For close to a century, passengers flying into Waco have been treated to aerial views of the Brazos River weaving its way through downtown and the sunlight glistening off the towers of Baylor University. Waco today is served by the modern Waco Regional Airport. This was not always the case however, with commercial air service initially flying into Rich Field, an old army base near the current day Heart O’Texas Fairgrounds. The first commercial flight into Rich Field was a Travel-Air 6000 operated by the Fort Worth based Texas Air Transport (TAT) on March 30, 1929. The old base serviced commercial flights during the entire interwar period, and Waco was part of only two routes operated by TAT: Fort Worth-Dallas-Waco-San Antonio and Fort Worth-Waco-Houston-Galveston.
In 1941, the city of Waco purchased 528 acres in China Spring to begin construction of a new commercial municipal airport. When the United States entered World War II in December of that year, the Army Air Service leased the partially completed airport for use as a multi-engine flight training center, which they named Blackland Army Air Field. Under the command of Col. Emmett F. Yost, Blackland– named after the black soil of the area– rapidly expanded, operating its first flights by October 1942. Cadets at the airfield were graduates of pre-flight schools and were trained at Blackland to pilot B-17, B-24, B-25, and B-26 bombers. Training consisted of intensive flight instruction in Beechcraft AT-10s and Cessna AT-17s, as well as ground classes for radio and meteorology. Additionally, the diversity of squadrons present reflected the changing nature of the Army as a whole: the base was home to the all-black 357th aviation squadron, the 993rd quartermaster platoon, the 748th WAAC squadron, and the all-white 871st twin engine training squadron. Blackland closed as a military air field at the end of the war, with military flights shifting in 1948 to nearby James Connolly Air Force Base, whose airfield today serves as the airport for Texas State Technical College.
After Blackland was converted back into the Waco Municipal Airport in 1945, Braniff Airlines began operations, and Pioneer Airlines followed in 1947. Passenger numbers were initially high, with a combined total of 11,916 passengers in 1947 on ten flights per day. Continental Airlines soon added services as well in the 1950s and temporarily increased the profile of the airport by beginning flights on the large Douglas DC-3, a fixed-wing propeller aircraft that was known for its speed and ability to operate using shorter runways. Enjoying such options was short lived however, as in February 1963, the Civil Aeronautics Board declared that only one airline would be allowed to operate in Waco. Even with the objections of local civic leaders, the fuling forced Braniff and Continental (who had merged with Pioneer in 1955) to cease service in favor of Trans-Texas Airway’s new monopoly. This monopoly continued for the next eleven years until strikes temporarily postponed Trans-Texas Airway’s service, allowing Rio Airways to enter the Waco market with service to Dallas/Ft Worth (DFW).
Beginning in the 1960s, Waco Regional Airport also became a multi-use facility at the behest of the city council. The airport added such amenities as a skeet and rifle shooting range, a soap box derby race track, and the Central Texas Zoological Park, which later developed into the Cameron Park Zoo. The 1970s then saw both a temporary change in name and a decrease in passenger numbers for the Waco airport; briefly known as Madison Cooper, the airport suffered due to airline deregulation. Despite this, there was an increase in infrastructure, with National Weather Service buildings added in 1974 and a radar system installed in 1979. Unfortunately, the passenger number continued to decline in the 1980s in light of the expanded DFW and Austin-Bergstrom airports. Market instability increased when airlines such as Air Spirit and Texas Airlines operated out of the airport for as little as one month. Yet stability was finally achieved with American Eagle beginning service to DFW in 1985.
Waco airport entered the national spotlight briefly in 1987, when a plane carrying then-presidential candidate Al Gore had to make an emergency landing due to mechanical failure. Further, the dawn of the new millennium saw passenger numbers increase with Continental Airlines once again offering service to Houston in 2003. This led to a peak passenger count of over 150,000 that year– a number that fell to a total of 63,000 once United (who had by then purchased Contintental) ceased operations at the airport in September 2012. Currently, American Airlines (parent company of American Eagle) is still the only airline that operates out of Waco and offers short flights to Dallas.