Back in the day, driving south on Hampton Road, it was easy to spot the large “Piper” sign, along with the similarly sized “Airhaven” flight school sign. Both were, along with the control tower and slowly aging hangars, part of what was then called Red Bird Airport.
North Dallas had Highland Park, NorthPark Center and most of Dallas’ upscale shopping and finer amenities.
But Oak Cliff?
Well, we had an airport. A longstanding airport.
In 1944 the City of Dallas purchased the 1,046-acre spread on the northwest corner of Hampton and US 67 for $125,000, and the airfield has been in continual operation ever since opening for business in August 1947. As a general aviation airport, the facility did, and still does, house a variety of aviation-related businesses and private flight instructors. And from 1960 to 2003 it hosted a public restaurant: Casa Blanca.
Oak Cliff’s original air terminal was the privately owned Clearview Airport located off the southeast corner of Hampton and Illinois, and its most famous story concerned the B-17 E bomber that crash-landed there. The plane, carrying 22 people on a war bond tour, caught on fire in April 1943 and had to perform an emergency landing.
According to then-Cliffite Bill Strouse, the plane few over Illinois Avenue and briefly skidded on the street before crashing on the runway, followed by witnesses watching a slew of fire trucks and military vehicles arriving on the scene. According to the official report, all aboard survived but were seriously injured.
The Red Bird facility remained a general use airfield for years, and, according to one local historian, at some point either a National Guard Unit or an Army Reserve airborne unit was stationed there. In the 1980s, the airport became the base of the Dallas Police Department’s Aviation Division, housing its helicopter fleet.
And when Stevie Ray Vaughan left his father’s funeral at Laurel Land in 1986, he few out of Red Bird.
However, for those of us who are a bit older, the most memorable part of what we called Red Bird Airport was the annual announcement that NFL football season had begun: the arrival of the Goodyear Blimp!
In the 1970s, the Houston-based company used Red Bird as its major Dallas-Fort Worth base when the blimp was in town for the football games and the state fair, and later for the Cotton Bowl game and other promotional activities. Hundreds of Cliffites — no, thousands probably — made Saturday or Sunday afternoon trips south on Hampton to catch a glimpse of the blimp, take photos, chat with the crew or simply stare at the dirigible. (Before the age of 24-7 television, computers, video games and the like, events like the arrival of the blimp were really big deals.)
Jerry Felts, posting to a Dallas history thread online, said that he had worked at Red Bird Airport, and part of his job was to fuel the blimp. “On the last day of each visit,” Felts posted, “they [the crew] would give me a ride in it, just to make sure I would be there with the fuel truck when they needed it” — quite an adventure for an Oak Cliff kid back in those days.
Other reports are that the farm owner on the other side of Hampton often watched as miniature model planes occasionally landed in his pasture, flying off course from the model airplane enthusiasts operating on Red Bird’s periphery. Another Cliffite, Cecil Hatfield, says his father taught him to drive on the runways before the airport opened. And it’s hard to believe, but in the 1950s high school boys actually went bird hunting there — with shotguns — gathering near and beyond the runways! (Just try doing that these days.)
Around 2000, substantial sums of money were invested to revamp the airfield and enlarge and update its facilities. With a new name and control tower, two renovated concrete and asphalt runways, and a new administrative building — along with other aviation-related businesses and a fresh infusion of paved streets and lighting — the now-named Dallas Executive Airport is growing, servicing a sizable portion of the Metroplex and enhancing the Southwest Dallas and Oak Cliff business climate. In 2004, out of the 21 such facilities around the state, the airfield was named as the Reliever Airport of the Year by TxDOT.
Delta Charlie’s Restaurant, Bar and Grill, located inside the airport terminal, offers a unique dining experience where customers easily watch airplanes arriving and departing on the runways. The restaurant also offers a dinner package that includes an airplane tour of Dallas — a huge hit with patrons.
But although they’ve renamed the place, built new buildings, changed the entrance and logo and everything else necessary to compete in the current climate, to us old-timers it’s still Red Bird Airport — with the Casa Blanca Restaurant, the old signage and, of course, the blimp.
And … oh, yes. Did I mention it used to be a fairly popular place for high school sweethearts to “stop and watch the airplanes land” for a while? Hmmm … somehow that almost slipped my mind.