Since the dawn of time the curiosity of us humans has kept our eyes drawn to the sky. Whether our heads are in the clouds to catch a glimpse of the chariot of the gods, discover a world beyond our own while sighting a UFO, or we’re simply mesmerized by the bird, butterfly, or plane that just went by, we as a species have been fascinated by flight.

From this insatiable curiosity, imagination itself would ultimately take flight, too, and result in the creation of hot air balloons, zeppelins, and eventually airplanes, creating a rich history of aviation shared across the globe. Some of this remarkable aviation history is found right here in the Tri-Cities.

Tri-Cities aviation history
Not quite as spectular as the aviation schools today, but Zornes Aviation School was the first flying school in the West. Photo courtesy: Aquilius

Charles A. Zornes Established the First Flying School on the West Coast in Pasco

 In 1909, one of aviation’s earliest pioneers, Charles A. Zornes, moved from St. Louis to Walla Walla, where he designed and built experimental airplanes predominantly made of bamboo. Later, in 1911, he leased 40 acres of flat land facing the Columbia River in Pasco. There, he continued his work on aircraft and established the Zornes Aviation School, the first flying school on the West Coast. For years he taught students here how to fly, performed aerial stunts and exhibitions, and even set up a company in Pasco with his associates to manufacture aeroplanes in 1912.

Tri-Cities aviation history
Before it was the Tri-Cities Airport, Pasco Airport made history with the first contract flight in the United States for mail. Photo courtesy: Pasco Aviation Museum

The Tri-Cities Airport Was the Site of the First Airmail Contract Flight

Before it was the third largest commercial airport in Washington and known to the world as the Tri-Cities Airport, it was the Pasco Airport. Here, Varney Airlines, later United Airlines, made history as an airmail carrier on April 6, 1926. Formed by Walter Varney and based in Boise, Idaho, Varney had won a contract for CAM-T, one of the routes designated by the U.S. Post Office Department to carry mail between Nevada and Washington. After securing the contract, this monumental flight would be the first contract flight in the United States between Elko, Nevada and Pasco, Washington. This flight alone marked the beginning of the commercial aviation industry as we now know it.

Tri-Cities aviation history
During WWII, Zornes Aviation School transformed into the Pasco Naval Air Station thanks to the US Navy. Photo courtesy: Franklin County Historical Society & Museum

Pasco Naval Air Station was One of the Busiest Naval Training Bases in the Country During World War II

During World War II, the aforementioned Zornes Aviation School became the site of the Pasco Holding and Reconsignment Center (Big Pasco), a major depot used to store and ship military equipment to the Soviet Union and Northwest military installations and the Manhattan Project. Shortly after, in February of 1942, the U.S. Navy purchased land next to the Tri-Cities Airport for $5,000, transforming this piece of land into the Pasco Naval Air Station, having relocated Seattle’s Sand Point Naval Air Station to Pasco to make it less vulnerable to Japanese attack.

The new naval station quickly became one of three of the busiest maritime training bases in the country during the war. It was initially used for pilot training and repairing damaged aircraft running from the Pacific.

In addition, it also holds the distinction of being the first place where the WAVES, or Women Accepted in Volunteer Emergency Service, were allowed to live on base. These distinguished women served primarily as “ferry pilots,” flying aircraft to Alaska and Russia as part of our military assistance to that nation during the war. After the war, the Navy sold the field the air station was based on to the city of Pasco for one dollar under the condition that it retained training privileges. It was then redeveloped and incorporated into the Tri-Cities Airport.

Tri-Cities aviation history
during World War II, women in divisions such as the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) conducted a lot of the airplane maintenance in the United States. Photo courtesy: Museum of Flight

The Historic Control Tower From the Pasco Naval Air Station is Transformed into the Pasco Aviation Museum

Long after the war, on June 9, 2011, the Port of Pasco Commissioners agreed to preserve the Pasco Naval Air Station’s old control tower located on the east side of the Tri-Cities Airport to preserve an important piece of the community’s history. A non-profit group was formed to help protect and maintain the tower previously used to direct the flights at the base until it was transformed in 2019 into the Pasco Aviation Museum.

The museum now preserves the legacy of the Pasco Naval Air Station and other local aviation history. It features unique and inspiring displays and exhibits, such as World War II-era aircraft, memorabilia, uniforms, photographs, and stories of the people who served and worked on the base. Visitors to the museum can also watch planes fly in and out from the restored control tower and enjoy the view of the airport and Columbia River.

Tri-Cities aviation history
The Pasco Aviation Museum preserves the legacy of a major WWII US Navy base by keeping the historic control tower intact. Photo credit: Brian Burghart

It is safe to say that aviation has taken literal flight here in the Tri-Cities community as citizens continued to keep their eyes on the sky. Even the Tri-Cities Airport has expanded after undergoing a remodel in 2003 and again in 2014. Though our heads may be in the clouds, it seems to be the right place to be as we continue forward in the aviation industry, and we’re confident the Tri-Cities region will make more aviation history in the future. So fasten your seatbelts and get ready for lift-off!

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