W. G. Fuller: Fort Worth’s Wingman

He was a boy when the Wright brothers landed at Kitty Hawk, an old man when the Concorde landed at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. In between he flew Curtiss Jennys during World War I, saw Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart land at the airport he helped grow from a cow pasture, and manufactured military planes during World War II.

William Gardner Fuller was born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1895. He was born, it seems, with one foot in the air. He first flew in an airplane in 1911—eight years after Orville and Wilbur Wright flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Fuller’s flight was a reward from his father after Fuller had won first place—twice—at the state fair with five-foot models of the pusher-engine biplanes of that day.

Fuller’s second flight—in 1912—was in a blimp.

He soon went to work for an aviation engine manufacturer in New Brunswick.

After World War I began Fuller was one of the first enlisted men to become a pilot. He was sent to Texas with the first Army aero squadron to be stationed at the Army’s Love Field, then miles beyond the city limits of Dallas. (Photo from University of Texas at Dallas.)

At Love Field flight instructors, such as Fuller, would teach cadets how to fly the airplanes that were shipped to Love Field unassembled on rail cars and assembled at the field.

But first there was cotton to be picked.

”Before we had any mowing equipment,” Fuller recalled, “we picked cotton on that field prior to the first flight and cleaned out a path for the first two flights to take off from Love Field.”

Fuller’s 136th Aero Squadron at Love Field in 1918. Fuller is probably standing on the left. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

Soon a depot was built at Love Field to repair warplanes from Waco, Wichita Falls, and Fort Worth (Camp Taliaferro’s Hicks, Carruthers, and Barron fields).

Fuller was married in 1919.

By the end of the war, Love Field had a dozen hangars, each holding ten aircraft, mostly Curtiss JN-4Ds (Jennys).

Fuller remained in the Army after the war, stationed at Kelly Field in San Antonio.

“In 1923 I was with the group which formed the Model Airways System, an experimental system of linking military bases” from San Antonio to Washington, DC.

In 1924 the Army leased Barron Field in Everman as a station on the Model Airways System. The chamber of commerce leased the land from owners and subleased it to the government.

But the Barron Field station was remote, eight miles from town. At times it was staffed by only one soldier, who refueled and repaired the occasional Army plane that landed en route to somewhere else.

The temptation to pilfer from Uncle Sam was too great for more than one lonely soldier at Barron Field.

Later in 1924, Fuller recalled, “Somebody was stealing the Air Corps out of house and home at old Barron Field. I was only a sergeant then, and Major Harvey Burwell at Kelly Field sent me up here to padlock the place. . . . There was a black market sale in equipment going on. . . .

“When the mayor, H. C. Meacham, learned of this, he was very upset. He came out and tried to talk me into not closing the field. But I told him I was just a sergeant and was only following orders. I told him he would have to talk to Major Burwell, and we parted amicably and I returned to San Antonio.

“About a week later, I was called into the commanding officer’s office—something pretty unusual—and there sat Mayor Meacham. He talked about how Fort Worth needed aviation, and he finally talked Major Burwell into putting a field at Fort Worth. In return Mayor Meacham promised to find land for the field on the north side of the city, to build a residence for the field operator, and to dig a well and build a ‘shop’ for spare parts. Also, apparently he had taken a liking to me, for he requested me to come to Fort Worth and operate the field.

“I didn’t want to go because I was happy with my life in San Antonio. But they persuaded me to come up for just six months, just long enough to set up the airfield.

“And that began Meacham Field.”

Fuller said Mayor Meacham kept his promises. The chamber of commerce leased from Fort Worth Flying Club one hundred acres four miles north of town: a cow pasture accented with prickly pear cactus. Fuller’s house was built, the well was dug. The shop for spare parts became known as the “Federal Building.”

Fuller was the “army mechanic” referred to in the Star-Telegram article.

Fuller said his first job was to get inmates out of the county jail to clear the cactus off the dirt runway.

As the cow pasture evolved into an airport, the city provided Fuller with gasoline, which he sold to barnstormers, members of flying clubs, and military fliers.

Fort Worth’s new airfield, accommodating both military and civilian aircraft, opened in July 1925. Fort Worth would continue to be a station on the Model Airways System.

Fuller’s two children, William Jr. and Evelyn, would grow up to the sound of airplanes—both military and civilian—buzzing in and out of the field.

The great potential of air transportation was apparent by the second half of the 1920s, and fliers such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart had captured the popular imagination.

Fort Worth was not unique in building a municipal airport at that time. During the second half of the 1920s cities all over the country were building municipal airports.

Delivery of the mail was one of the first uses found for air transportation. In March 1926 a mail plane, operated by National Air Transport, a private company, landed at Municipal Airport.

In 1927 the airport was renamed “Meacham Field” after the mayor who had worked so hard to make it a reality. (The Star-Telegram for years continued to refer to the airport as “Municipal Airport,” not “Meacham Field,” but that’s another story.)

In 1927 William G. Fuller left the Army. But he remained at Meacham Field as airport manager for the city.

Imagine a newspaper being able to print all of a municipal airport’s arrivals and departures and the number of passengers in a short “Airport Log.” Among the pilots taking off November 21, 1928 was Captain Frank Hawks (see below).

At that time almost everything being done in aviation was a first. Predictably, under Fuller’s supervision, Municipal Airport would be the site of many firsts in its early years.

For example, in February 1928, the first airline passenger to ever fly out of Texas on a scheduled airline flight departed from Meacham Field, bound for Oklahoma City.

The new technology was generating new words. Such as aerocade. By 1928 municipal airports were common enough that Fort Worth could stage its first Fort Worth Aerocade—a flying goodwill tour of west Texas, led by an airplane sponsored by the Star-Telegram. The aerocade took off from Meacham Field.

Even in 1928 air transportation was still such a novelty that people went out to the airport just to watch airplanes take off and land. But they saw much more. Airports became proving grounds and playgrounds for daredevils who were no longer confined to terra firma. Fliers parachuted out of airplanes, performed stunts in the air, were towed in gliders by race cars.

On July 6, 1928, three weeks after Earl B. Akin of Breckenridge tried to get airborne behind a race car, he was back at Meacham Field, where he piloted the world’s first glider to be towed off the ground by an airplane. S. Webb Ruff of Austin was pilot of the airplane. Fuller witnessed and verified the flight.

In May 1929 Reg Robbins and Jim Kelly, taking off from and landing at Meacham Field in an airplane named Fort Worth, set a world’s record for sustained flight, staying in the air 172 hours. They broke the military record by refueling in the air.

Among those accompanying the two record-breakers from the airport to the Fort Worth Club to be feted were Amon Carter and Seth Barwise. In 1927 Seth Barwise, vice president of Fort Worth Flying Club, had organized Texas Airways Corporation, which would merge three years later with Southern Air Transport and Fort Worth-based Texas Air Transport to form American Airlines.

A large ad by Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company (Thurber) pointed out that the two record-setters used TP brand aviation products.

In 1929 regular scheduled airline passenger service began at Meacham Field—but modestly: That year 4,511 airliners took off or landed at Meacham carrying 5,446 passengers: only 1.25 passengers per plane!

Some of the biggest names in early aviation landed at Meacham Field. In 1927 the biggest name in aviation without doubt was Charles Lindbergh. Lindy, who in May had crossed the Atlantic, landed here in September while touring the country to promote commercial aviation. Thirty-five thousand people saw him land. Photos show the Spirit of St. Louis at Meacham Field. (Photos from University of Texas at Dallas.)

And in 1929 Amelia Earhart was one of the pilots in the Women’s Air Derby who landed at Meacham as the women flew from California to Ohio.

Frank Hawks, another record-setting aviator known as the “fastest airman in the world,” also landed at Meacham Field. Hawks, on the left, is shown here in the early 1930s at Arlington Downs with W. T. Waggoner, Will Rogers, and Amon Carter. (Photo from UTA Libraries.)

Fuller said Hawks was the first person to take aloft Amon Carter in an airplane.

“Hawks flew him on an emergency trip to Washington in an old open-seated plane, and Mr. Carter told me when he got back that the flight made him sick as a dog.”

Will Rogers wasn’t the only star of stage, screen, and radio to pass through the Meacham terminal. Others include Humphrey Bogart, Robert Taylor, and Bob Hope.

And in 1937 Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll (“Amos” and “Andy” on radio) and Ralph Bellamy and Frank Morgan (Wizard of Oz) landed.

In 1937 Meacham Field opened its new art moderne terminal, the first air-conditioned passenger terminal in the United States.

Despite the Depression, Meacham Field prospered. “These were real boom days for aviation,” Fuller recalled, adding that at one time thirteen different airlines operated out of Meacham Field.

William G. Fuller in 1941. (Photo from University of Texas at Dallas.)

Fuller served as manager of Meacham Field until 1942, when he joined Globe Aircraft Corporation. Globe had opened in Fort Worth in 1941 on Blue Mound Road and produced the single-engine Globe GC-1 Swift. When the war began the company built, under subcontract, the Beech AT-10 military trainer and components for other military aircraft such as the Curtiss C-46.

Globe also leased from the city the building that now houses Billy Bob’s Texas.

Fuller left Globe in 1947 to become chief of airport management for the Civil Aeronautics Administration in Washington, DC.

Upon returning to Fort Worth in 1949, he became director of aviation for the city. He took the job just as the city was planning a new municipal airport east of town.

Also in 1949 WBAP-TV’s nightly weather forecast with American Airlines meteorologist Harold Taft went on the air, using data supplied by the U.S. Weather Bureau at Meacham Field.

Four years later the opening of Greater Fort Worth International Airport must have been a bittersweet milestone for Fuller. The airport that Fuller had guided from its inception suffered a severe blow as Meacham Field’s airline traffic—American, Braniff, and Delta—was transferred to the new airport.

Many people predicted that Meacham would revert to cactus and cow patties.

Fuller proved them wrong. He compensated for the loss of airline traffic by building Meacham’s general aviation traffic. Fuller made Meacham Field a thriving executive airport.

In 1957 Meacham Field counted 155,223 takeoffs and landings, was the home airport of more than two hundred airplanes, second only to El Paso in the state.

Fuller in the Meacham control tower in 1961. (Photo from University of Texas at Dallas.)

William G. Fuller “retired” in 1961 but more accurately simply entered a new field: He was elected mayor of Euless in 1963 and re-elected in 1965 and 1967.

Even in retirement he lent his experience and enthusiasm to the promotion of aviation, serving as chairman of the zoning commission of Greater Southwest International Airport (formerly Greater Fort Worth International Airport).

When Governor John Connally signed the legislation authorizing the state’s first multicounty airport, Fuller was there.

In 1964, when the Civil Aeronautics Board had ordered Fort Worth and Dallas to agree on a location for a regional airport, many doubted that it could be done. But political leaders managed to agree on an eighteen thousand-acre plot roughly equidistant between the two cities, and construction of $700 million Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport began in 1968.

Fuller lived to see the Concorde supersonic jet land at the new airport in 1973.

And the first scheduled commercial flight land at the airport in 1974.

He also lived to see the airport that he had helped to carve out of cactus and cow patties celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in 1975.

William Gardner Fuller, Fort Worth’s wingman, whose life spanned the history of aviation from Kitty Hawk to the Concorde, died in 1978.

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