Betty and Gary Petrimoulx stood outside the airport with their binoculars, eagerly watching for their grandson T.J. to board a plane for Boise.
Generations of Arizonans have shared in the timeless ritual of watching planes take off and land since the city of Phoenix purchased Sky Harbor Airport in 1935. In today’s version, Betty used her cellphone to tell T.J. to look for her atop Terminal 4′s nine-story parking garage.
Over 75 years, Sky Harbor has grown from a one-building operation known affectionately as The Farm into the nation’s ninth-busiest airport, catering to tens of millions of passengers each year and serving as the base for US Airways. Where Ford Tri-Motor airplanes once landed modern jets now use three runways. People no longer can greet planes on the tarmac but instead can await arrivals in a cellphone lot.
Sky Harbor is commemorating the anniversary by displaying photographs and air travel memorabilia chronicling the airport’s history. In addition to the exhibit in Terminal 3, the airport is offering an online retrospective, including videos and interviews with aviation enthusiasts, historians and airport employees.
Sky Harbor and its name actually date to 1928, when Scenic Airways, which carried tourists to the Grand Canyon, built a field on 285 acres. Scenic’s fortunes crashed with the stock market in 1929, and an investment company owned the airport until the city bought it six years later for $100,000.
Marshall Trimble, Arizona’s official historian, said that early on Sky Harbor wasn’t even the busiest airport in the Valley, as other “sandlot” airfields attracted military and airmail flights as well as refueling business. Tucson, Nogales, Winslow and Yuma had thriving airfields, and Douglas captured national attention when it ceremoniously opened the country’s first international airport in 1929.
According to Trimble, many of the small airlines serving Sky Harbor early on made their money offering a “drunkard special,” flying people to Mexico to drink during Prohibition.
“They’d pick up imbibers in at Sky Harbor, take an hour-and-20-minute flight to Tucson, and another 40-minute flight to Nogales,” he said. “Then they’d cross the border and drink all night and be back in Phoenix by 10 a.m.”
At the time, street car service ended at 16th and Washington streets. Getting to Sky Harbor required driving down a rough dirt road, and the airport’s remote location led locals to call it The Farm.
Heather Lissner, public information specialist for the City of Phoenix Aviation Department, says the airport has also served as a leisure destination for teens and families.
“During World War II, high school students used come to the airport and park and watch the planes take off and land as something to do, similar to cruising Central Avenue,” Lissner said.
As Phoenix has grown into the nation’s fifth-largest city, Sky Harbor has evolved to include three passenger terminals, a large rental car center and cargo complexes. In 2008, it added a 324-foot, $89 million control tower.
The city is in the process of connecting the airport to its light-rail system by constructing the Sky Train automated transit system.
Sky Harbor also has grown into an economic engine for a state that relies heavily on tourism and business travel.
According to a 2007 study by Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, Sky Harbor generates over 300,000 jobs and has a total economic impact of over $33 billion per year.
More than 1,200 planes arrive and depart on a typical day. But just as the novelty of aviation captured the attention of Valley residents during those early years, the allure of airplanes continues to attract onlookers.
For the Petrimoulxes, the Cave Creek couple saying farewell to their grandson, taking in the view is worth an extra stop during their trips to the airport.
“When we have visitors, we come in early to see the planes come in,” Gary said.