Days Gone By - stories from the past

[film & pics] This is the story & start of the Birmingham, Alabama airport in 1919

The first Birmingham Municipal Airport was located near Ensley. This is the story of how it started.


In 1919, Major James A. Meissner, a WWI flying ace and a former member of Eddie Rickenbacker’s famous “Hat-in-the-Ring” Squadron, organized ten to twelve ex-aviators from WWI in Birmingham. The club was named the Birmingham Flying Club with its primary purpose to promote aviation in the City of Birmingham and the State of Alabama. The club eventually culminated in the first Birmingham Municipal Airport.

Major James A. Meisser (from Jefferson County Historical Association)

Lt.-James-Meissner

Born in Novia Scotia

Major James Armand Meissner (1896–1936) was born in Loudoudery, Novia Scotia. He lived in Birmingham as a child and young man. His father was an executive with U.S. Steel and was here as a an officer of TCI. The family home was in New York.  He received his high school education in Brooklyn, New York and attended Cornell where he studied engineering. As a member of the college’s corps of cadets, he enlisted in the U. S. Signal Corps and graduated with the first class of the School of Military Aeronautics on July 14, 1917 against his father’s wishes.

Meissner was commissioned a 1st lieutenant on November 20, 1917 and reported to the famous 94th Pursuit Squadron, one of the oldest units in the United States Air Force. Among his colleagues in the unit were Eddie Rickenbacker and members of the Lafayette Escadrille.

Photograph and names below from Olive-Drab Military History

 

Rickenbacher with meisser

L-R: Joseph H. Eastman, James A. Meissner, Edward “Eddie” Vernon Rickenbacker, Reed Chambers, and Thorne C. Taylor stand beside the plane of famed American “Ace of Aces” and Medal of Honor winner Captain Rickenbacker. The SPAD XIII.C.1 was powered by a 220 hp Hispano-Suiza engine capable of a top speed in level flight of 131 mph. At the 94th Pursuit Squadron (“Hat in the Ring”) of the American Expeditionary Force, France 1917-1918.

Piloted a French-made Nieuport 28

As the first American squadron in operation, its aviators were allowed to create their squadron insignia. They used the opportunity to commemorate the United States entry into World War I by taking the phrase of tossing one’s “hat in the ring” (a boxing phrase to signify one’s willingness to become a challenger) and symbolizing it with the literal image of Uncle Sam’s red, white and blue top hat going through a ring.

Piloting a French-made Nieuport 28, Meissner scored his first aerial kill over the Forêt De La Rappe on 2 May 1918; he was fortunate to survive, given the fabric was shredding off his top wing even as he scored. At any rate, the feat earned the Distinguished Service Cross and the Croix de Guerre. He was accredited with eight aerial victories and awarded two Distinguished Service Crosses.

He was discharged as a major on March 25, 1919 and returned to Cornell to complete his master’s in engineering. After receiving his diploma, Meissner moved to Birmingham where he was employed at Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company’s rail mill. He married Elve Kessler from Augusta, Georgia.

Dixie Field served the city of Birmingham in 1919

Only one airport, Dixie Field, served the city of Birmingham in 1919. It was a small grass strip east of Elmwood Cemetery.

In 1919, Major James A. Meissner and Henry Badham (father of the director John Badham) organized the Birmingham Flying Club. Some local businessmen contributed liberally their time and money to assist the group and leased a tract of land near Ensley.

On January 21, 1922, the 135th Observation Squadron of the Alabama National Guard was formed.

Roberts Field was built in 1922

Roberts Field, located west of downtown Birmingham and north of Dixie Field was built in 1922 and served as Birmingham’s municipal airport for a number of years. The 90-acre site was bounded by Village Creek and the Frisco Railroad to the north and by 13th Street Ensley to the south. Its 3,200 foot main runway area ran southwest-northeast across the property. Its hanger buildings were located on the southeast corner, near present-day Roberts Industrial Drive and the right-of-way for I-20/59.

Roberts field (from Avondale Sun 1921 Birmingham Public Library Archives)

Roberts field (Birmingham Public Library Archives)

The airfield was named Roberts Field after Lieutenant Arthur Meredith Roberts, a Birmingham native that was killed in France during WWI. The club was recognized as the 135th Observation Squadron on January 21, 1922 and was Alabama’s first Air National Guard and the 7th in the United States.

Two men working on an airplane engines at the Air Corps Base at Robert’s Field 1920-1929 (Alabama Department of Archives and History Q8936)

Two_men_working_on_an_airplane_engine_at_the_Air_Corps_base_at_Roberts_Field_in_Birmingham_Alabama Q8936

 

An employee of the Wright brothers was the first pilot over Birmingham

Aviation was not new to the city of Birmingham. The first airplane had been brought to the city in 1909 when E.T. Odum brought one to the Alabama State fair. An employee of the Wright brothers by the name of Phil Parmalee was the first pilot to fly over the city.

National Guard flew first airmail routes in 1928

By the end of July, the unit was operating a fleet of seven Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny” airplanes, housed in metal hangar buildings. The observation squadron mapped and surveyed many government projects as highways, dams and inland waterways. The National Guard flew the first airmail routes in Alabama in 1928.

St. Tammany Gulf Coast Airways used Roberts Field, beginning on May 2, 1928 for the state’s first regularly scheduled commercial air service, which included a stop at Bates Field, Mobile’s municipal airport, on the route between Atlanta and New Orleans.

Delta used the air field  in 1929

Delta Air Service began using the field in 1929 for their 6-seat Travel Air service that went from Dallas to Birmingham but American Airways could not land their Ford built planes there. This prompted the city to begin construction of its new Municipal Airport which opened in 1931.

In 1931, Birmingham replaced Roberts Field with a big new municipal airport and passenger service to Dallas, Atlanta, and other cities. Roberts Field remained open for at least ten more years, but was redeveloped for industrial uses around the 1960s.

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By (author): Donna R Causey
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About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and www.daysgoneby.me
All her books can be purchased at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
She has authored numerous genealogy books.
RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE)
is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2)
is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series)
Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1)
is the continuation of the story. .
For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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16 comments

  1. Whitney Frenette

    Hasn’t changed much lol!

  2. Bubba Phillips

    This is great information for those of us who is lived in the Birmingham area for so long and did not know Insley was the first airport

  3. THIS MUST BE AS IT LOOKED WHEN MY GREAT UNCLE. LAURICE A. TATUM DDS. FLEW IN AND OUT OF IT AS A MEMBER OF THE BIRMINGHAM AERO CLUB. THANKS FOR THE INFO.

  4. Danny Evans

    I grew up in Central Park and it was never identified as Ensley if we are talking about the same place and I believe we are. Central Park Flying Service could still be seen written on the hangar.

  5. Kathy Thibault

    I grew up in Ensley, graduated from Ensley High School. Good memories.

  6. Terry Lee

    I would think more Central Park!!!

  7. MIke Armstrong

    would this be near the fairgrounds?

  8. Terry Lee

    Between Central Park and Green Acres

  9. Don McAnally

    My uncle Gardner was a pilot. I went up with him sitting in my dad’s lap at about 4 or 5 years old. Wiley Post taught him to fly. Great job Mr. Post.

  10. Alabama Pioneers

    The Central Park Field was called Messer Field not Roberts Field. It was constructed by Glenn Messer but did not serve as the Municipal Airport. Messer field was open until 1946. This website has a map and more pictures of the early airfields. http://www.airfields-freeman.com/AL/Airfields_AL_Birmingham.htm

  11. Roberts Field was were the Glenn High School property is now on the south side of I59 just west of Arkadelphia Road.
    Central park airport was at the southern end of Avenue Q in Central Park. Its last sranding buildings burned in the 70’s. Charles Lindberg gave flying lessons at this location.

  12. Don Drasheff Sr

    I grew up on Graymont Ave and walked down to Roberts Field many time to watch the men flt RC and static line model planes . We used to shoot .22 rifles at cans in Village Creek next to Roberts Field .There was still a hanger with a coupla planes in it in the early to mid fifties .

  13. Denise Key

    Eddie Key is this Republic industrial park? Where Dillard paper was?

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