Tag Archives: aviation history

Forty Years Ago Today — A moment in history


Forty years ago today, 3 August 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization — PATCO — went out on strike against the Federal Aviation Administration, and by extension the U.S. government. I was at the time an staff sergeant and an air traffic controller in the U.S. Air Force working at a control tower and precision approach radar (PAR) at an Air Force Base in the western United States.

It was quite a ride that year, and the year following. Weeks before the strike, just before PATCO’s first strike vote, I had my duffle bag packed and held orders to report the FAA Airport Traffic Control Tower at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada. Alas, PATCO voted to not strike during that first vote, and my orders were rescinded.

The “old” control tower at McCarran International

A second vote was taken on 31 July, and a strike date was set for three days later. Orders this time did not go to me, but rather to others at my facility. They were to report to the Denver Stapleton International Control Tower.

Denver Stapleton International Control Tower

But less than two weeks later, that contingent failed to pass the FAA’s stringent training program. I and another controller, Airman Vern “VJ” Johnson, were called into the chief controller’s office. We were handed orders to report on 17 August to the FAA control tower at El Paso International Airport, and we were instructed in no uncertain terms to make damned sure we didn’t blow the training program, as our chief controller was now under a Pentagon microscope.

Upon arrival, we joined up with four additional pairs of Air Force controllers from Luke, Shepard, Tinker, and Holloman Air Force Bases. Names from that contingent include Joe Lang, Joe Yatar, Dean Funk, Dane Grant, Wilford Rayford, Charlie Correll (sp?), Steve Glass, and at least one name that right now escapes me. My memory must be fading. Over the next several months, El Paso ATCT pretty much acted as an Air Force tower and an FAA TRACON.

El Paso International Airport Traffic Control Tower (and TRACON) as it looked in 1981

As for VJ and me that “90-day” deployment that stretched to almost eleven full months. I returned to my base to out-process from the Air Force. Having proven myself capable to the FAA and El Paso, I was ordered to return as an FAA controller in early September 1982. And so began a 27-year career in the FAA on top of the seven+ years I had served as an air traffic controller in the United States Air Force. Joining me in the move from USAF to FAA were VJ, Dean, and Dane.

El Paso Airport Traffic Control Tower as it appears today

I would go on to certify as a radar controller in the El Paso Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), and alternate duties between the “upstairs” control tower and “downstairs” radar room for the duration of my service to the U.S. government.

El Paso TRACON with modern STARS equipment

During that time I would also be tasked to assist in developing, evaluating, and deploying a modern upgrade to the nation’s air traffic control system — the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS). This involved repeated trips to the FAA Technical Center near Atlantic City, New Jersey, as well as deployment and evaluation trips to FAA TRACONS in Syracuse, New York; Memphis, Tennessee; Miami, Florida; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

STARS display with 6-level weather presentation

I hope you found informative today’s little aviation history lesson given to you from a personal perspective. And please excuse the personal history, but I at times get a bit prideful of my service.

Today the PATCO strike is pretty much relegated to the history books and all but ignored, but at the time it held incredible significance to this nation’s aviation system. The impact of the PATCO strike cannot be overstated, as that impact on U.S. aviation would only later be superseded in significance by the 11 September attacks and, perhaps, the recent Covid-19 pandemic.

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El Paso International Airport and Biggs Army Airfield Histories — Part 3


El Paso ATCT “Firsts”:

There are several ‘firsts’ associated with El Paso International Airport and the FAA Airport Traffic Control Tower (ATCT) facility which serves it. In the early 1960s the FAA commissioned famed architect I.M. Pei to design a new type of control tower. The FAA originally intended to install Pei towers at 50 airports around the country, although this number would eventually drop to 16. The Pei towers were taller and more advanced than any control tower used at the time. The first Pei tower, which was also the first U.S. control tower over 130 feet in height, was commissioned at El Paso International in 1968. The Pei tower design pioneered at El Paso eventually went into service at some of the busiest airports in the country, including Chicago O’Hare, Lambert-St. Louis International, Houston Intercontinental, and Tampa International.

I.M. Pei-designed Control Tower — The first and one of the last still in use

In 1998, the FAA selected El Paso Airport Traffic Control Tower’s Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) as the test site for the most ambitious terminal radar automation upgrade in over thirty years. The Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) replaced the antiquated ARTS IIIA (Automated Radar Terminal System), which was designed back in the mid-1960s. El Paso went operational with the earliest test version of STARS on December 10, 1999, and successfully implemented STARS ‘Full Service Version 1’ on April 30, 2002. Since then, STARS has become the standard system throughout the FAA, and is an integral part of the TAMR (Terminal Automation Modernization Replacement) system currently being installed across the nation.

El Paso ATCT TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) with STARS radar displays

Throughout NASA’s Space Shuttle program, shuttle pilots departed El Paso International Airport in specially modified Gulfstream II aircraft called the STA (Shuttle Training Aircraft). These STAs would fly to the military ranges to the north climbing to 18,000 feet, and then practice a 20° descent approach at 300-knots/345 mph/556 kph to a runway. Compare that to a normal jet approach of 3° at 150 knots.

Upon completion of several approaches, usually around ten, the STA would then head south and recover at El Paso International Airport. (To read about what it was like to fly on one of these training missions, see: Flying on a Shuttle Training Mission)

Modified Gulfstream II Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA)

A less auspicious “first” occurred in El Paso on August 3, 1961. Leon Bearden and his son, Cody, were the first people in the U.S. to hijack a jetliner. The two were aboard Continental Flight 54, a Boeing 707 flying to Houston from Los Angeles with scheduled stops along the way in El Paso and San Antonio. Over New Mexico the elder Bearden pulled out one of the two guns he and Cody had smuggled aboard. He then took a flight attendant hostage, forced his way into the cockpit, and demanded that the pilots fly them to Cuba. Captain Byron Rickards (who also just happens to hold the Guinness World Records distinction of being the first pilot ever hijacked in an incident that occurred thirty years prior in Peru) convinced Bearden that the plane would have to land at El Paso to take on enough fuel for the flight. Four passengers volunteered to remain aboard the 707 as hostages, and the Beardens allowed the remaining passengers to disembark.

Two-time World Record Holder Byron Rickards —
World’s first aircraft hijacking (Peru, 1931); U.S.’s first jetliner hijacking (El Paso, 1961)

After nine hours of stalling, the elder Bearden demanded the pilot take off immediately. As the plane turned for the runway the FBI opened fire, flattening the tires and disabling one of the engines. One of remaining hostages, off-duty Border Patrol agent Leonard Gilman, who was also a former boxer, took advantage of the distraction to strike Leon Bearden. Bearden went down, stunned. The FBI stormed the plane, taking both father and son into custody. And Leonard Gilman walked away a hero with a broken hand from the blow he delivered to Leon Bearden’s face.

First U.S. jetliner hijacking (Boeing 707) — El Paso, August 3, 1961

© 2018 R. Doug Wicker

Friday — El Paso International Airport Today

© 2018 R. Doug Wicker

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El Paso International Airport and Biggs Army Airfield Histories — Part 2


El Paso Civil Aviation:

El Paso’s first civilian airfield, El Paso Municipal Airport, was built in 1928 near the eastern base of the Franklin Mountains in the area that today is just northeast of Railroad Drive at Liberty Expressway. Indeed, a road at this location still retains the name Planeport Loop. Operational from 1928 until 1945, El Paso Municipal Airport was managed beginning in 1934 by the newly established Varney Speed Lines, the predecessor of what would eventually become Continental Airlines. On an interesting historical note, in 1926 Walter Varney also started Varney Air Service, which became United Airlines. The fun trivia fact here is that in 2010 Continental and United merged to become United Continental Holdings, thus bringing together under one corporate roof two companies that had the same founder.

Lockheed 2D Vega in Varney Speed Lines/Continental Airlines livery

As for the origin of what is today El Paso International Airport, that began the following year when Standard Air Lines constructed Standard Airport in 1929. Standard Airport thus became the eastern-most destination of Standard Air Lines’ service connecting El Paso, Douglas (Arizona), Tucson, Phoenix and Los Angeles. Standard Air Lines was later sold to Western Air Express, which in turn would eventually merge with Transcontinental Air Transport (T-A-T). Transcontinental Air Transport became Transcontinental & Western Air (T&WA), which eventually rebranded itself as Trans World Airlines (TWA). In between all this, in 1934, Western Air Express separated from T-A-T, and in 1941 Western Air Express became Western Airlines.

Standard Air Lines poster

So, rather impressively, El Paso aviation played a fundamental role in the establishment of three major airlines — Continental, Western, and TWA. All three have long since merged with other airlines — Western with Delta (1987), TWA with American (2001), and, as previously noted, Continental with United (2010).

How Standard Airport became El Paso International Airport:

In 1936 the city of El Paso relinquished control of El Paso Municipal and gained control of Standard Airport in an exchange of properties requested by the operator of Standard Airport at the time. During World War II the U.S. Army Air Corps took over the former Standard Airport, renaming it El Paso Army Airfield. Thus, both Biggs and El Paso became training fields for heavy bomber crews destined for the conflicts in Europe and the Pacific.

In 1945 El Paso Army Airfield was declared excess, and control of the airport reverted to the city of El Paso.

El Paso International Airport today:

Today, El Paso International Airport controls 7,000 acres/2,833 hectares (10.9 square miles/28.2 square kilometers) of land, much of which is leased to nearby businesses. The airport itself has three runways. Runway 04/22 is 12,020 x 150 feet (3,664 x 46 meters) with an Instrument Landing System (ILS) serving Runway 22, and a Localizer Approach to Runway 04. RNAV approaches also serve both ends of the runway. Runway 8 Right/26 Left is 9,027 x 150 feet (2,751 x 46 meters). Approaches to Runway 26 Left include a VOR approach and two RNAV approaches. Runway 8 Left/26 Right is 5,500 x 75 feet (1,676 x 23 meters), and serves as a reliever runway for smaller aircraft. Runway 26 Right has one RNAV instrument approach.

El Paso International Airport (KELP) diagram

The airspace around El Paso International Airport is highly constrained. The distances below are in statute miles measured from the airport:

  • Franklin Mountains rise 3,230 feet/985 meters above the airport just five miles/8 kilometers to the west
  • Biggs Army Airfield Runway 03/21 is 1.7 miles/2.7 kilometers northwest of El Paso Runway 04/22
  • The international border with Mexico runs 4.5 miles/7.2 kilometers to the south
  • The White Sands Missile Range and other military special use airspace are 17 miles/27 kilometers north
  • The Hueco Mountains lie about 25 miles/40 kilometers to the east

El Paso Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) airspace reaches from the surface to 17,000 feet above sea level, and stretches from the U.S.-Mexico border to the south to the military ranges north. The airspace to the west ranges out to 25 nautical miles/29 statute miles/46 kilometers, and extends to 35 nautical miles/40 statute miles/65 kilometers east. Within that airspace are four satellite airports served by El Paso TRACON. In addition to the aforementioned Biggs Army Airfield, these airports are Fabens Airport to the southeast, Cielo Dorado Estates Airport (a residential fly-in community) to the west, and Doña Ana County International Jetport Airport also to the west. El Paso TRACON also deals with a major international airport with a control tower and a non-radar approach control facility just south of the international border — the Ciudad Juarez Abraham Gonzalez International Airport.

Friday — El Paso International Airport Today

© 2018 R. Doug Wicker

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