The Wright Brothers’ invention was the dawn of modern aviation, and it wasn’t long before adventurers across the country were involved with this new and exciting endeavor. In Helena, the Montana State Fair Board – along with local business leaders – offered $10,000 (about $450,000 in today’s dollars) to the first person to fly over the Continental Divide.
J.C. “Bud” Mars made the first attempt on September 30, 1910, but crashed in the Scratchgravel Hills. He survived, and is credited with starting the St. Charles Aero Club in 1911.
In 1911, Cromwell Dixon, a 19-year old aviator from Columbus, Ohio, took up the Helena challenge. The young pilot took off from the Fairgrounds in Helena, reached an altitude of 7,000 feet, and landed 34 minutes later in a grass field near Blossberg. Dixon wired the officials at the fairgrounds that he had landed safely; he refueled his bamboo and fabric aircraft, and lifted off for his return flight to Helena. Strong tailwinds aided his return, and after circling the Fairgrounds twice, he landed safely. Governor Edwin Norris proclaimed Dixon “The World’s Greatest Aviator” and presented him the check for $10,000. Tragedy marked the end of Cromwell Dixon’s life just two days later when the young aviator plunged to his death while flying exhibitions in Spokane, Washington.
Terah Maroney circled the Montana State Capitol building during the legislative session in 1912 and landed just east of the Capitol. Legislators were so impressed that they passed a resolution naming him an honorary member of the Montana National Guard.
During the State Fair in 1913, aviator Katherine Stinson put on a dazzling show. She carried mail from the Fairgrounds and dropped it over the post office. As a result, she was sworn in as a postal employee. Katherine was the fourth U.S. woman to earn a pilot’s license and was one of the country’s most skilled and daring pilots.
The original airport in Helena was located on land now occupied by the Bill Roberts Golf Course. Fred Sheriff, Al Stewart, and Ed Follensby were partners in ownership of the first Helena-based aircraft hangared there.
Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh landed in Helena on September 6, 1927. The first-ever Montana Air Meet was held in conjunction with Lindbergh’s appearance. Governor John Erickson and Mayor Percy Witmer gave Lindbergh a tour of the community. Lindbergh participated in a parade held in his honor and addressed a huge crowd gathered at the Fairgrounds.
It wasn’t long before golfers and aviators began to have conflicts, resulting in the development of a new airport at the present day location east of the City. The Airport was officially dedicated in July of 1928. Fred Sheriff was involved in the airport development and was a member of the Helena Airport Board. He served as the first Commissioner of Aeronautics and was later named a director of National Parks Airways. National Parks Airways began service in Helena in 1928; Western Airlines took over National Park Airways in 1937.
In 1931, Red Morrison arrived at the Helena Airport. Morrison had previously served as the personal pilot for William Randolph Hearst. He and his wife Bitty formed Morrison Flying Service and were a primary force in the early development of the Helena Airport. Red Morrison was listed as the Airport Manager in 1931 when Helena was proudly identified as the lowest crossing point of the Continental Divide.
Red Morrison and Bill Fahner are credited with starting the School of Aeronautics in Helena, the first such accredited school in the country. Morrison was killed in an aircraft accident on Christmas Eve near Tampa, Florida, where he was serving as a flight instructor in the Air Force. Bitty Morrison continued operating the business until their son, Jeff Morrison, took it over. Morrison Flying Service remained on the Helena Airport until the air taxi and service portions of the business were sold to Exec Air Montana in 1995, completing over 60 years of service with the distinction of being the oldest family-owned aviation business in the northwest.
Amelia Earhart landed in Helena in 1933 in a Ford Tri-Motor. She was working on a contract for Northwest Airlines to develop new passenger routes in the west. Northwest Airlines began service to Helena in 1936. Dick Beaton worked for Northwest in Helena at the time as a radio operator. He went on to manage several Northwest stations and completed his career as the Northwest Airlines manager in Helena.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Airport experienced a period of rapid growth. The construction of the passenger terminal on the south side of the Airport was a WPA project. It was built at a cost of $60,000. The terminal was visited by many dignitaries over the years, including Averell Harriman (accompanied by John Derek and Donna Reed) who stopped in Helena during his bid for President of the United States. He was flying in a United DC3 and was met by Helena promoter Walter Marshall.
The original terminal building was remodeled several times, and an FAA air traffic control tower was added at a cost of $27,000. An outside baggage claim was constructed in the mid-1970s. Helena’s air service had now made the big time!
Many new facilities were constructed on the south side of the Airport during the 1960s and 1970s, including new hangars, the FAA building, Weather Service Building, Montana Aeronautics Division building, a maintenance facility/Airport fire station, and the Helena College of Technology facilities. Several extensive runway projects were completed during that timeframe and several parcels of land were acquired and added to the Airport.