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Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport Was Risky Purchase In 1935

Sky Harbor Timeline
(Graphic by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Sky Harbor Timeline

Eighty years ago, in 1935, the city of Phoenix purchased Sky Harbor Airport. Believe it or not, the city wasn’t sure the $100,000 purchase would be worth it.

The investment has paid off in ways no one could have imagined.

When the very first plane took off at Sky Harbor airport in 1928, there was just one runway, surrounded by farmland.

"It started with basically just a little dirt strip in a farm field. And you know, they used to actually have to clear the cows off the runway for people to land," said Gary Martelli, program manager for the Phoenix Airport Museum. Its latest exhibit in Sky Harbor is a look back at the airport across the decades.

The airport was built by Scenic Airways, an airline offering sightseeing flights around the Valley. That venture crashed along with the stock market in 1929. So a company named Acme Investments bought it. That company sold it to the city of Phoenix in 1935. That’s when the city got creative. It built a wedding chapel right off the jetway. Couples from states with stricter marriage waiting laws flew in and got hitched as soon as they stepped off the plane.

"They were trying to encourage Hollywood couples to come to Arizona and get married," Martelli said.

But it was World War II that really drew in a crowd.

Aviation historian Arvin Schultz said Sky Harbor became a major pilot training hub for the war.

"They exceeded all our expectations. We had more pilots than they knew what to do with or even handle," Schultz said.

After the war, many of those service members stayed in Phoenix, he said.

"My neighbor across the street who was in World War II did that very thing - moved here and lived here the rest of his life," Schultz said.

Through the '50s and '60s the city grew around Sky Harbor. It was at the center of bringing new families and new faces to Phoenix.

Martelli said mid-century suburbia replaced the open farmland that once surrounded the airport. In 1962, Terminal 2 was built.

"The city planners thought that this would carry airline traffic to the year 2000," Martelli said.

But in 1978, the Airline Deregulation Act allowed airlines to set their own routes and fares, which led to increased traffic around the country, including at Sky Harbor. The very next year Terminal 3 was built. Just over a decade later came Terminal 4.

The thousands of travelers each day who now say their tearful goodbyes or run to make their connecting flight probably don’t realize that this airport was once jokingly called “The Farm.” There are no more tarmac weddings or fighter biplanes, but officials estimate the airport that was purchased for a mere $100,000  now brings in close to $80 million per day. The numbers are still climbing.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Thanks to the Arizona Collection at the ASU Libraries for use of some archival tape.

Annika Cline was a producer for KJZZ's The Show from 2014 to 2019.