In 1917, Katherine Stinson, the fourth American woman to earn a pilot’s license, set a long-distance record by flying alone more than 600 miles, from San Diego to San Francisco, over the mountains of Southern California.
One hundred years later, the municipal airport she established in San Antonio is getting a new $5.7 million air traffic control tower worthy of not only its legacy in aviation history, but also Stinson’s pioneering spirit.
City officials broke ground last week on “Wings Over Stinson,” as the project is called. The new control tower is being jointly funded, with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) contributing $2 million and the City of San Antonio the remaining $3.7 million.
It is expected to be complete one year from now, in time for the city’s Tricentennial celebration, said Russ Handy, aviation director at the San Antonio International Airport and Stinson.
Original design plans for the tower were halted when City council members Rebecca Viagran (D3) and Roberto Treviño (D1) urged the city to support a plan that would ensure the look of the tower reflected the airport’s history. The San Antonio chapter of the American Institute of Architects then coordinated a design competition with the City.
“Two years ago, we had a design competition and came back with the winner, but we had to coordinate with TxDOT and go through their vetting as well,” Viagran said. “Then it ended up costing more, and we had to identify more dollars for it.”
Viagran hopes the tower design will inspire civic pride and honor the legacy of Stinson Field.
“There were some enhancements to it and that had some cost adjustments, but we have the dollars now and we’re moving forward,” she said. “It’s a design that’s authentic and respectful to the community and worthy of a World Heritage area.”
Founded as a flying school by the Stinson family in 1915, then used by the Army during World War I, Stinson Airport later became San Antonio’s first commercial airport. Located six miles south of downtown, it is the second oldest general aviation airport in continuous operation in the United States.
Today, Stinson sees more than 100,000 takeoffs and landings annually, functioning as a general aviation reliever airport. The airport is home to a fixed-base operator that provides aeronautical services such as fueling and hangaring, an aviation management school, San Antonio Police Department helicopters, and the Texas Air Museum.
It has an estimated $65 million impact on the San Antonio economy.
“At over 100 years old, it’s still a very important part of our community today,” Handy said.
Stinson represents a municipal airport presence in the south part of town, making it easier and less expensive for people in that area who use general aviation.
As a reliever airport, Stinson also helps eliminate the challenges of mixing small, low-speed aircraft with large commercial aircraft coming in and out of the San Antonio International Airport.
When complete, the new tower will replace the current one in operation since 1953 and renovated in the 1970s. Handy said the current tower is outdated in its technology and is not the appropriate size for the airport. Its positioning on the property also makes it difficult for air traffic controllers to have full visual access of takeoffs and landings.
“Wings Over Stinson” will sit in the center of the airport to provide a better view of the airport’s runways.
It will feature distinctive bi-plane style “wings,” reminiscent of the airport’s early days, along the sides of the structure. At night, the wings will be illuminated to emphasize the tower’s design both during the day and at night, a nod to Katherine Stinson’s status as the first pilot, man or woman, to fly at night.
The tower design is also said to reflect the airport’s close connection to the nearby historic San Antonio Missions and reinforce its place in the World Heritage District.
Currently, there are eight City employees working at Stinson, and about 140 others employed by tenants there.
Handy said he doesn’t expect air traffic to increase any time soon as a result of the new tower, but there are plans to develop 30 acres of land the airport already owns and make it available for lease as corporate hangar space in the next few years.
But the old tower will stay in place because it may serve a training purpose in the future, Handy added.
And it will remain there as an important part of San Antonio history, a time when a woman of daring and skill led the way forward.