• DTS.USA
    5.765
    -0.008
    -0.1%
  • NTI.USA
    2.910
    0.000
    0%
  • NTID.USA
    2.900
    -0.090
    -3%
  • NTIDL.USA
    2.010
    -0.090
    -4.3%
  • OTRI.USA
    7.190
    -0.220
    -3%
  • OTVI.USA
    11,406.010
    -45.940
    -0.4%
  • DTS.USA
    5.765
    -0.008
    -0.1%
  • NTI.USA
    2.910
    0.000
    0%
  • NTID.USA
    2.900
    -0.090
    -3%
  • NTIDL.USA
    2.010
    -0.090
    -4.3%
  • OTRI.USA
    7.190
    -0.220
    -3%
  • OTVI.USA
    11,406.010
    -45.940
    -0.4%
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FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: SFO is a key gateway (Part 1)

Earlier this month San Francisco International Airport (SFO) celebrated its 95th birthday. The largest of the three major airports serving the San Francisco Bay area, SFO began its life as Mills Field Municipal Airport in 1927. It opened two weeks prior to Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

At the time, the population of the Bay area (San Francisco, Alameda and Santa Clara counties) was about 1.25 million. Today, more than 7 million people live in the same area.

The mayor of San Francisco, James Rolph, Jr., made the address to dedicate the airport. Other mayors in the region also were speakers at the ceremony. In addition, an anti-aircraft battery at the Presidio fired a 21-gun salute in honor of the new airport. 

San Francisco's Mills Field Municipal Airport in 1928. (Photo: SFO Airport: Aviation Museum & Library Collection)
San Francisco’s Mills Field Municipal Airport in 1928. (Photo: SFO Airport: Aviation Museum & Library Collection)

Beginnings 

Mills Field was built on a 150-acre cow pasture located 13 miles south of downtown San Francisco. The city and county of San Francisco leased the property for $1,500 per year from Ogden L. Mills, who had served three terms as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New York and would serve as Secretary of the U.S. Treasury under President Herbert Hoover. At one time, Mills’ father was the richest man in California.

The airport was originally intended to be a temporary facility. When it was dedicated, it  consisted of a runway less than 4,600 feet long and an unfinished terminal that was 88 feet by 34 feet. Airport operations officially began on June 6, 1927. During its first month, 19 aircraft, carrying 19 passengers, landed at the airport. 

In September 1927, Charles Lindbergh visited Mills Field with his famous airplane, The Spirit of St. Louis, as part of his national tour following his historic flight (the first across the Atlantic Ocean). 

Shortly thereafter, the first aircraft hangar was built at Mills Field, followed by three more hangars in 1928. 

The airport’s first tenant was the new Boeing Air Transport company, which later became United Airlines. Later, the company landed a Boeing Model 40, the first airliner to use Mills Field. 

A Boeing Model 40. (Photo: Seattle Museum of History & Industry/digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/digital/collection)
A Boeing Model 40. (Photo: Seattle Museum of History & Industry/digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/digital/collection)

The 1930s see growth and changes

In 1930, key leaders of San Francisco determined that air travel would grow, so they purchased an additional 1,112 acres from the Mills estate for $1.05 million. 

Both Western Air Express and Maddox Air Lines utilized Mills Field for a time, but then relocated across the bay to Oakland. Concurrently, Century Pacific began service with its single Fokker trimotor airplane. 

On June 9, 1931, Mills Field was renamed San Francisco Municipal Airport. Late that year the administration of the airport was placed under the Public Utilities Commission. Less than one year later (on November 17,1932), San Francisco voters approved a $260,000 bond to further develop the airport. 

Pacific Air Transport began flying out of San Francisco Municipal Airport in December 1932; United Air Lines (later Airlines) began service from the airport in May 1934. San Francisco became a major hub for United, which has continued in the decades since. 

Airport growth was furthered through the reclamation of 350 acres of coastal wetlands that were added to the airport’s footprint. Work continued on upgrades to the airport; in November 1935 the airport’s runway C was extended from 1,900 feet to 3,000 feet. By 1936 the airport had three runways that formed a triangle. In addition, construction on a seaplane harbor began. 

On January 1, 1937, United Airlines began scheduled service from San Francisco to Los Angeles and New York. Both routes were serviced by the Douglas DC-3, which became a workhorse for airlines and the military in the 1930s, 1940s and during World War II.

A United Airlines DC-3. (Photo: SFO Airport: Aviation Museum & Library Collection)
A United Airlines DC-3.
(Photo: SFO Airport: Aviation Museum & Library Collection)

The DC-3

The “DC” was short for “Douglas Commercial.” The DC-3 was the culmination of aircraft development that began when Transcontinental and Western Airlines (TWA, and later Trans World Airlines) contacted Donald Douglas. United Airlines was TWA’s major rival at that time in transcontinental air service, which was just beginning in the early 1930s. United’s service began by using the Boeing 247. However, Boeing would not sell any 247s to other airlines until the 60 aircraft ordered by United had been delivered. 

TWA sought help from Douglas to design and build an airplane that it could use to compete with United. Douglas developed the DC-1 in 1933, which was followed by the DC-2 in 1934. The DC-2 was successful, but Douglas sought to improve it. 

The DC-3 was larger than the DC-2, and featured a 14-bed sleeper version of the DC-2. The DC-3 was a low-wing metal monoplane powered by two radial piston engines of 1,000-1,200 horsepower. The DC-3 had a cruising speed of over 200 mph, a capacity of 21 to 32 passengers (or 6,000 pounds of cargo), a range of 1,500 miles and could operate from the short runways prevalent in that time period.

Passengers board a United Airlines Douglas DC-3 in 1938.
Photo: San Francisco Airport Museums/foundSF.org)
Passengers board a United Airlines Douglas DC-3 in 1938.
Photo: San Francisco Airport Museums/foundSF.org)

The DC-3 was a major leap forward compared to previous aircraft as well as its contemporaries. It was fast, had exceptional range, was more reliable, and carried its passengers in much greater comfort. Before World War II, airlines used it to begin many of their longer air routes. The airplane was able to cross the continent from New York to Los Angeles in 18 hours (with three stops). It was also one of the first airplanes that could carry passengers profitably without relying on the U.S. mail subsidies that were common at the time.

Perhaps the most impressive trait of the revolutionary DC-3 was its longevity. Smaller airlines around the world used the DC-3 well into the 1980s, and many are still in use today.

The 1930s, 1940s and World War II (continued)

TWA also used the San Francisco Municipal Airport as one of its major hubs. It built a substantial base on airport property. 

Built through the Public Works Administration (PWA), a New Deal government agency designed to reduce unemployment and increase the purchasing power of its workers, a new administration building replaced the original one built in 1927. 

In addition, Pan American Airways, another of the major airlines of the 1930s, leased Treasure Island, which is located 18 miles northeast of the San Francisco Municipal Airport. Pan Am began operations in San Francisco in 1938. The airline’s first regularly scheduled trans-oceanic flight (known as the “China Clipper”) left the San Francisco airport; 59 hours and four stops later, it landed in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. 

A Pan Am China Clipper at Treasure island in 1939.
(Photo: Private Collection/FoundSF.org)
A Pan Am China Clipper at Treasure island in 1939.
(Photo: Private Collection/FoundSF.org)

Pan Am’s world-renowned fleet of trans-Pacific flying boats helped promote San Francisco’s 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. 

To compensate the United States Coast Guard for the use of Treasure Island, the airport “traded” 20 acres for a new USCG facility.

United Airlines doubled down on the San Francisco Municipal Airport in 1940 when it relocated its Western Division maintenance base from Cheyenne, Wyoming. More than 80 years later, United still has its maintenance base in San Francisco today. 

During World War II, the airport was converted to a U.S. Army Air Force training center and was utilized primarily by C-47s. The Douglas C-47 Skytrain (also known as the Dakota) was a military transport aircraft that was developed by Douglas as a military version of its DC-3 airliner. C-47s were used extensively by Allied air forces during the war. Like the DC-3, C-47s were incredibly durable and remained in service with various militaries for many years. 

Treasure Island also was converted for war use, becoming a naval station. This caused Pan Am to relocate its Clippers and Pacific-Alaska division to San Francisco.

Post-war growth in the 1940s and 1950s

When World War II ended, Pan American resumed the international service that was its hallmark. However, instead of using its pre-war Martin M-130 and Boeing 314 flying boats, land-based aircraft, such as the Douglas DC-4 and Lockheed Constellations were used. 

In 1947, the code “SFO” appeared for the first time in the American Aviation Air Traffic Guide. 

SFO passed the one million annual passengers milestone in 1947, and then surpassed two million passengers just five years later (1952). Then in 1955, “Municipal” in the airport’s name was replaced with “International.” This was due in part to the addition of British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines and Philippine Airlines to the roster of airlines that flew in and out of SFO. 

The groundbreaking ceremony for SFO's new terminal in 1951. A PAA Stratocruiser is behind the stage. 
(Photo: SFO Airport: Aviation Museum & Library Collection)
The groundbreaking ceremony for SFO’s new terminal in 1951. A PAA Stratocruiser is behind the stage.
(Photo: SFO Airport: Aviation Museum & Library Collection)

With the rapid increase in postwar flights and passengers, the airport’s administration building/terminal was outmoded and much too small. Construction began on a new terminal (named the “Central Terminal”) in 1951. It was dedicated on August 27, 1954. A three-day celebration for the expansion took place that featured several of the new civilian and military aircraft that were being introduced during the 1950s. The U.S. Air Force showcased its newest jet fighters and bombers (“including the enormous B-36 Peacekeeper and B-47 Stratojet”), which foreshadowed the jet airliners that would become the next generation of large passenger aircraft. Hundreds of thousands of attendees watched airshows and toured the new terminal, which had an administration building with a control tower, and four piers or concourses. 

USAF jets on exhibit at SFO's new terminal grand opening in 1954. (Photo: SFO Airport: Aviation Museum & Library Collection)
USAF jets on exhibit at SFO’s new terminal grand opening in 1954.
(Photo: SFO Airport: Aviation Museum & Library Collection)

The first jet bridge in the United States was installed at San Francisco International Airport and became operational on July 29, 1959. The jet bridge was a major advancement in passenger comfort and security; passengers no longer had to walk outside from the terminal to an airplane or airplane to terminal, they were protected from the weather and terminal security was also enhanced.

The SFO open house on August 28, 1954 also featured aircraft of the civilian airlines that used the airport. 
(Photo: openSFhistory.org)
The SFO open house on August 28, 1954 also featured aircraft of the civilian airlines that used the airport.
(Photo: openSFhistory.org)

During this period San Francisco International Airport became one of the busiest airports in the United States in both passenger traffic and aircraft movements.  

Author’s note: Background information for this article came from multiple sources, but special thanks goes to an article by Andy Payne in yesterdaysairlines.com (with numerous photos used in this article), as well as opensfhistory.org, foundsf.org and information from San Francisco International Airport.

San Francisco International Airport as seen from the air in 1959.
(Photo: San Francisco Airport Museums)
San Francisco International Airport as seen from the air in 1959.
(Photo: San Francisco Airport Museums)

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.

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