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Flashback Fridays--Looking Back at Amarillo

Aviator C

Can you point to the place where you first fell in love with the wonder of aviation?  I’m talking about the location to where you would return time and again to learn more about your newfound love.  I can, and the place is Amarillo, Texas and the time is the late 1950s.

Across from the current Amarillo (AMA) terminal complex, stands the old terminal (above), also known as English Field.  This was my home airport for eight years.  My guess is that the two-story portion was the original terminal with the ticketing and restaurant wings added at a later date.  At this location, within a few yards of each other were almost all of the city’s main transportation outlets, the original Route 66, the BNSF Railway’s former Santa Fe transcontinental mainline with the San Francisco Chief, and the airport terminal. 

Four airlines served AMA back then.  Braniff provided service with Electras and Convairliners (and an occasional DC-6 mixed in) to Oklahoma City, Colorado Springs, Denver, and Dallas.  Central Airways (Southwest’s first president, Lamar Muse, was President of Central) to small cities in the Oklahoma Panhandle and Kansas. TWA was the star of the Amarillo scene and until deregulation was the only Texas city served by the international carrier.  They flew Constellations to St. Louis, Kansas City, and Albuquerque and points beyond.  Then there was my Dad’s airline, Continental, which in 1959 grew from flying DC-3s to Lubbock and Plainview to the elegant English-made Vickers Viscount turboprops to Dallas and Lubbock.

(Above) The ticketing wing was to the right of the terminal.  TWA’s counter was at the end of this wing, with Continental next, then Central, then Braniff.  The central portion was the area where passengers waited for the flights to be called for boarding, and it had a unique feature you don’t see in airports anymore.  Off the main lobby, was a glassed in “Television Room” that had rows of seats in front of a TV.  The restaurant had big models of an airplane from each of the four airline’s fleet, and large photos adorned the walls.  Even then, the airport employees complained about the airport food offerings. 

It’s sad to see the entrance to the parking lot overgrown with weeds (above).  I can still remember how excited I was to approach the terminal for a family trip or even more exciting spending a day at work with my dad.  If I remember correctly, Continental had a two position counter, and the bag belt took the passengers’ bags out to the bag room next to the ramp.  In between, were two other rooms.  Right behind the counter was the local reservation office.  They had one reservation agent and the station agents also helped with reservations.  This was way before computerized reservations systems.  Then behind the reservation room was the coolest room on earth, the ops office.  Several old-fashioned teletype machines were constantly clanging away with weather info and company/operational information.  Operational manuals were housed in book cases that could be classified as “Mid-Century Airline Modern” style.  A tall rack of radios sat in one corner, and there wasn’t a transistor or silicon chip in sight.  I was fascinated to listen to Air Traffic Control and to Continental’s flights calling in range through all the static and hiss.  The scene was even more special at night.  Dad could always spot a flight on final approach well before I could.  My usual perch to watch the action was on the seat of Continental’s bag tug on the ramp behind the terminal.  The TWA guys would let me climb on their air stairs. 

(Above) The hangars belonged to an FBO and were next to the terminal.  Continental had a storage building (okay, it was a shack, on the other side of the runway to the right of the camera position).  It really was a huge thrill to get to ride over to the shack along the access road on the tug.  Too sad, that age of innocence evaporated.  At the height of the Cold War, the Air Force moved a B-52 wing into Amarillo.  The trip to the airport now involved  seeing their shark-like tails all lined up, and taxi time got a lot longer with the gigantic runway (300 feet wide by 13,502 feet long plus 1,000 foot overruns at both ends) needed to handle fully-loaded B-52s at Amarillo’s altitude (3,605 feet above sea level). 

Manned bombers as a nuclear deterrent began to be replaced by missiles, and the number of B-52 wings began to be replaced and bases closed.  Amarillo Air Force Base was one of the earliest to be closed, and the city took advantage of all that space and support facilities to create a new terminal.  For awhile, the old terminal was used as an office building and large numbers of aircraft awaiting scrapping were parked on its ramp.  A large portion of USAir’s 727 fleet passed through the ramp on the way to becoming pots and pans.

These photos were sent to me a couple of years ago by Dan Wadley, a resident of Amarillo, who was afraid this piece of history would soon disappear.  The years haven’t been kind to the old English Field buildings, and it pains me to see it in this condition.  The railroad tracks are busier than ever, but the pavement that was Route 66 has fallen silent, along with the terminal.  The meadowlarks of the Panhandle are the only flying objects departing this terminal.