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The earliest known flight in the Twin Cities was made in January of 1909, five years after the Wright brothers left the ground in Kitty Hawk. Ralph K.D. Wilcox and A.C. Bennett, partners in a northeast Minneapolis carburetor shop, built a 25-horsepower flying machine that Bennett flew off a hill overlooking Lake Minnetonka. Wilcox's brother stated 40 years later that they barely got off the ground; "I've seen skiers go higher." The first public airplane flight in the Twin Cities was staged in June 1910 by Glenn H. Curtiss in a 14-minute exhibition flight over the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.
The commercial value of transporting mail by air was recognized almost immediately. In 1910 federal legislation was passed that allowed the U.S. Postmaster General to conduct experimental airmail flights throughout the country. The earliest such experimental flight in Minnesota took place on October 18, 1911, when aviator Hugh Robinson left Minneapolis' Lake Calhoun in a Curtiss "hydro-aeroplane" with 25 pounds of mail bound for New Orleans.
Just after the United States entered World War I in 1917, a group of 31 prominent businessmen organized the Aero Club of Minneapolis with the goal of assisting the federal government in recruiting and training young men from the region to be pilots specifically to participate in the war effort. Training flights were conducted at a 580-acre farm north of Minneapolis owned by Earle Brown, an Aero Club director. The Twin Cities' fascination with aviation didn't end with the war. Instead it shifted to the commercial and pleasure uses of flying. A number of aviation-related businesses were spawned following the war, operating from fields scattered throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul. By 1919, the Civic and Commercial Association and licensed aviators in Minneapolis agreed to the first rules for flying over cities.
In hopes of establishing a properly equipped and operated airport, the Aero Club and the National Guard, and later the Minneapolis Civic and Commercial Association with the St. Paul Association, joined forces, forming the Twin City Aero Corporation. The Twin City Aero Corporation was able to secure the then defunct Twin Cities Motor Speedway. The Corporation had the field leveled, built two landing strips 2,700 feet long and one 2,300 feet long, and constructed a wooden hangar 80 x 90 feet. In 1921, with the assistance of the state appropriations, three wooden hangars and other buildings were added. With a lavish dedication ceremony, the Speedway Field was renamed Wold-Chamberlain Field. The field was named for local World War I aviator heroes Ernest Groves Wold and Cyrus Foss Chamberlain, the first two area pilots who gave their lives in combat during World War I. World War I pilot Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and others flew over the Milwaukee Railway Depot as part of the dedication ceremony.
Northwest Airlines (formerly known as Northwest Airways, Inc.) got its start in 1926 when Colonel L.H. Brittin, president of the St. Paul Civic and Commercial Association and an avid aviation supporter, and William A. Kidder, manager of the Curtiss Northwest Airplane Company and operator of the Kidder's Field in St. Paul, met with Henry Ford and others to raise funds. With $300,000 in pledges, Northwest Airways, Inc. was formed and a short time later awarded the Chicago-Twin Cities mail route. In 1928, Northwest Airways introduced the 14-passenger Ford Tri-motor "Tin Goose."
Because the Minneapolis Park Board was the only municipal agency empowered to buy land outside the city limits, the Park Board was deemed the most appropriate entity to operate the airport. Twin City Aero Corporation offered its purchase option on the field to the Park Board. In 1927, the governor signed legislation that allowed the City of Minneapolis to acquire, equip, and operate the airport. In 1932, after numerous improvements to the Wold-Chamberlain Field, the Department of Commerce awarded it a Class A1A rating, the highest available. The upgrade in status was a big boost to the airport.
In 1933, Hanford Airlines moved its operations from St. Paul to Wold-Chamberlain and extended its service to Omaha. Northwest Airways stretched its route to Billings, Montana and continued to operate services to North Dakota, Duluth, Chicago, and areas in Michigan and Wisconsin, including Green Bay and Milwaukee. During the 1930s, as the situation in Europe was escalating, Wold-Chamberlain's strategic location spurred plans for a major expansion. National defense-related monies brought in $430,000 for runway extensions and $1 million for expansion of the Naval Reserve base.
In 1943 the airport was turned over to the newly formed Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) from the Minneapolis Park Board. MAC's first charges were to promote air transportation and to develop the metropolitan area as an aviation center, at the same time minimizing the environmental impact of the airport on the residents of the metropolitan area. The Commission also explored various sites in anticipation of moving the airport. After analyzing the sites in the metro area, the MAC recommended that the Wold-Chamberlain Field expand service. On August 15, 1944, the name was changed to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Airport/Wold-Chamberlain Field. In, 1948, the word International was substituted for Metropolitan.
In 1985, the terminal, upon completion of a major expansion, was renamed the Charles A. Lindbergh Terminal after the famous aviator, a Minnesota native. The Hubert H. Humphrey Terminal opened as a charter terminal in 1977 and was rededicated in 1987 after a renovation and expansion. A new Humphrey Terminal opened on May 2, 2001 with Sun Country Airlines as its anchor tenant. The building, designed for convenience and ease of use, sits behind the old Humphrey terminal site.
From its hub in the Twin Cities, Northwest Airlines continued to grow. In 1986, on the heels of deregulatons for the airline industry, Republic Airlines and Northwest Airlines merged. Then in 1991, Northwest merged with the Dutch airline, KLM. Twelve domestic, four regional, three international, and seven charter carriers (as of January, 2001) fly out of the Wold-Chamberlain Field.
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