History of the St. Louis Downtown Airport.
In the Beginning: 1929
The Airport opened as the Curtiss-Steinberg Airport in 1929. The Airport was developed by a business consortium that included Mark Steinberg, a St. Louis financier, (also of Steinberg memorial Skating Rink fame), Curtiss Wright, an aircraft and engine manufacturing firm, the Transcontinental Air Transport Service, (which later became TWA), and the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. The group’s purpose was to provide the St. Louis area with a high-quality air terminus, offering paved runways. Initially, the Airport had three runways, each 1,650 feet in length, and four airplane hangars. Three hangars had 14,000 square feet and the fourth had 44,000 square feet. As a modern full-service facility, it even offered a full service restaurant. Two of the original hangars are still in use today. In August 1930, a lighting system, the only one of its kind in this part of the country, was used for the first time with several test flights using a Curtiss Robin airplane. The lighting system included boundary lights, two floodlights, a revolving beacon, and a light for determining cloud ceiling. Early airline operations were conducted by U.S. Airways, TAT-Maddux, Curtiss- Wright Flying Service (charter flights), and Shelton Airlines. Columbia Airlines was added in 1935.
Carl “Chub” Wheeler
Carl “Chub” Wheeler learned to fly at Curtiss-Steinberg in 1934 in a Curtiss Robin airplane and became a flight instructor. “Chub” and Bill Hart operated the East St. Louis Flying School charging two dollars per flying lesson. Their center of operation was Hangar 2. “Chub” can still be found around Hangar 2 today serving as a volunteer and a member of the Board of Directors of the Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum. He celebrated his 100th birthday in 2011 by piloting the EAA Ford Tri-Motor from that same Hangar 2 location.
The 1930’s: Oliver Parks entered the scene.
Numerous aviation pioneers who frequently visted the airport during the 1930s included Charles A. Lindbergh, Jimmy Doolittle, Wiley Post, Amelia Earhart, James Haizlip, Frank Hawks, and Wallace Berry. A pilot by the name of Oliver L. Parks founded Parks College, a nearby aeronautical school, in 1927. In the mid-1930s, he became the Curtiss-Steinberg Airport operator and a business partner. (As an interesting side note, Oliver Parks suffered injuries in a 1927 plane crash near a Jesuit seminary in Florissant, Missouri. He felt deeply indebted to the Jesuit priests who rushed to help him and in 1946, he donated Parks College to the Jesuit-owned St. Louis University. Although Parks College closed their Cahokia campus in 1992, St. Louis University’s Parks College of Engineering and Aviation’s flight department continues to operate a large flight school on the Airport today.) In 1930, spectators at an air fair at the Airport witnessed an emergency parachute descent by Jimmy Doolittle (with Shell Petroleum’s St. Louis-based aviation department) after his newly modified Travel Air Mystery Ship broke up during a low altitude, high speed test run. The airplane had undergone design changes to the ailerons which proved disastrous. While approaching 300 miles per hour, the ailerons began to flutter, and the wings disintegrated. Fortunately, the aircraft rolled inverted while climbing to about 400 feet altitude, and Doolittle literally fell from the cockpit. His parachute opened a moment before he hit the ground. The Transcontinental Air Transport Service (now known as TWA) hired Charles Lindbergh to “scout out,” evaluate and recommend sites throughout the United States for the establishment of the airline’s route structure. In St. Louis, he recommended the Curtiss-Steinberg Airport site first, a large area on North Broadway in St. Louis second, and the current site of Lambert International Airport third. The Illinois’ site wasn’t selected because funding for the airport was generated by various Missouri state funds and, therefore, the airport needed to be located in Missouri. By 1939, war in Europe was threatening, and there was concern the U.S. would soon be entering the war with too few military pilots. Consequently, a system of training schools was established with Parks Air College being one of the schools.
Early 1940s: A name change to Curtiss-Parks Airport
In 1940, Oliver Parks leased the Curtiss-Steinberg airport to enable the necessary expansion of his college. Other civilian tenants were requested to leave, and the airport name was changed to Curtiss-Parks Airport. As enrollment swelled, Parks further expanded his facilities to include operations at Cape Girardeau and Sikeston, Missouri; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; and Jackson, Mississippi.
Carl “Chub” Wheeler became a flight instructor for the Curtiss-Parks Airport. Through the end of WWII, some 37,000 Cadets were trained at the Parks facilities. Of these, 24,000 became commissioned Pilots. A total of one-sixth of all U.S. Army pilots of the era were trained at Parks’ Midwestern facilities.
Mid 1940s: Another name--Parks Metropolitan Airport
After World War II, Curtiss-Parks bought out the business consortium, became the sole owner, and dubbed the facility Parks Metropolitan Airport. He formed the Parks Aircraft Sales and Service to market small, private airplanes. Parks also began a feeder airline, Parks Airline, in 1950. He later sold the airline to Ozark Airlines who transferred the operation to the St. Louis International Airport (Lambert).
1950s: A period of decline
1959: The dark days--The Airport is Closed!
In 1959, seeing more money in residential real estate than in aviation, Oliver Parks closed the Parks Metropolitan Airport and his Parks Aircraft Sales and Service business and began to develop a residential community on airport property. Although approximately 200 homes were built, the 2,500-home “St. Louis Gardens” subdivision was never completed. By 1961, Lambert Field was becoming so crowded that a secondary St. Louis airport was essential. Extensive negotiations with various agencies resulted in the Bi-State Development Agency purchasing the Parks Metropolitan Airport property and investing in new airport improvements.
1965: Rebirth Under a New Name--Bi-State Parks Airport
The Bi-State Development Agency acquired Parks Metropolitan Airport in 1964 and reopened it as the Bi-State Parks Airport in 1965. Bi-State contracted with Oliver Parks to run the Airport as Airport Manager for two years at $1 per year. During this period, McDonnell-Douglas Corporation built a test facility on the Airport grounds to test its Gemini space capsules in a large water reservoir, which was built to test their structural integrity during water entry.
1980s: Continued Expansion and Improvements
Growth and expansion continued with the opening of the new east ramp and passenger terminal in 1981. A parallel runway and parallel taxiway completed in December 1984, increased the Airport’s traffic capacity and a new road system and railroad overpass greatly improved the Airport’s accessiblity from the surrounding region.
1984: Another New Name--St. Louis Downtown Parks Airport
In 1984, a new name, St. Louis Downtown Parks Airport, was selected to better emphasize the Bi-State Parks Airport’s quick and easy accessibility to downtown St. Louis–a quality that is unmatched by any other airport in the St. Louis area. Pilots on life-saving medical missions to and from St. Louis medical centers valued this ease of access and local transplant organizations and air-rescue services commonly used the Airport during emergency transport of patients and donor organs. During this same year, John Roach, a retiring Air Force pilot, joined the Airport staff to oversee daily operations.
1987: A New Airport Director
John Roach took the reigns as the St. Louis Downtown Parks Airport Director, replacing Larry Mullendore, who left to fill an airport management position in Florida. Under his leadership, the Airport grew to become the fourth busiest airport in the State of Illinois.
1990s: Improvements and Growth Continue
1993: St. Louis Floods, but the Airport Remains
1999: A Name Change to St. Louis Downtown Airport
2000: A New Airport Director
After 16 years of leadership, John Roach retired and was replaced by another active Pilot, Bob McDaniel. McDaniel began his airport career 33 years earlier as a Line Service Technician right here at the St. Louis Downtown Airport and returned to the area after a 25-year Air Force career and three years as director of the Texarkana Regional Airport.
2001: Progress Continues
Taxiways “H” and “K” and the West Ramp were resurfaced, the main terminal ramp was removed and replaced, and the Localizer was relocated to line up with the runway centerline to reduce approach minimums by 50 feet. A siting study for a new 138-foot air traffic control tower was also completed. New tenants established operations at the Airport including Air Evac Lifeteam who made the St. Louis Downtown Airport their regional maintenance and administrative headquarters. Several new private and corporate hangars were constructed. The Airport became home to about 250 aircraft, handling nearly 200,000 operations annually, employing over 900 people, and contributing over $135 million annually to the local economy.
2002: Expansion Continues
The Airport acquired 43 acres of unimproved land to the north for continued eastward expansion of the main aircraft parking ramp and runway and taxiway improvements over the next several years. The Airport’s Administration and Maintenance offices moved to an 11,400 sq. ft. building building in the Sauget Industrial Park, allowing room for expansion of the Airport’s restaurant and other businesses. Airport property now totals 1,010 acres. The Airport’s record of excellence was recognized by being selected as Reliever Airport of the Year by the Illinois Division of Aeronautics.
2003: New FBO Facilities and More New Hangars
Midcoast Aviation continued their growth by expanding and renovating their terminal building and constructing a new 43,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art aircraft painting facility. Ideal Aviation constructed a new Fixed Base Operator facility on the old hangar three site that had been vacant since it burned more than 60 years ago.
2004: New Businesses Joined the Airport Family
2005: New Control Tower construction began
2006: Traffic Continues to Increase and a New St. Louis Downtown Heliport Opens
Airport traffic counts remain strong increasing the Airport’s ranking. It is now the third busiest airport in the state, the second busiest in the St. Louis Region, and among the nation’s top 100 busiest airports. Absent from the Riverfront since the great flood of 1993, the Airport joined forces with Gateway Arch Riverboats to establish a public-use heliport offering scenic helicopter rides on the Gateway Arch Riverfront.
2007: Historic Significance Sited
2008: New Levels of Airport Safety and Services
Airport growth and expansion continued with the number of employees growing to more than 1,900. Multiple infrastructure expansion and improvement projects were completed during 2008: The new $7.3 million, 138-foot tall control tower opened in May. A new taxiway connected the parallel runway with the east ramp in June, reducing ground congestion and eliminating a safety hazard caused by an optical illusion which led pilots to believe a taxiway existed where there was nothing but mud. In July, the Airport established and dedicated its own specially-equipped and Airport Fire Department. It also attained Part 139 Commercial Airport operating status in August. Additionally, the primary public parking lot was doubled in size and an airport-wide pavement marking project resulted in our airport being the first general aviation airport in the state to have the new enhanced taxiway centerline markings, greatly improving airport safety.
2009: Continued Service Improvements
The Illinois Division of Aeronautics recognized the Airport’s achievements by selecting it as 2009 Reliever Airport of the Year for the State of Illinois. Ground was broken on a new $4.6 million aircraft rescue and firefighting equipment and administrative station. Approximately 6+ acres of land north of the Airport was purchased for a flood plain mitigation project to offset the flood plain fill, necessary to extend Runway 12L/30R. Construction of a 1,500 ft. addition to Runway 12L/30R and an interior service road connecting the two aircraft parking ramps got underway.
2010: A New Fire Station and Other Improvements
The parallel utility Runway 12L/30R, was extended from 3,800′ to 5,300′ and a new access taxiway was added to reduce air and ground congestion by enabling larger aircraft to use either runway. An interior service road was constructed around the northern end of Runway 5/23 to allow airport service vehicles to move about the airport without having to enter the movement area or cross an active runway or taxiway. A new owner remodeled the Airport’s restaurant and expanded service by opening “Ollie’s Deli” a sub sandwhich-style restaurant, which was in addition to the Airport’s full dining room and lounge.
2011: A New Fire Station and Emergency Coordination Center
A new $5 million, 16,000 sq. ft. airport fire station and emergency coordination center officially opened on January 24th, 2011. The station included three vehicle bays, an airport operations center, and a hardened 36-seat emergency coordination center designed to withstand an earthquake or tornado and continue to function. This valuable resource is available to regional emergency response coordinators during times of crises. A major reconstruction of the primary runway, Runway 12R/30L, widened the runway from 100 to 150 feet, lengthened it from 6,997 to 7,002 feet, and strengthened it to support aircraft weighing up to 200,000 lbs; such as Airbus 320 and light-weight Boeing 757 aircraft. Additionally, the runway lighting system was totally replaced with a new high-intensity lighting system and Precision Approach Path Indicators (PAPIs.)
2012: Improvements Continue
The parking lot in front of The Airport’s administration, building fire station, restaurant and the access road, Archview Drive, was resurfaced. A new vehicle gate accessing the west ramp and new perimeter fencing was installed in remote areas of the Airport. Planning continued for future developments with a Land Use Plan, Environmental Studies, and an Airport Master Plan.