North Texas aviation pre-dates Sheppard

  • Published
  • By Dr. Dwright "Doc" Tuttle
  • 82nd Training Wing Heritage Center
Over the last four decades, Sheppard has played a major role in training military pilots and mechanics. Few people are aware, however, of an earlier era, during the First World War, when Wichita Falls was also a training site for military pilots and mechanics.

Call Field was located on pastures and sprawling wheat fields on what is now Faith Village and Westmoreland Road in what's now the west-central portion of Wichita Falls. Call Field was served by fifty-five buildings. The entire complex housed 12 hangers, a hospital, six mess halls, an officers club, a bakery, and other support facilities for a total of 55 buildings.

Over the life of the field - from August 1917 through July 1919 - more than 3,000 officers and enlisted personnel, out of approximately 15,000 cadets that entered flying schools in the United States, passed through gates now replaced by Faith Village and University Park Housing Development. Some 5,000 officers received their commissions here. Its primary mission was to train flyers for the infant United States Army Air Corps.

Call Field was named after 1st Lt. Loren H. Call, a pilot assigned to the 1st Aero Squadron at Texas City, Texas, who died in a plane crash there in 1913. Prior to being decommissioned in 1919, two complete squadrons had trained at Call Field before being sent overseas.

The establishment of Call Field in Wichita Falls was due to the intense lobbying by local community leaders to an announcement by the War Department in 1917 that it was expanding the number of primary flying training fields in the United States.

As early as December 1916, the Wichita Falls Chamber of Commerce had considered sending its secretary, B.F. Johnson, to Washington, D.C., to lobby the War Department about Wichita Falls' ability as the site for an army airfield. The city father's interest in obtaining a flying camp was a natural outgrowth of a strong local interest in aviation.

A press agent for J.J. Pontius, "the Flying Dutchman," convinced the local Chamber of Commerce to allow an aerial demonstration at a ball field at Lake Wichita in July 1919. On July 28, 1912, some 3,000 persons gathered at the lake to watch "the Flying Dutchman" perform in his flying machine as Wichita Falls was introduced to its first flying machine - a Curtis biplane.

The first day, the weather was unfavorable for flying. The second day, his plane bounced over the ball field but did not leave the ground. After resting on July 30, a Sunday, the crowd and pilot reassembled on July 31 to see Pontius fail a third time in his attempt to get airborne.

Pronouncing the air "too thin" to fly, "the Flying Dutchman" promised to try again. The only flight he took was out of town with gate receipts in his pocket and his plane in a crate, leaving the Chamber of Commerce to pay the bills.

The unfortunate experience with "the Flying Dutchman" did not discourage local businessmen, such as Joseph A. Kemp, on the value of aviation. In April 1912, Mr. Kemp guaranteed, out of his own pocket, half of a $1,000 gate - the remainder was subscribed by local businessmen--to bring to Wichita Falls the Moisant International Aviators. His purpose was to publicize Wichita Falls.

On April 8, 1912, a member of the group, Andre Houpert, became the first person to fly over Wichita Falls for 20 minutes at 40,000 feet dropping handbills and free passes to publicize a performance by Moisant International Aviators. Three days later, Mathidel Moisant, the world's second licensed woman pilot, took off from the ball field at Lake Wichita in a 50-horsepower, seven-cylinder rotary engine monoplane. After flying 15 minutes above the field, she emerged uninjured when the plane burst into flames upon landing. A local cowboy roped the plane from his horse and dragged it to where the flames could be extinguished.

The suitability of Wichita Falls for aviation training was demonstrated on Nov. 19, 1915. On that day, a force of six Curtis JN-2 (Jenny) biplanes of the 1st Aero Squadron, comprising 75 percent of the Army's fledgling military aviation, landed at Huff's pasture, just south of the City of Wichita Falls, near present day Kell Boulevard and Brook Street.

The planes had been stationed at Fort Sill, Okla., as part of a fire operation with field artillery. They were on a 450-mile cross county journey to warmer climate at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas. Two other planes of the 1st Aero Squadron had been reassigned to the Texas-Mexican border to reconnoiter for Pancho Villa. Relations between the United States and Mexico at this time had become strained.

The trip from Fort Sill to Fort Sam Houston was the longest flight ever undertaken by Army aviators. On hand to meet the lead plane, commanded by Lt. J.E. Carberry, were the mayor and several of the town's prominent citizens. Within five minutes, the remaining five Jennies, commanded by Capt. Benjamin Foulois, who later would become known as the father of the modern Air Force in the 1930s while serving as Chief of the Air Corps, also landed.

The 1st Aero Squadron was then escorted to Wichita Falls, where they were entertained overnight. With the departure of the six planes the next morning for Bowie, Texas, military aviation had come of age in North Texas.