A History of the Visalia Municipal Airport
The Dean of aviators in Tulare County was Sol Sweet who was still actively engaged in operating Sweet’s Flying Service until the 1980's. Sol learned to fly in 1927 in an Alexander Eagle Rock that he bought from Lester Lambkin.
In 1927 Sweet and his partner, Edwin Deeds, were flying from Porterville to Visalia’s Hyde Field (Green Acres Airport) when a water line broke spraying the men with hot water. Sweet held the line together while his partner made a forced landing in J.F. Putnam’s cow pasture west of Visalia. Such landings were not uncommon in aviation’s infancy. Sweet and Deeds liked the fairly level pasture and leased it, and organized their company, Sweet-Deeds Aircrafters. Sol Sweet convinced the City of Visalia that the level land would make a good airport site and Visalia Municipal Airport began as two grass strips in June 1928. The Visalia Chamber of Commerce and American Legion Post No. 18 boosted the field for a municipal airport. In 1928 the people of Visalia endorsed a $50,000 bond election, and the city bought the land. The first hangar was an over-sized tent, but members of the Building Trades donated labor and a substantial hangar was soon built. Edwin Deeds took over an agency for Eagle Rock planes and Sol Sweet went into partnership with Harlan Kelsey.
Since the Visalia Municipal Airport was the first in the county, events there have contributed to local aviation history. The first plane was landed by Sweet and Deeds when the airport was dedicated, April 27, 1927. The second plane to fly in was piloted by Delmer Wood and Jess Clark. As part of the ceremony, Miss Visalia, Miss Dorothy Jessup, christened the plane, Miss Visalia. The third plane to land that day was a Lincoln-Page flown in by Harry Fisher.
The first government officials arrived August 22, 1928, in a Fokker tri-motor. The members of the party were Congressman W.F. James, Major T.W. Hammond and Major Clagett.
In 1930, the Curtis-Wright Company selected the Visalia Airport as one of its nationwide bases for crop dusting. The depression cut back much of the company’s business, but farmers learned the value of crop dusting. Harry Fisher and Comer Robertson were the first local aviators to do crop dusting in the county.
The City of Visalia bought additional land for the airport, and in 1934, the S.R.A. spent $10,000 for improvements for the field. Between 1936 and 1940 the W.P.A. spent an additional $375,000 improving the airport.
Aviation history continued to be made at the field in spite of the depression years. In 1930, planes making an air tour of California landed. Maddux Airlines operated a scheduled flying service, using tri-motored Ford airplanes. For a short time both Maddux and Cardiff and Peacock Airlines used the field, but the depression curtailed their services. In 1931 Grover Weathers was appointed the first official manager of the airfield.
In 1933, Colonel John R. White, superintendent of Sequoia National Park and Death Valley National Monument, started flying between the two parks. The trip by automobile took two days. The flight from Three Rivers to Death Valley took an hour. The plane carried officials, mail, and some freight. Sol Sweet said that it was necessary to wear heavy clothing for the flight over the Sierra Nevada, but that the same gear nearly suffocated him an hour later in Death Valley.
Sol Sweet taught people to fly planes for almost half a century, and his pupils number in the thousands. In 1939, Sweet and Morrell Gallegher were given government approval for civilian pilot training. When the Visalia Airport was taken over by the army in 1942, their school was moved to Death Valley.
In 1937 and again in 1939, fleets of army planes, usually Douglass or DeHaviland, landed at the airfield. Perhaps the flights were omens for immediately after the outbreak of World War II, the field was taken over by the government for light bombers and night fighters. Additional runways were built as well as protective revetments. The City of Visalia regained possession of the field in 1946-47, and federal funds were made available for removal of the revetments and repairing the field.
In 1946, United Airlines began scheduled flights that carried passengers and airmail. E.R. Connelly, Visalia Postmaster reported that 3,000 cachet letters were sent from Visalia on the first flight.
The Southern California Edison Company brought in the first helicopter to land in the county in 1947. The company uses helicopters for line patrol, transportation of heavy equipment, and delivery of equipment in difficult mountainous areas. Helicopters are in demand for rescue work in the mountains and in fire control.
In 1949, the Board of Supervisors recognized the need for, and adopted a comprehensive airport master plan. The increased use of the airport by aircraft made it necessary to complete a new master plan in 1971.