A topic that I don’t cover very often is the history of air transport in Indiana. While looking for something else, I found some interesting stuff around the current Indianapolis International Airport. But, before it was Indianapolis International, before it was Weir Cook, it was Indianapolis Municipal Airport.
The year is 1928. Indianapolis is served by three airports at the time. Air travel was really beginning to catch on in the United States. At the time, airports were privately owned facilities. Capitol Airport, listed on West 30th Street, was bordered on the east by the Big Four Railway that runs along the east edge of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was located north of 30th Street. The property on the west was bordered by a line drawn north from the middle of the Speedway property. Mars Hill Airport is now Stout Field, about two miles east of the current Indianapolis International Airport. Hoosier Airport was located between Tibbs and Kessler south of Lafayette Road. The City of Indianapolis decided to get into the airport ownership business. Investment got underway with a $693,000 bond issue by the City of Indianapolis in May 1929. The airport opened for business on 24 September 1931.
1938 saw the Municipal Airport expanded by the Federal Air Bureau of Commerce. With the help of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of the runways was to be expanded to 6 thousand feet long and 150 feet wide. This was part of a radio experimental unit at the airport. At the time, the airport covered 1,016 acres. (Source: Indianapolis Star, 17 October 1938, pp 3). The same report mentions the fact that, with the then current expansion, the total investment in Indianapolis Municipal Airport was listed at $4 million.
The 1938 investment by the Federal Government was to create the longest (at the time) runways in the United States. The goal was to make Indianapolis the center of aviation experimentation. This would also create a radio station for airport use with the call letters WIMA, standing for Indianapolis Municipal Airport. At the time of the article mentioned above, the northwest runway was being extended a total of 2000 feet, and would be available for use with the next two weeks. This would allow it to open before November 1938. The experimental unit would be considered a separate field, although it would connect to the rest of the airport using new runways. The new 6000 foot runway would go from southwest to northeast.
In 1939, there was a proposed idea to create a new road to the airport. The airport had already been accessible from US 40 along High School Road. The airport superintendent at the time, I. J. Dienhart, recommended that the right-of-way of the Terre Haute traction line be turned into a highway connecting the airport to downtown. The receiver of the traction line, after it filed for bankruptcy protection, was seeking to discontinue operation of the line. That would require the approval of the Public Service Commission to abandon the service completely. It was reported that should it be approved, the right of way would be donated to the Board of Works and Sanitation for the City of Indianapolis. Construction would be, hopefully, be assisted by the WPA. (Source: Indianapolis Star, 17 May 1939, pp 8)
The traction line idea fell through. However, the State of Indiana decided to create a new state road to connect the airport to US 40/Washington Street. That new road would be called SR 100. I covered the history of SR 100 here.
Another change to the airport was started in late 1943, but this time it was the name of the facility. Colonel Harvey Weir Cook, a World War I ace from Indiana, was killed in action in the South Pacific theater of World War II. He was killed when his P-39 fighter failed to come out of a spin on 21 March 1943. According to the Indianapolis News of 20 December 1943, the Indianapolis Board of Public Works and Sanitation “deem it appropriate that the memory of Colonel Harvey Weir Cook be honored by renaming the Indianapolis municipal airport as Weir Cook Airport.” It was resolved that it be “fitting dedication ceremonies be held at Weir Cook Airport on Tuesday, March 21, 1944.” The Board of Public Works and Sanitation voted unanimously that this honor be bestowed upon Colonel Cook.
Fast forward to the early 1950s. Indianapolis Municipal Airport, by this time also called Weir Cook Municipal Airport, was feeling its age. And its crowding. Stout Field, practically in the flight path to Weir Cook, was being considered for phasing out of its use by the Indiana Air National Guard (IANG). In 1953, the IANG was considering moving from Stout Field to Weir Cook. This did not go over very well. From the Indianapolis Star, 20 January 1954, Louis Schwitzer (Chairman of the Board of the Schwitzer-Cummings Company) paid for a half page ad discussing the possibility of moving the IANG to the Indianapolis Airport. “About twenty years ago when Weir Cook was not a busy airport, in fact had barely traffic at all, the National Guard did not want to use that field, but insisted on operating their squadron from its own field, so not to be interfered with. They built and equipped at the taxpayers’ expense Stout Field. Therefore, it would be assumed it would be more essential today for the Guard to operate from its own field in view of the heavy traffic on Weir Cook field, which increases every day.” He further states “the Aviation Board and the Mayor, as well as the Council, ought to be congratulated on putting up a fight to save Weir Cook airport as a commercial traffic center for the citizens and business of Indianapolis, and I hope that the board will win out.”
Another problem at the time was the shortness of the runways. 6000 feet, which at the time there were two runways of that length, weren’t long enough for safely landing the new jet aircraft. A runways of 8000 feet were recommended for the airport to increase the safety of takeoffs and landings of these new aircraft. The plans called for the main runway, running southwest to northeast, to be expanded from 7300 to 8000 feet for this reason. The estimated cost of this expansion was $800,000. This after the $1.5 million expansion of the northwest to southeast runway to 6000 feet to be completed in 1962.
By the time of its 30th anniversary, the Weir Cook Municipal Airport boasted more than 850,000 passengers a year passing through the terminal.
By 1973, local officials were working on getting the U. S. Treasury Department to expand and upgrade customs facilities to allow for Weir Cook Municipal Airport to Weir Cook International Airport. Tom E. Blanchard, U.S. Customs port director at the airport, according to the Indianapolis News of 07 June 1973, warned that, while that could be a step up for Indianapolis, it may not be the panacea that local businesses might think it is. “If the airport is given the international status, warned Blanchard, ‘you would have to accept any flight of any international airlines, anytime, and in any volume.’ He speculated that Weir Cook could be swamped with airplanes and passengers it really didn’t want and wasn’t equipped to handle.”
On 23 July 1976, Weir Cook Airport was officially renamed Indianapolis International Airport. This, according to the Indianapolis Star of 27 July 1976, was “because it now is an international facility with a customs building, it was explained yesterday in response to queries.” It had been renamed the previous Friday from when the article was published (that being on a Tuesday).
Today, the only reference to Weir Cook is the road that leads to the new airport terminal. It is called “Colonel H. Weir Cook Memorial Drive.”