The Aviation Heritage Festival is taking place on October 8th and 9th at Louisville’s historic Bowman Field. With hot air balloon rallies, fun runs, pancake breakfasts, vintage plane rides, kids crafts, food trucks, craft beer, bourbon, and over 30 historic planes on display, it’s bound to be a great time for all. In this edition of Perspectives, brought to you by Lenihan Sotheby’s International Realty in Louisville, business consultant Rick Tabb discusses the neat history of Bowman Field.
“I’m a believer that great spaces make for great gatherings,” says Tabb. His office, The Eagles Nest, is located at Bowman Field in a unique nook with great natural lighting and a nice view. Prior to moving in, he had always loved history but never really dove into the local aviation lore. Once he learned that Bowman field was home to both American and Eastern Airlines, the fascinating history of Bowman Field began to unfurl.
“The history of Bowman Field is really the history of aviation in America,” Tabb explains. Bowman Field started as a cow pasture belonging to the Floyd family, which fell into the hands of a German baron — who lost the land during World War I, and ended up sitting idle as a big open field.
Upon the soldiers’ return from the war, a group of guys decided to set up an aviation operation here in Louisville. The field was perfect for it, with flat and open terrain and an ideal location. WWII Aviator Robert Gast worked with local businessman Abraham Bowman to establish the first commercial operation here in May 1920 – making it the longest continually operated commercial airport in the United States. Today, there is something for everyone at Bowman Field, says Tabb. You can book a charter flight in a Citation jet or a King Air Turboprop. You can take flying lessons or hop aboard an air taxi across town.
In the early 1920s, the central operation was the offering of thrill rides in Curtiss Jenny two-seater planes out of a cow pasture. Charles Lindbergh’s iconic flight across the ocean in 1927 really inspired the commercial airline industry as we know it. He actually visited Bowman Field in August of that same year, which helped the city gather the money to make it an official “commercial” airport. The terminal building, still visible today, went up in 1929.
Two years later, American Airlines became the first established commercial carrier in Louisville. They carried local passengers in a Ford Trimotor, which you can see at the aviation festival in October.
Two years after that, Eastern Airlines set up shop and raised more funds to renovate and expand the terminal. The terminal design was headed by William Arrasmith, who is noted for streamlining Greyhound bus terminals across the country. The first runway didn’t go in until 1938, when the practice of pouring concrete runways really took off.
The next big shift in Bowman Field’s history came in 1942, when the Army Air Corps developed the eastern side of the field as the Bowman Army Airbase. Most of those buildings are gone now, except for the big white hangar. During World War II, the airliners shift from twin engine to substantially larger four-engine planes. Since Bowman Field was in a residential area, most operations had to move to Standiford Field – the location of Louisville International today.
Festivalgoers for the October 2016 event can see:
- The nation’s only flying Curtiss Jenny (the original plane operating out of Bowman Field)
- A flying Ford Trimotor, a.k.a. “the old Tin Goose” (the first commercial aircraft at Bowman Field)
- 20-30 vintage aircraft on display, including: a 1937 DC-3, available for rides; a Steve Cook 1930s era WACO biplane you can take a cockpit ride in; and a twin-engine 1936 Lockheed Electra, which is a two engine (the “Leerjet of its day,” Tabb says).
Nearly a dozen food trucks, Rhinegeist Beer, Four Roses Bourbon, classic cars, local aviation exhibits – it’s all there at this year’s aviation festival October 8th and 9th at Bowman Field. Even if you missed the festival, there are many ways you can get involved with the project to make Bowman Field a more established epicenter for aviation history, right in your own backyard.