Meacham Airport, celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, is having a little work done.
The airport, an aviation pioneer which established Fort Worth as a home for military and American Airlines planes, is getting new hangars, a bigger administration building and a renovated terminal as it moves towards a century of operations.
“We have invested heavily at Meacham, recently in the [terminal] renovations, and we have some great tenants that have been there for years,” said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price. “Meacham has great history. American had some of its first flights out there and we continue to see significant growth at the airport.”
Although commercial airplanes stopped flying out of Meacham in 1953, the municipal airport has survived by catering to private pilots, flight schools and now, larger corporate jets.
New hangars are being constructed to accommodate more Gulfstreams and Learjets. The city is also spending $17.5 million to rebuild its administration building and terminal.
“Business operators and people doing business in Fort Worth that want to fly their jets into (Dallas-Fort Worth) fly their jets here,” said airport manager Jeff Kloska said. “You can be downtown in 15 minutes as soon as you land.”
100 acres of pasture
In spring 1925, it looked like Fort Worth would no longer have a municipal airport when the U.S. Army decided to end its lease and shut down Barron Field.
But a group of former Army pilots wanted to keep flying in Fort Worth, and with the help of businessman Amon G. Carter, the group was able to lease 100 acres of pasture north of the city to establish a new landing field.
Timeline: Meacham Airport over the past 90 years
The Fort Worth mayor at the time, Henry Clay Meacham, pledged $1,200 of his own money to build a caretaker cottage at the field and on July 3, 1925, the Fort Worth Municipal Airport officially opened.
Initially, the airport had grass and dirt runways. Within the first few years, a couple of hangars were built along with an administration building to handle private pilots and their planes.
“Aviation really changed the lives of the people in North Texas and it changed the economy and culture from farm and ranch to one of the best areas for aerospace,” said Jim Hodgson, executive director of the Fort Worth Aviation Museum. “Meacham was an incubator for aviation as a commercial venture.”
Mail, passengers and the Navy
With the federal post office department contracting out air mail service to small airlines, the airport became part of an airmail route between the city and Chicago. On May 12, 1926, the first air mail flight by National Air Transport departed the airport.
Since Fort Worth was already a district headquarters for the post office’s railway mail service, Meacham quickly grew to serve six airmail routes and became the third largest airmail center behind Chicago and New York, said Bill Morris, a director at the Fort Worth Aviation Museum.
“This became an ideal spot. If you’ve got airmail coming in, well you can fly to Fort Worth and then put it on the train to Abilene or vice versa,” Morris said.
Two years later, in 1928, National Air Transport started offering passenger service on its mail routes. It was able to carry four passengers along with the mail on its eight Travel Air 5000 aircraft. Morris said a ticket to Chicago cost about $90 in the early 1930s.
Carter also convinced American Airways to move its southern division headquarters to Meacham, and in 1933 the American Airways hangar and administration building was built. The hangar is the oldest building still standing at Meacham and was recently renovated by American Aero, a fixed-base operator owned by Fort Worth billionaire Robert Bass.
With five different airlines serving Meacham, over 150,000 passengers flew out of the airport on more than 20,000 flights by 1941.
When World War II started, Meacham Airport became part of the U.S. Navy’s network to move fighter planes and torpedo bombers built in New England across the country to the Pacific fleet.
“Meacham was one of the stopping places and sort of a storage point until they could get ferry pilots to move along the aircraft to the next station,” Morris said. “From ‘43 to early ‘46, there were 87 Navy personnel stationed here.”
The airport handled 80,576 military aircraft in 1944 and another 63,540 in 1945. In 1946, Meacham recorded its busiest year with 167,267 private and military planes carrying 718,671 passengers.
With the airplanes also came the airplane repair businesses to Meacham, including Broadie’s Aircraft which serviced Beech 18 and DC-3 planes, offering aircraft overhauls and fixing engines to keep planes running.
“My grandfather, D.W. Broadie, started the company in 1946,” said Allisen Prigel, vice president of Broadie’s Aircraft. “He learned to work on airplanes when he was in the service during the war. … The business was much smaller then. We worked out of a quonset hut near the airfield.”
The company is one of the oldest continuously operated businesses at Meacham, and moved into a new 64,000-square-foot hangar in 2012.
In 1953, when Greater Fort Worth International Airport opened to the east, all of the commercial passenger airlines moved to the new airport. At that time, the city had to make a decision on what to do with Meacham.
“The city itself decided this airport was going to survive,” Hodgson said, noting that civic leaders did not want the municipal airport so close to downtown Fort Worth to shut down.
$17.5 million to renovate and build the new terminal and administration building
For the next few decades, the airport relied on aviation training schools as well as a few large corporations that kept their planes at Meacham to keep the airport running. Since the airport does not charge landing fees, it gets its revenues from leases and fuel flowage fees for aircraft.
“Back in the 80s and 90s, Meacham used to be a huge flight training base for a lot of flight schools to the tune of 300,000 operations a year. And then after 9/11, the schools cut back or shut down,” Kloska said.
A few commuter airlines offered scheduled passenger service from Meacham including Air Texas from 1968 to 1970 and Mesa Airlines for about six months in late 1997. But none of the small airlines lasted more than a couple of years.
Meacham has also seen its share of famous planes grace its runways as private businesses set up at the airport to renovate or paint aircraft.
Leading Edge, an aircraft painting firm, worked on several new Boeing 787 Dreamliners at its Meacham facility and in 2014 gave President Barack Obama’s Air Force One a new coat of its traditional blue and white livery design.
Even the King, Elvis Presley, brought his Convair 880 to Meacham in 1975 to have it refurbished after he bought the plane from Delta Air Lines. He named the plane the Lisa Marie, and had a queen-sized bed installed and his “taking care of business” motto painted on the tail.
The airport currently maintains two runways — one that is 7,500 feet long and a second smaller runway that is only 4,000 feet long.
Brian Dunaway, president of Epic Helicopters, was one of the thousands of people who learned to fly at Meacham in the 1990s. When he decided to open up his helicopter business in 2006, he knew Meacham was the right type of airport for his new company that offers helicopter pilot training, tours and charter services.
“It was a good place to start a business and have the equipment you needed,” Dunaway said, noting it has the perfect airspace for flight training and a control tower staffed 24 hours a day. “There is nothing better than coming in from a late flight at 3 a.m. in the morning and you hear a voice on the other side.”
Epic Helicopters recently moved into a 45,000-square-foot hangar and office building on the west side of the airport and is busy remodeling and adding a concrete apron for its helicopters.
And it’s not the only business at Meacham that seems to be building something new. New hangars are being added by fixed-base operators Texas Jet and American Aero. The Fort Worth Police Department is moving its aerial fleet to a new hangar on the east side of the airfield.
“It’s exciting and energizing to see this much attention and development going on at Meacham,” Prigel said. “We built our new hangar three years ago and that’s when the big shift started happening. The commitment from the city of Fort Worth to invest in the future of this airport is very encouraging.”
Kloska said the airport closed its diagonal runway because the pavement had degraded and federal and state funding was not available to fix it, since the runway was seldom used. With the runway closed, the city is planning to redevelop the area and possibly add more hangars.
American Aero is building three new hangars for a total of 100,000 square feet of space and is interested in possibly adding hangars on the closed runway, said general manager Riggs Brown.
“We have people knocking on our doors, asking about the hangars,” Brown said. “We had interest in them the moment we broke ground. There is demand here and we will continue to grow and continue to build.”
The fixed-base operator has also partnered with the city on the renovation of the old administration building and will lease terminal space on the first floor of the building.
The project, which cost the city $17.5 million, includes adding a third floor to the 1968 building that is currently stripped down to the steel frame. A new paved driveway from Main Street will lead to a parking lot adjacent to the building.
The modern terminal is expected to open next year and sits adjacent to the 1933 American Airways hangar that American Aero recently restored. Bob Agostino, vice president at American Aero, said the airport’s rejuvenation in its 90th year is important to the city and to visitors coming to Fort Worth.
“When people fly into our city, their first impression should be not just a good one, but a memorable one,” Agostino said.