Western Air Express and the First Scheduled Passenger Services Across the Rocky Mountains


WAE LogoI have long been interested in the rise of aviation in the American West during the 1920s. Accordingly, several years ago I began to investigate  Western Air Express, later renamed Western Airlines, which emerged as a pioneer air carrier proving passenger services between the West Coast and the Midwest. Although originally an air mail service, its leaders quickly grasped the potential profitability of providing regularly scheduled passenger service through Salt Lake City and the Great Basin as transit across the United States.

Just five weeks after beginning scheduled air mail operations, the company carried its first passengers. The Salt Lake Tribune on April 17, 1926, enthusiastically applauded the creation of a scheduled passenger service, noting that “The schedule calls for departure from Salt Lake at 10:10 a.m. (Mountain Time) and arrival at Los Angeles at 5:25 p.m. (Pacific Time) after a stop at Las Vegas.”

Ben Redman and J.A. Tomlinson pose at Salt Lake City before boarding Western Air Lines first passenger flight on May 23, 1926.

Ben Redman and J.A. Tomlinson pose at Salt Lake City before boarding Western Air Lines first passenger flight on May 23, 1926.

Passenger service finally started on  May 23, 1926, and the company’s first traffic manager, James G. Wooley, boasted before the flight that it was the first “regular commercial aerial passenger traffic in America.” Wooley commented to the Tribune on May 22, 1926, that “the new service will cut 19 hours from the traveling time between Los Angeles and eastern points and that Salt Lake will become an important junction for both air and rail travel.” He also thought passenger flights would bring prominent visitors to Utah and lengthen their stay since they would be able to decrease their traveling time.

The first passenger was Ben F. Redman, chairman of the Aviation Committee of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and a major stockholder in Western Air Express. He had lobbied long for the distinction, using his influence in the company to secure the first flight. He made that first airline reservation with a $20 check as a deposit on the $90 one‑way ticket. Another Salt Lake City resident, John A. Tomlinson, accompanied Redman on the flight.

The Douglas M-2, which differed from the M-1 mainly by replacement of the original tunnel radiator with a frontal type, became the first type of aircraft to fly passengers by Western Air Express.

The Douglas M-2, which differed from the M-1 mainly by replacement of the original tunnel radiator with a frontal type, became the first type of aircraft to fly passengers by Western Air Express.

Outfitted with coveralls, leather helmets, goggles, and parachutes, they climbed into the open compartment atop a bag of mail on a Douglas M‑2 biplane behind pilot Charles N. “Jimmy” James. They received box lunches and portable toilet facilities—a tin can. The aircraft took off at 9:30 a.m. and after a short stop at Las Vegas arrived by 5:30 p.m. at Los Angeles. On the same day the first commercial air passengers from Los Angeles also arrived in Salt Lake City. They were A. B. Nault and P. Charles Kerr, both prosperous Los Angeles businessmen.

This marked only the beginning; regularly‑scheduled passenger service grew rapidly thereafter. By the end of 1926, Western Air Express had carried 209 passengers at a profit of $1,029. Included among those first passengers was the first woman passenger, Maude Campbell, from Salt Lake City, who flew about two weeks after Redman’s May 23 flight. Other airlines operating throughout the region expanded into the passenger service after Western’s experi­ment. By the end of the decade, Varney Transport routinely flew passengers into Portland and Seattle, connecting from Boeing Air Transport which had the San Francisco to Chicago air routes. Pacific Air Transport, National Park Airways, and several other smaller companies operated passenger service through the Salt Lake City hub.

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