(originally published 10/10/19)
My trip to the Raytown Historical Society a couple of weeks ago opened my eyes to, as I said in Part 1, “the really important and unexpected role that Raytown has played in Kansas City’s early aviation history.” And I followed that with a quick – “Raytown, who knew, right?”
Well, clearly folks in Raytown knew, as their aviation history is evident in many places throughout their museum, including the great Richards Field and Ong Airport scrapbook they’ve compiled. And I’m sure the many, many people in the Kansas City area involved in both the professional and enthusiast aspects of aviation probably knew. Part of being a true enthusiast is knowing your subject history, whether its baseball, World War II, or aviation.
For me, the surprise came because Raytown’s history is, for me, rooted in its connections to the trails. With its early founding dating to the 1840s, Raytown’s trail history is so well documented that it’s too prevalent to be a KC Backstory. But it is telling that Raytown’s earliest reason for being was as a spot that was a day’s ride out from Independence, making it the perfect place for a trail traveler’s layover. Which was, in essence, the role it would play in the area’s aviation development.
But back to the story as we left it. In 1922, the Flying Club of Kansas City had the use of some undeveloped J.C. Nichols property near 67th and Belinder in Mission Hills, Kansas to use as a “flying field,” but the decision was made not to renew the lease, having already started the planning for a more permanent facility near Raytown. My intention was to pick up the story with the flying field in Raytown, but as was a theme last time, information in the society’s booklet, “Airway Pioneers,” led me to more information to add to the chapter on the Nichols flying field story.
Although the 67th and Belinder site was leased in the spring of 1922 by the American Legion for the use of the Flying Club of Kansas City, the parties were all familiar with the property. In the fall of the prior year, they had staged a four-day competition there as part of the Legion’s national convention. This was the first of its kind and its success led the Legion to make flying meets a regular part of their conventions for some years to come. It also led J.C. Nichols to pursue the idea of a more permanent flying field on his newly purchased property.
Yet it’s hard to imagine that Nichols attended the meet. If he had, he surely would have wondered if such an event would be compatible with the upscale residential development he had planned for the area. Seventy-two planes competed in the competition, which consisted of a series of qualifying heats. For four days, from early morning until late afternoon, all those planes would have been continually taking off and landing. Attendance records weren’t a part of the February 1922 Aviation article I found that described the event, but it did report that all roads were closed for at least a mile from the field, to reduce the number of “free” attenders. One had to have paid admission to be at the field to enjoy the competition, which would also have meant a tremendous influx of spectators that would have had to be conveyed to the field somehow. There was a loud speaker system (the “Magnavox”) that would have been heard for blocks around – if the sounds of plane engines didn’t drown it out. The spectators were kept from overrunning the field by six-foot high barbed wire. All in all, the meet may have been a financial success, a thrilling competition and a good means of promoting the still-growing aviation industry, but a flying field in the midst of residential development was, as it remains today, a bad idea.
But in Raytown, there was plenty of open space. Thanks to the 1921 meet, there was also some cash in the coffers of the Flying Club, and a good deal of newly generated local enthusiasm for aviation. And the Kansas City area had caught the eye of the U.S. Army, looking for locations around the country to establish airfields, initially as training centers for Army Reserve officers.
The Raytown community saw other potential opportunities, like an aviation school, commercial connections with other cities, an attraction for the growing aircraft manufacturing industry, and air mail service, in addition to the promise of pilot training and annual flying meets. Forces within the community, largely made up of aviation enthusiasts, figured out how to put the deal together.
The site was 153 acres on the east side of Davenport Road (now Blue Ridge Boulevard) just south of Gregory Boulevard. It would be owned by a land holding company, and leased to a newly formed Air Terminal Association, which would operate the field. The strength of that arrangement made it one of only four air fields with which the Army contracted for services that year – the others being Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Boston. The air field would also construct, then lease to the Army, various hangars, fueling stations and maintenance shops on the property. The field was christened “Richards Field,” in honor of one of Kansas City’s World War I aviation heroes.
Over the years, many of Raytown’s hopes for the field were fulfilled. The Army’s training center opened in 1923, training reservists in planes that would be used in transporting mail. In March 1925, a gangly 23-year old Charles Lindbergh, fresh out of training and a member of the Missouri Guard, spent two weeks at Richards Field training for the air service. In 1926, following legislation that allowed private companies to transport mail by air, Richards Field itself became an air mail facility. Over the years, other private companies operated there, training private pilots for commercial duties.
There were air shows and competitions, all of which attracted spectators from miles around, and a few with some spectacular attractions. In 1923, the “silver-skinned dirigible, TC-3” made an appearance at the show. There were traffic spectacles, too. Like many air fields in the early days of aviation, there were a number of crashes, some deadly, more often the result of poorly trained or overly confident young pilots than mechanical troubles with the planes. And in 1927, one of the hangars used by the National Air Transport Company – the air mail contractor – burned to the ground due to a faulty oil heater. The US Weather Bureau was also housed there, and sustained a total loss.
Richards Field would continue to operate for many years, but looking back, its fate was sealed not long after it opened. In 1927 – the same year the NAT hangar burned at Richards Fields – Kansas City built its municipal airport, known now as Charles B. Wheeler Airport. Charles Lindbergh, by then famous the world over, returned for the grand opening.
Much of the original Richards Field was never developed for the airport. The field of aviation, and in particular its technology, were changing quickly. Small air fields like Richards struggled to keep up. But it earned a second life when Bill Ong bought the field. Ong had been one of those private pilot trainers that worked out of Richards. In 1937, he incorporated as the Ong Aircraft Corporation, and operated out of the Fairfax airport in Kansas City, Kansas. Then in 1943, Ong bought the Richards Field for $37,500, and renamed it Ong Airport.
The airport kept busy during World War II, but once the war was over, the airfield quickly became impractical. New housing was closing in around the field from all directions, and the field’s new neighbors weren’t happy about the noise or being so close to something they considered dangerous. Bill Ong embarked on a plan that would take several years to realize. He hired famed local landscape architect Sid Hare of Hare & Hare to design a housing subdivision for the site. Ong tried to keep the airport open even as housing construction began, but by 1952 he closed the airport down for good, and from Richards Field/Ong Airport, rose the neighborhood now known as Gregory Heights.
A very special thank you to the Raytown Historical Society, and the regular volunteers who were so welcoming and helpful. They are to be commended for their dedication to the hard work of archiving, interpreting and sharing Raytown’s rich history. In addition to their scrapbook files, they shared with me the principal source of Raytown’s aviation history used in this piece, Airway Pioneers by Lois Allen and Roberta Bonnewitz, published for the society by Pilot News Press in 1979. Copies are available at the museum.
(Featured Photo: When Richards Field opened in 1922, the U.S. Mail Service was the field’s most frequent customer.)
(Photos courtesy of the Raytown Historical Society)