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September 20, 2013

Did You Know?: The Purdue Airport

Purdue Airport

The Purdue Airport is shown in an image from 1937. The airport made history when it opened in 1930 as the first university-owned and -operated airport in the country. (Photo courtesy of Purdue University Archives and Special Collections)
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The Purdue Airport made history upon opening in 1930, becoming the first university-owned and -operated airport in the country.

In the late 1920s, David E. Ross, member of the Purdue Board of Trustees, and President Edward C. Elliott conceived the idea of building a training airfield at Purdue.

At that time, Purdue already offered courses in aeronautics through Mechanical Engineering. Aspiring pilots drove from campus to Shambaugh Airport south of Lafayette for flight lessons. The airport was owned by Charles Shambaugh and managed by Lawrence “Cap” Aretz.

Due to the Depression, Shambaugh Airport was experiencing financial problems, and Shambaugh suggested he close his airport and give his pilot manager, Aretz, to Purdue to begin their own airport.

Ross donated 360 acres of land south of the Purdue campus to be used for the construction of the airport. When it opened in 1930, the airport was rarely used, consisting of a windsock and an emergency landing area. Funds from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and additional funding from Ross allowed renovations to be made. The Purdue Airport opened as a working airport in September 1934.

At one time, the Purdue Airport offered commercial flights. Flights could be booked to destinations such as Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit. Purdue Airlines, a charter plane service, began in 1968, replacing the nonprofit charter service, Purdue Aeronautics Corporation. This charter service provided flights for Big Ten football teams and the Chicago White Sox, and it even flew Hugh Hefner’s Playboy jet. Purdue Airlines ceased operations in early 1971.

The Purdue Airport was the first airport to offer flight courses for college credit, and Purdue was the first university to offer a bachelor’s degree in aviation. In 2005, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics named the Purdue Airport to its list of historical sites. Today, it houses the University’s Department of Aviation Technology, which offers degrees in aviation management, aeronautical technology and professional flight.

Writer: Hannah Harper, harper4@purdue.edu