Government built airport for city

By Jonathan Maze of The News-Sentinel

According to the last estimate, Fort Wayne International Airport has a $274 million annual impact on the local economy.

Unusual? No. Airports in the latter half of the century have become synonymous with economic vitality.

But it is remarkable when one considers that the city got the airport for almost nothing.

Fort Wayne's municipal airport, what is now Smith Field, was built in the 1920s, but officials worried that it would need major renovations if it were to handle bigger airplanes.

In the late 1930s, as war heated up in Europe and with it the prospect for American involvement, the War Department began considering building air bases. Fort Wayne became one of 170 cities nationwide vying for one of 38 such facilities.

On Feb. 1, 1941, a group of local businessmen borrowed $125,000 from four banks so the city could buy 700 acres of land southwest. The land was donated for the field on one condition — that the government deed the base back to the community after the war.

Thus, the government built the airport for the city. At $10 million, its price tag today would be more than $110.9 million.

"It was a stroke of genius on somebody's part," said Skip Miller, the interim director of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority. "We got an airport that was state-of-the-art for a number of years."

The airport would be among a number of infrastructure improvements during the 1940s that helped shape the way Fort Wayne is now. The sewage treatment plant was completed in 1940. The city also began to elevate the railroad tracks that run north of downtown.

Initially, the federal government picked Smith Field for the new air base. But officials worried that commercial and civil aviation would be muscled out — after a recent $1 million investment at Smith, few would be likely to go along with it.

By contributing the money to buy the land, the business leaders were able to determine where the airport would go.

They wouldn't be able to determine the name, however. The government balked at "Anthony Wayne Field" because Mad Anthony died long before the Wright Brothers gave thought to a flying machine.

Instead, the base was named after Paul Baer, a World War I aviator who spent eight months as a prisoner of war in Germany before returning home to Fort Wayne in 1919. Baer died in 1930 flying mail in South America.

Apparently, people couldn't wait to see the new facility. Accounts say that many local residents spent their weekends driving to the area to watch construction. In October 1941, a crowd of about 10,000 gathered for an open house.

Then again, the military couldn't wait either — the first landing at Baer Field was that August, when a lost military pilot, low on fuel, landed on one of the runways, which hadn't been finished.

The first "official" landing occurred months later.

From 1941 to 1945, about 100,000 military personnel passed through Baer Field. As was originally planned, the military base was phased out after the war — in 1945, the U.S. Army Air Corps left. In 1949, Baer Field was turned over to the city.

Few improvements were needed in the years afterward — only a couple of runway extensions were built until the 1980s.

Since then, of course, the airport has been completely rebuilt. The main runway was extended to 12,000 feet to handle big, 747-type aircraft. In 1996 the airport opened its new, modernized passenger terminal.

The only evidence of the military influence is at the Indiana Air National Guard facility. Not even the name, Baer Field, remains — it was changed in 1992 for marketing purposes to Fort Wayne International Airport.

But Miller said the airport is still benefiting from the initial foresight that led to its creation. The authority owns most of the surrounding land and has had few problems finding places to expand.

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