Aviation in Iowa - Iowa Aviation History

Overview of Iowa Aviation History


BalloonThe 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.


GlidersGlider 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.

Carl Sterling Bates of Clear Lake 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, North Carolina, December 17, 1903. Their "aeroplane" opened the era of aviation.

Iowa’s First Plane Flight

GlidersArthur 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 FlightIowa'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, Illinois, 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 Corporation, 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 DevelopmentAirports in Iowa were developed under ownership and operational control of individuals, corporations, municipalities, and multi-jurisdictional governing bodies known at 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 ServicesAviation 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.


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