Brief History of Aviation in Sweetwater County

World War I and the decades after were an exciting time in aviation history. Not only was it an important aspect of the war effort, it was also a time when famous and innovative civilian aviators gripped the world’s imagination. In 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh made a meteoric rise to fame with his non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic. Amelia Earhart also became the most famous female aviator of the era. She stopped at the Rock Springs airport in 1932 on a transcontinental flight in a gyroplane.

Flying fever gripped the nation, and Sweetwater County was no exception. Rudy Stefoin, John Gosar, and Leonard Hay all owned and flew planes in the area. Curly Powell also ran a flight charter service out of Sweetwater County. But there were two aspects to aviation that truly gripped the nation’s attention and is still of interest to many: air races and the first airmail service.

1919 Marked the 1st Celebration of Armistice Day.

To mark the event, there was a massive, seven weeklong air race from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and back again with check points along the way. A landing strip was cleared on the cliffs above the Green River, present-day Hutton Heights, and the local Boy Scout troop volunteered to guard the planes from souvenir hunters during their stop. A variation on air races began in the 1920s. The people of Sweetwater County were mesmerized when a “flying circus,” consisting of a variety of aerial stunts, came to town and offered free shows.

1924 Airmail Service Expands Across the Country

Airmail service began in the east in 1920, eventually expanding across the country by 1924. These early airmail pilots, many of whom had flown in WWI, followed a route through Sweetwater County. Thanks to early business-people such as John Hay, Sr., Rock Springs became an important airmail terminal when a landing field was provided. They cut down the sagebrush on a flat area about four miles north of Rock Springs where the current county fairgrounds are. They later built a single hangar that was used for both regular and emergency landings.

Giant concrete arrows dotted the ground about every 15 miles along the route of the Union Pacific railroad, which was nicknamed the “iron compass” by pilots who often relied on this established route in times of inclement weather and insufficient navigational instruments. Originally, airmail pilots only flew during the day so, if needed, they could fly very close to the ground and follow the train tracks. Pilots often stayed at the Park Hotel in Rock Springs because this terminal the overnight stop between Cheyenne and Salt Lake City. When the U.S. government decided to improve service by providing night flights in 1928, light beacons were added to help pilots navigate in the dark.

1930's Boeing Aircraft Offers passenger & Frieght Air Service to Rock Springs

Boeing Aircraft was the first private company to take over airmail when the government began contracting it out in 1930. Boeing and other companies soon started offering passenger and freight air service to Rock Springs as well. With these expanded services also came larger, metal planes. This and the government’s efforts to expand air services with the looming possibility of war on the horizon made the need for a new, larger airport apparent. The old airport was abandoned after the new airport was begun at its present site in the late 1930s. This new facility offered expanded services and business to Sweetwater County, but the stories of its predecessor, the intrepid early pilots, and the foresight of the local business community looms large in legacy of the Rock Springs-Sweetwater County Airport.

1932 Amelia Earhart & her Gyroplane

Amelia Earhart stopped in Rock Springs to refuel her gyroplane in 1932 and had her photo taken. Five years later, she famously vanished while attempting to become the first woman to fly around the world. What many people don’t know is that Amelia Earhart has another, eerie connection with Sweetwater County.  In 1937, Rock Springs youth Dana Randolph made headlines when he claimed to have heard Ms. Earhart sending out a radio message for help around 8:00 a.m.  An avid amateur radio operator, the sixteen-year-old was listening on a commercial radio set equipped with a short wave receiver two days after Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean. He reported he heard the following message on the morning of July 4, 1937: “This is Amelia Earhart. Ship is on a reef south of the equator, station KH9QQ.” Randolph said the pleas for help went on for nearly 25 minutes.  The Rock Springs Rocket-Miner’s headline on July 5, 1937 read, “First Radio Contact With Miss Earhart Made By Springs Boy.”  His report was forwarded to San Francisco by a local aviation official, but was later disregarded on the grounds that Randolph was not a professional radio operator.

A Bright New Future for RKS

On February 1, 2018, the Rock Springs-Sweetwater County Airport became the Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport. After decades of work to make RKS an economic driver of the community, the Airport Board recognized an opportunity to better position the airport for long term vitality. Therefore, the new name was created to be more inclusive of the region in which it serves and more geographic to those outside of the region.