Piedmont Airlines’ first passenger flight from Lexington, on a DC-3 bound for Cincinnati, was Feb. 20, 1948. In 1965, Piedmont flew the first passenger jet flight into Blue Grass Field. File photo
When “Lucky Lindy” made a surprise overnight visit to Lexington at the height of his fame, he had trouble even finding the municipal airport, Halley Field, a converted pasture off Leestown Road where Meadowthorpe subdivision now stands.
More than 2,000 people watched Lindbergh leave the next morning. His five-passenger Ryan monoplane — similar to the famous “Spirit of St. Louis” he flew on the first solo non-stop Atlantic crossing — almost crashed on takeoff.
“Lindy Plane Barely Misses Trees at Hop Off,” The Lexington Leader reported with a front-page banner headline. “Lindy Says Lexington’s Airport Too Small for Present Aviation Needs.” How embarrassing.
That is one of many colorful stories Fran Taylor has discovered while doing research for a book Blue Grass Airport has commissioned to chronicle the history of the airport and aviation in Central Kentucky. Taylor wants help finding more great stories.
Everyone is invited to bring pre-1980 photos and mementos to the airport terminal’s lobby from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. A videographer will record oral histories, and a photographer will take pictures of special items. Prizes will be given for the best story, memento and photo.
“It’s a really rich history,” Taylor said, adding that the Aviation Museum of Kentucky at the airport has been a great resource. “Blue Grass Field was like the Forrest Gump of airports. If it happened nationally, it happened here in a big way.”
Although airplanes might have used a grassy meadow off Richmond Road as early as 1917, the first real local airstrip was Dr. S.H. Halley’s field, which opened in 1921 and became the municipal airport in 1927. After Lindbergh’s close call, Cool Meadow Field was built in 1930 on Newtown Pike, where Fasig-Tipton’s Thoroughbred auction facility is now.
It was at Cool Meadow that Lexington Airways offered flying lessons and Irvin Air Chute Co. tested parachutes it manufactured here, according to research by Frank Peters, an aviation museum volunteer. Airmail service began in 1939. Blue Grass Airlines offered regional passenger service a couple of years later.
When World War II began, the Army built a flight training facility that became Blue Grass Field across from Keeneland Race Course. The Army turned it over to the city and county in 1946, and the first terminal was dedicated that fall by Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I flying ace and president of Eastern Airlines. Eastern and Delta Air Lines began passenger service with Douglas DC-3s.
Renamed Blue Grass Airport in 1984, the 1,000-acre facility now serves more than 1 million people — and several hundred horses — each year.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II has made several trips through Blue Grass Airport, which also has been host to Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, and hundreds of movie stars and other celebrities. You know Keeneland sales are in session when Arab royalty’s Boeing 747s are parked nose-to-nose on the tarmac.
But did you know that the first air freight shipment from Lexington was a package of butter sent to President Harry Truman in 1945? Or that the supersonic Concorde made a stop in 1989? Or that the airport played a role in the nation’s most notorious hijacking?
Three hijackers with pistols and hand grenades took over a Southern Airways DC-9 with 31 people aboard in November 1972, demanding $10 million. They made stops in several cities, including Lexington, where the hijackers ordered a ground crewman to strip to his underwear while refueling the plane. After 30 hours and 4,000 miles, the plane landed in Cuba, where the hijackers were captured.
Everyone remembers Blue Grass Airport’s saddest day: Aug. 27, 2006, when Comair Flight 5191 crashed on takeoff, killing 49 of the 50 people aboard.
But aviation has shaped Lexington’s collective memory in more subtle ways, too.
I remember, as a child, getting dressed up to see my father off on an annual business trip. We would stand in the old terminal hall, surrounded by photographic murals of the bluegrass landscape, and wave as Dad boarded the plane and it disappeared into the clouds. It always left me wondering how such a big machine filled with people could possibly fly.
If you go
Blue Grass Airport history project
What: Public is asked to share stories, mementoes of airport
Where: Blue Grass Airport terminal lobby, 4000 Terminal Dr., Lexington
When: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Aug. 11
Information: (859) 425-3105, Bluegrassairport.com.