The Friendly Skies

Ellington Field Celebrates a Century of Flight This Weekend

Houston's first commercial spaceport boasts 100 years of aviation history.

By Katharine Shilcutt May 8, 2017

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A Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" in the skies above Ellington Field circa 1917.

One hundred years ago, Houston saw a few monumental milestones as a young city: Our first Hispanic mayor (who, sadly, died of a heart attack after only three months in office); the formal incorporation of Humble Oil and Refining Company (which later became Exxon); and the opening of Ellington Field, now known as Ellington Airport since its rebranding in 2009.

Ellington Field was established by the Army Air Service, a precursor to our modern-day U.S. Air Force, on May 21, 1917 after military personnel determined the average weather patterns in the area were ideal for test flights— highly important, considering that aviation as a whole was still in its infancy. Houstonians watched in awe as the very first squadron flew into the base that year: the 120th Fighter Squadron, which later became the first Air National Guard unit in 1946.

After World War I ended, Ellington Field became dormant; by 1927, a new civil airport was being built—Hobby—and a year later, the base caught fire and burned to the ground. For the next decade, the U.S. military simply gave up on the overgrown land, allowing nearby ranchers to use it for grazing their cattle. But by the time World War II drew the U.S. into the conflict, military personnel and local leaders alike saw the use for Ellington Field once again.

Since that time, Ellington Field has been a critical facility for pilot and navigator training for all military branches as well as commercial aviation. Though it was officially inactivated by the Air Force in 1976 (with all reserve squadrons transferred to other facilities), the field remains home to everyone from the Texas Air National Guard and the Texas Army National Guard to the U.S. Army Reserve, the U.S. Navy Reserve, the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and the U.S. Coast Guard. NASA even used the base during the 1960s for astronaut flight proficiency training, though today Ellington Field stands to see spaceflight from its home turf; it became the 10th commercial spaceport in the nation two years ago (though the question of when commercial spaceports will actually ever be built and used remains, pardon the pun, up in the air).

For now, a century of pioneering flight seems enough to celebrate, and that's exactly what will be happening on Saturday, May 20 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. during Ellington Field's 100th anniversary party. Free and open to the public, the celebration will boast some of the same attractions as Ellington Field always has, including the chance to witness dazzling displays of aviation in the blue skies above Taxiway Kilo—which, as luck would have it, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, having been constructed in 2007 to bring even more commercial flights to Houston's ever-evolving Ellington Field.

Ellington Airport Celebrating 100 Years, May 20 from 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Free. 

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