposite Keeneland at all, and the runway could today still be cropland.

Lexington was so small when Blue Grass Field first opened in 1946, the phone number was 8881.

Those are among the colorful tidbits in Blue Grass Airport: An American Aviation Story, a new book initiated by, paid for and co-published by the airport. The book sells for $39.95 and is available at several local stores, including the Morris Book Shop and Joseph-Beth Booksellers, and online at Bluegrassairport.com/book.

The idea for the book was born when airport director Erik Frankl, who arrived in 2009, found himself without an adequate history of the airport, its evolution and challenges.

Fran Taylor, author of Keeneland: A Thoroughbred Legacy and a former marketing and foundation executive at Keeneland, got the nod to produce the book. Taylor did research and gave each chapter writer a basic outline, preliminary research and contacts, then urged them to do additional research.

The results are stunning, even to those who think they know a little something about Lexington.

The book's history tells of when airplanes first came to Lexington and the place to land them was where the main artery of Meadow thorpe subdivision now lies, off Leestown Road.

The airstrip was called Halley Field, in honor of the colorful business magnate Sam Halley, whose mansion was nearby.

But airplanes weren't the first airborne vehicles to visit the Bluegrass. In 1907, a California Arrow airship — a football-shaped contraption that appeared to be just barely suspended above the ground — made its visit to the Blue Grass Fair. Later, the Goodyear Blimp Puritan would land at Halley Field in 1930.

The first real "flying machine" arrived when a Curtiss biplane swooped over the Blue Grass Fair on Aug. 6 and 7, 1910, reaching heights of 75 and ultimately 150 feet.

In 1912, the Aviation Meet and Automobile Races were held on June 3, with four airplanes above the old racetrack at East Fifth and Race Streets, the first time such a sight had been seen in Kentucky. The first day, June 3, was uneventful, but on June 4, one of the airplanes fell 50 feet as its engine failed, striking a wire fence just short of a railcar. The pilot emerged with bruises and scratches.

The first airmail flight included letters collected at the event and was to be flown all the way to Winchester. Frankfort, the initial destination, wasn't considered to have a suitable landing area. Weather didn't allow the plane to make its trek, but 50,000 people attended the three-day show.

The reticent Charles Lindbergh visited in 1928, a year after his world-famous flight to Paris. The visit was supposed to be kept quiet, but in those days a visit from Lucky Lindy was bigger than welcoming back a victorious NCAA Final Four.

A crowd of 3,000 showed up to get a glimpse of the aviator, who was flying an airplane much like the Spirit of St. Louis that he had flown from New York to Paris, and Lindbergh is alleged to have clipped a tree on his takeoff from Lexington.

The Lexington Leader somewhat gleefully headlined its article: "Lindy Plane Barely Misses Trees at Hop Off."

"I'm not one on telling the straight chronological history," Taylor said at a recent book-signing at Morris Book Shop along with astronaut Story Musgrave, who wrote the book's introduction. "I'm more about telling it thematically."

The book's early chapters center on the barnstorming days and early airports — at Cool Meadow Field on Newtown Pike, there was no running water, and aviators had to haul their own gasoline.

Meticulous details are included throughout the book that are fascinating even to those who aren't aviation history fans: Versailles Road was once called a pike before becoming a road.

Here's the difference: The word pike comes from turnpike, a road where tolls were collected. A turnpike originally was a revolving frame bearing spikes to create a barrier. Such roads were privately managed, and a toll was charged to those traveling the road, which paid for maintenance; the toll-keeper lived in a house built over the road.

The book includes lists of various cultural milestones and trivia — including the price of gasoline — during select years.

"It's tougher to write a story that's appealing when you've got a lot of complicated subject matter," Taylor said.

In 1940, the city began planning for a modern airport. Cool Meadow Airport, located at Newtown Pike at Glengarry Farm, between Interstates 64/75 and Iron Works Pike, lacked adequate signs, lighting, a telephone or even restrooms.

It was in no shape to attract the airlines that were beginning to set up routes across the country.

Eventually the city settled on Shenandoah Farm, a 600-acre site off Versailles Road opposite Keeneland Race Course, although nine other sites were in the running.

Taylor wrote that the selection of the Blue Grass Airport site — known initially as Blue Grass Field — set the tone for preserving horse farm land in Fayette County by putting the airport in a horse farm area.

Even now, Blue Grass Airport is distinctive in that planes land to a view of Bluegrass greenery and fences, rather than an airport exurb of express motels and chain restaurants.

During World War II, the airport-in-progress was a training center for Army operations until the fall of 1945, when Bluegrass Airlines made its first flight out of Lexington.

Delta began offering twice-daily service on Oct. 13, 1946, its first plane a 21-passenger Douglas DC-3 with a top speed of 170 mph. The propeller-driven monoplane was nicknamed "The Gooney Bird."

By 1954, Blue Grass was offering 27 flights daily from Delta, Eastern and Piedmont.

In 1977, the old terminal was demolished. The airport got its first "jet bridge," so passengers no longer had to trek outside to board the plane.

In the book, Mary Jo Maloney, daughter of airport chairman George Gumbert, remembers her father bringing the family for a test ride on Delta's new jet bridge.

"You would have thought the family had a new Ferrari," she said, as the bridge was raised and lowered like an amusement park ride.

On March 27, 1978, more than 7,000 University of Kentucky basketball fans crowded into the terminal to see their returning heroes as UK won its fifth national championship by defeating Duke. The fans caused an estimated $30,000 damage to the terminal. Carpeting had to be replaced after getting soaked by beer and soft drinks. Thereafter the airport celebration for UK championships was moved from the terminal to outside.

In 1989, the Concorde flew its sleek needle nose into Lexington for a stopover. The iconic craft flew its last journey in 2003.

"I've seen such interest since we started," Frankl said, and he issued a challenge to Lexington's aviation community. "If we forgot something or didn't have it accurate, I hope somebody does come forward."

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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