Iowa Aviation History

Vintage photos of Aviation

Iowa has a long and varied aviation history. Among others, early pioneers such as Clyde Cessna, the Wright Brothers and Amelia Earhart lived in Iowa in their childhood years.

Balloon and glider flights began in Iowa in the 1880s. Then in 1910, just seven years after the first powered flight by the Wright Brothers, the first powered flight took place in Iowa. The remainder of the 20th century witnessed the development of a mature air transportation system throughout Iowa and around the globe. From the development of airports and aviation services to the introduction of modern aircraft, Iowa has experienced significant increases in the utilization and safety of the air transportation system throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

Thank you to the Iowa Aviation Museum at the Greenfield Municipal Airport ( www.flyingmuseum.com) and to Ann Pellegreno, author of the trilogy "Iowa Takes to the Air," for their contributions to this brief compilation of Iowa’s extensive aviation heritage. For more information on aviation history in Iowa, visit the aviation museums listed on this Web site.



The fascination with flying in Iowa dates back to the balloon era. An unmanned, gas-filled balloon flight occurred in Burlington July 4, 1845. The first manned balloon — Hercules — was piloted by professor Silas Brooks at Burlington in 1856. Following the Civil War, balloon ascensions and races were popular at fairs and city celebrations.



Glider flight had been proven practical by German and American engineers. In 1898, Carl Bates, a 14-year-old from Clear Lake, built and flew the first man-carrying glider in Iowa. Bates stands in front of the first man-carrying glider in Iowa.

Wright Brothers

Bishop Milton Wright and Susan Catherine Wright lived in Cedar Rapids from 1878 to 1881. They had four sons and one daughter. Two of the sons, Orville and Wilbur, later gained worldwide renown for their invention of the "world's first power-driven, heavier-than-air machine in which man made free, controlled and sustained flight." The invention was flown by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Dec. 17, 1903. Their "aeroplane" opened the era of aviation.

Iowa's first plane flight


Arthur J. Hartman piloted Iowa's first "areoplane" flight, which took place on the fairway of the old Burlington Country Club. The plane rose 10 feet into the air before coming down so hard that it damaged the undercarriage. According to records, some 46 flights by 23 aviators were made over different cities in Iowa during the years between 1910 and 1911.

First commercial air freight flight to Iowa

The Iowa City airport was the first in the state to be used on the Chicago-to-Omaha commercial air freight route. On Jan. 8, 1920, the first consignment was transported to Omaha — 400 pounds of mail and the meat for a banquet in honor of General John Pershing. On the return trip, the plane carried a hog for a banquet at the Congress Hotel in Chicago.

U.S. airmail

In May 1920, the first regular consignment of U.S. airmail reached Iowa City. The package contained a motion picture destined for Maquoketa. Iowa City became a stop on the second leg (Chicago-to-Omaha) of the east-west transcontinental air route.

An aviation "first"

In the early 1920s J. Herman Banning (originally from Oklahoma) went to Chicago with the dream of becoming a pilot. When he tried to enter aviation school, no school would admit him because of his race. So he took lessons from Ray Fisher of Des Moines and moved to Ames to attend Iowa State College. Banning became the first black citizen to receive a pilot's license from the government - number 1324.

Iowa's first commercial airline passenger flight

First Commercial Flight

Iowa's first commercial airline passenger flight occurred when a single-engine Boeing mail and passenger biplane carried one passenger — Jane Eads, a 20-year-old reporter for the Chicago Herald. She flew from Maywood, Ill., to Iowa City in 1927.

"Good News"

In 1928, the Des Moines Register and Tribune purchased a five-person Fairchild cabin monoplane. This was the first privately owned plane of its class in the country, and the first airplane owned and operated by any newspaper in the United States with a pilot on full-time pay. The plane's name "Good News," was selected through a statewide contest in which thousands of people participated. In addition to serving as a means at getting photographs and stories to readers as quickly as possible, the plane promoted better aviation and airports in Iowa.

First scheduled airline in Iowa

Midwest Airways Corp., owned by Cedar Falls native John Livingston, operated the first scheduled airline in Iowa, flying between Waterloo and Des Moines. Flight service began in 1928 and the price for a round trip was $18. Regulation of commercial airlines began in 1938.

World War II

During the war, many Iowans joined the military and became pilots, gunners, navigators and mechanics. Intensive flight training also occurred in Iowa to prepare pilots for the war. Between the years of 1942 and 1945, more than 150 airmen lost their lives in military aircraft accidents in Iowa.

Aeronautical development

Aeronautical Development

Airports in Iowa were developed under ownership and operational control of individuals, corporations, municipalities, and multi-jurisdictional governing bodies known as airport authorities. World War II was the impetus for aeronautical development in Iowa during the last half of the 20th century. Some early investments in Iowa airports were through the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

On the state level, three entities guided the development of aviation in Iowa:

  • 1933-1945, Commission on Aeronautics
  • 1945-1975, Iowa Aeronautics Commission
  • 1975-Present, Iowa Department of Transportation

In 1943, the State of Iowa created a new state law allowing the development of airport commissions that would allow cities to be eligible for federal funding for airport development projects. While the state funded aviation development and safety programs, the majority of funding came from the federal government through the Civil Aeronautics Commission and later the Federal Aviation Administration.

Development of aviation services

Development of Aviation ServicesAfter World War II, there was a rise in the use of general aviation as pilots returned from the war, and production of private aircraft increased. Commercial air service was used more frequently due to larger aircraft, higher speeds and more reliability. Progress was aided by the development of viable route structures.

Notable accidents

Development of Aviation Services

Aviation has experienced significant safety improvements throughout the decades. Still, some high profile accidents have etched their way into Iowa’s aviation history, including:

  • 1959 — An aircraft crashes after departing Mason City, killing musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.
  • 1969 — Boxing legend Rocky Marciano dies in an aircraft accident near Newton.
  • 1980 — Life Flight helicopter crashes as it approaches the hospital in Webster City, killing the pilot and two nurses on board.
  • 1985 — A plane carrying runners and coaches from the Iowa State University cross country team crashes in a Des Moines neighborhood, killing seven.
  • 1989 — United Airlines Flight 232 crashes at the Sioux Gateway Airport in Sioux City, killing 112 people. Miraculously, 184 people including pilot Al Haynes, survived the accident. Haynes has been widely credited for his efforts in piloting the damaged aircraft and minimizing the loss of life.

Aviation pioneers

The list of pioneers who impacted Iowa’s deep aviation history is extensive. Following is just a highlight of some well-known aviation pioneers with Iowa connections.

Charles Lindbergh

Charles Augustus Lindbergh (1902 - 1937)

Lindbergh flew in and out of many locations in Iowa and dedicated several airports. During August 1927, Lindbergh visited several Iowa cities on a nationwide tour to promote aeronautics.

Amelia Mary Earhart

Amelia Mary Earhart ( 1897-1937)

Earhart, Americas famous aviatrix, moved to Des Moines in 1908 as a young girl. At age 10 she saw her first airplane at the Iowa State Fair. She left Des Moines in 1914 and moved to Chicago. She eventually learned to fly in California, taking flight lessons from Ames, Iowa, native Neta Snook Southern. Earhart was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic (June 1928) and made the first solo flight from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coast (September 1928). Shortly thereafter she visited several Iowa towns on a series of lecture tours. On June 1, 1937, she began her attempt to become the first woman to fly around the world. On July 2, 1937, her last voice transmission was heard, "KHAQQ calling Itasca (U.S. Coast Guard cutter). We must be on you but cannot see you . . . gas is running low . . . " The fate of Earhart has fascinated Americans since she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared during that flight.

Arthur Collins

Arthur Collins (1909 - 1987)

Collins began assembling radio transmitters in a basement workshop as a young man. In 1933, Collins opened a radio factory in Cedar Rapids that later becomes Rockwell Collins.

Clarence Duncan Chamberlin

Clarence Duncan Chamberlin (1893-1976)

Chamberlin, born in Denison, Iowa, in 1893, captured the nonstop, long-distance record by flying from New York to Berlin, and was the first to fly a paying passenger across the Atlantic Ocean. In April 1927, at age 34, Chamberlin gained worldwide fame by breaking the world endurance record in his Bellanca monoplane; he stayed in the air 51 hours and 11 minutes.


Ellen Church

A Cresco native, Church became the first airline stewardess in the country. She had approached the traffic manager of Boeing Air Transport (United Air Lines) with her idea of hiring nurses to serve passengers. Still somewhat skeptical of the idea, the board of directors did hire Church as the chief stewardess. Church subsequently hired seven more nurses and helped design their uniforms. The women began working May 15, 1930.

Eugene Ely

Eugene Ely

Born in Williamsburg, Iowa, in 1886, Ely became one of the premiere pilots during the early days of flying. Ely’s daring bravery and love of flying lead him to pioneer the world of flight from a ship. In 1910, Eugene Ely became the first pilot to make a successful unassisted airplane takeoff from the deck of a ship. He made history again in 1911 when he successfully landed an airplane on a ship, the USS Pennsylvania. He is also credited with designing the arresting gear that helped stop the airplane upon landing. This principle is still used today.


Iowa’s early fixed-base operators

The development of air transportation was dependent on early fixed-base operators (PDF) (FBOs) providing aviation services and promoting the practical applications and enjoyment of aviation in Iowa.  These operators worked long hours and were grass root builders of general aviation in Iowa.  An exhibit at the Iowa Aviation Museum in Greenfield includes a list of people from across Iowa that managed early FBOs.


History at the Iowa State Fair

A fascination with aviation made the Iowa State Fair a perfect venue for showcasing new forms of flight. Many saw their first airplane at the state fair.

Early demonstrations included exciting crowd-pleasing flight demonstrations and daredevil feats.


100th Anniversary of Powered Flight

In 1910, just seven years after the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, the first powered airplane flights took place in Iowa. Several men flew in Iowa in that year, but the first documented flight occurred on May 10, 1910 from the old Burlington Country Club in Southeast Iowa. Read details


Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame

The Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame honors Iowans with significant accomplishments in aviation. 
View the list of Hall of Fame inductees.

Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame


Login  |  ©  Iowa Department of Transportation.  All rights reserved.