Published in July 2015 issue
Even people who are quite familiar with aviation probably do not know that United Airlines (UA) celebrates its birthdays at its birthplace in Boise, Idaho.
By Paul Anderson
I have lived in Idaho for almost half a century and I’m fairly familiar with the airline, being a lifetime million-mile rider. But I first realized that United started in Boise only some years ago, while riding a bicycle along the greenbelt of the Boise River. I noticed a plaque near the Boise State University (BSU) football stadium, home of the Broncos and the famous blue turf familiar to television viewers of college football. The plaque was marking the location of the onetime riverside airport, which was the operating base of the then Varney Air Lines, Inc.
It amazed me to think that the airline that has grown to be a world-spanning carrier had begun in such a little-noted spot. And recently, I decided to dig into various sources and learn more about United’s genesis and development into a major air carrier.
Boise now has a modern airport—with jet services, 10,000- foot runways and multiple airlines—only a few miles from the old riverside location. But it had no city airport in the mid-1920s. Traveling air shows that visited Boise sometimes used the fairgrounds. Other airplanes used an open field polo grounds near downtown. But in light of Boise’s isolation from other cities, the city fathers gave serious consideration to calls from the aviation-minded to develop an airport. The chamber of commerce strongly supported the idea and urged the city council to take action. It so happened that the city owned a suitable, large tract of open land, just across the Boise River from downtown. The city council said yes, and the riverside airport became a reality.
Two runways were prepared by grading and steamrolling the gravel surface. The longest runway was about 2,600ft (792m) in length. Even with steamrollers, the river rocks presented some problems in flattening the runway surfaces. Volunteers from the American Legion and other local service clubs and organizations did much of the clearing and leveling land work. Neither runway was ever paved during the approximately 13-year life of the airport.
One of the early visitors to the new airport was none other than Charles Lindbergh, flying his Spirit of St. Louis airplane into Boise. After his visit, Lindbergh sent the city a letter saying how impressed he was with the city and its beautiful mountain scenery. But Lindbergh also strongly advised the city fathers to cut down the trees that surrounded the airfield. He said the trees were a significant hazard for pilots trying to land and take off. As Boise is called “the city of trees,” this was a bit difficult to accept. But it turned out that Lindbergh was correct. Before the trees were finally torn down, several aircraft came to grief when they got tangled up in them. Most of these incidents were on takeoffs. No doubt, density altitude affected the performance of the aircraft, as Boise is almost 3,000ft (914m) above sea level, and in summer the temperature can climb to 100º F (37º C) and above.
However, this does not explain how and why Boise became the birthplace of United. The story starts with California aviation pioneer, Walter T. Varney, who ran a flying school in the San Francisco Bay area. When Varney heard that the US government was going to accept bids for particular airmail routes, he decided to get in on the action. But he wanted to avoid the competition on the more attractive routes, such as Seattle to Los Angeles, or San Francisco to Chicago. So he zeroed in on a route that many would have considered a backwater of desert lands and mountains: Pasco, Washington, to Elko, Nevada, via Boise. He figured there would be few others vying for this route, and he was right. Would-be competitors may well have decided that flying over this inhospitable land, in often very harsh weather, was not an attractive business proposal. The only bidder for Contract Air Mail Route 5 (CAM 5) turned out to be Walter T. Varney himself, bidding as an individual contractor.
The contracts were let in 1925 and it turned out that Varney was the first to get his operation literally in the air. But it almost didn’t happen on that magic date of April 6, 1926.
The weather and the route’s challenging terrain almost did the whole operation in. Varney’s chief pilot, Leon “Lee” Cuddeback, ended up having to take one of the Varney Swallows to Pasco to make the inaugural flight. Aircraft problems and an accident sent two of his pilots to the hospital the day before the first flight was to occur. So Cuddeback did it himself—with hardly any sleep. He got up in his hotel room in Pasco, went to the airport, and to his surprise he found hundreds waiting for the first flight to take off from Pasco about 06:00. He flew to Boise carrying almost 10,000 pieces of US mail.
About 10:00 Boise time, people waiting at the new riverside airport heard the noise of an aircraft engine and looked up to see Cuddeback circling, and then with a wide turn, coming over the Union Pacific railroad depot and what is now Capitol Boulevard. The wheels of the Swallow touched down (some witnesses said the aircraft skidded) on the gravel runway. At 10:10 he had the aircraft parked, and people were surrounding the plane, including such dignitaries as the governor of Idaho and the mayor of Boise.
Soon Cuddeback had to get back in the open cockpit of the Swallow and depart for Elko. He had to get the mail there in time to get it aboard a train going east to Salt Lake and Chicago. This was important—the very reason, in fact, that this particular airmail route existed.
In those days, the Postal Service used airplanes to speed up the delivery of mail that was transported primarily by rail. Pasco was the logical place to start this route, CAM 5, because it was a train hub. Passenger trains carrying mail reached Pasco about the same time each day from Seattle, Portland, and Spokane. A plane could load up there with eastbound mail and fly to Boise and Elko, put the mail aboard a train going to Salt Lake City and Chicago—and enable a letter to speed from Seattle to New York City in a thenimpressive 47 hours. That was considerably faster than if the postage went by rail alone.
The Varney airplanes were single-engine Laird Swallow biplanes with open cockpits, carrying only the mail. It would be several years before passenger services were offered. These would be in a Boeing 40A, which could only hold two passengers plus the mail (at the time, mail revenue was essential for the finances of airlines). The pilot sat in an open cockpit some distance behind the two passengers, who were in a small compartment up front behind the engine. But this is getting a little ahead of the start of Varney operations in 1926.
Shortly after the inaugural of the airmail flights, Walter Varney realized that the Swallow bi-planes were underpowered. Their 90-horsepowered Curtis water-cooled engines were not sufficient to get over the mountains on the Elko-Boise- Pasco route. Varney obtained a waiver from the post office department to allow him two months to replace these engines with 150-hp Wright Whirlwind air-cooled radial engines. Lindbergh had used the same type of engine on his Spirit of St. Louis to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Paris.
Varney needed headquarters and maintenance facilities in Boise, and these were provided by a large new steel hangar and office building constructed at the Boise riverside airport. The hangar was located at the current site of BSU’s Bronco football stadium, near the Boise River and Broadway Avenue.
Varney Air Lines was acquired by the United Airlines Transport Company (UATC) on June 30, 1930. The Elko-Boise-Pasco route was changed to Salt Lake City-Boise-Pasco, then extended from Pasco to Seattle and Spokane. This made it possible for passengers heading to the Pacific Northwest to avoid going all the way to San Francisco before flying north to Seattle, Spokane or Portland.
The riverside airport in Boise was used until the late 1930s, when a change in technology necessitated a new, larger airport for Boise. United’s newly acquired Douglas DC-3 could not operate in and out of the riverside-constrained airport. The DC- 3s had to fly over Boise between Portland and Salt Lake City until 1939, when an adequate airport for Boise was put into operation.
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A few miles from the first airfield, the City of Boise acquired land for the new airport on what was called Whitney Bench. The onset of World War II for the United States meant that the military needed places to train aviators. The US Army Air Force selected Boise as one of the key new training bases. The 8,800ft main runway at the new Whitney Bench airport was the longest in the nation at that time. It was a busy place, humming with military activity at what was called Gowen Field on the armed-services side of the airport. United Airlines continued to serve Boise at the new Bench airport during the war years on the north, or civilian, side of the airport.
The steel hangar, which had served well at the riverside airport, was moved piece-by-piece to the new site. At the Bench airport it was used as United Airlines’ main terminal structure. United DC-3s would taxi in and out of the hangar, where the aircraft were unloaded and loaded. This hangar became the core of the expanded Boise terminal building, and was used until 2003, when a new $100 million terminal building was opened to handle Boise airline traffic that now bustles with more than 2.5 million passengers per year.
The aircraft used by United (including Varney initially) at Boise have ranged from the singleengine Swallows to Boeing 40As, Boeing 247Ds, Douglas DC-3s, DC-4s, and DC-6s, Convair 340s and then into the jet age, first with Boeing 727s, then DC-8s, and Boeing 737s. Currently, United serves Boise with mainline Boeing and Airbus jet aircraft, along with a myriad of regional jets.
In just a little more than a decade, it will be 100 years since that first United, or Varney, plane landed at the Boise riverside airport on April 6, 1926. Those opencockpit bi-planes were navigated by following roads and spotting towns or landmarks. It was primitive in many ways. The pilots flew by the seat of their pants. Their trailblazing was an essential element in the development of air carrier networks in the US and other countries.
The early pilots who flew the airmail planes would certainly be awed by the latest jet-powered airliners, global positioning systems (GPS) for navigation, instrument landing systems (ILS), and such other marvels as the BOI airport’s Category III ILS system, which allows landings in very poor weather conditions.
Those early aviators would no doubt also be awed by how United Airlines has, from its humble beginnings at Boise, developed into a large carrier with routes throughout the US and many points throughout the world. It was a very different origin, for example, from that of JetBlue (B6)—one of the US’s newest airlines—which started out on Day One with brand new jet-powered (pure jet) airliners. Its start was closer to that of Delta, which was a crop-spraying firm in the South until morphing into an airline.
In United’s instance, the development of national and international airline service started on a route serving cities that are certainly not, even today, major urban areas. United is the only airline that has served Boise on continuous basis, from Day One until the present.