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The long-forgotten history of the Douglas Airport

Douglas is home to first international airport in U.S.
Posted: 1:29 PM, Apr 10, 2023
Updated: 2023-04-10 16:29:58-04
Douglas Municipal Airport

DOUGLAS, Ariz. (KGUN) — Owned by the City of Douglas, the Douglas Municipal Airport is a little-used airstrip on the east edge of town.

But the airport has a quite significant past—a long-forgotten connection to aviation history.

"Can you imagine the first international airport here in Douglas, Arizona," said Mayor Donald Huish.

That's right, the first international airport in the United States was in Douglas, Arizona.

It is difficult to imagine when you see the airport today. Fewer than a dozen airplanes take off and land at the Douglas Municipal Airport each week.

Main hanger at Douglas Municipal Airport

To understand the Absolutely Arizona history, we have to go back to the late 1920s.

A bit of a history buff, the current mayor explained that after hearing about possible airmail service coming to the area, an aeronautical club decided to build an airport.

"They purchased the land out there for $900, deeded it over to the city, and they got wind that a commercial airline wanted to come here," Huish said. "Standard Airlines out of California wanted to make a stop here between their route of Los Angeles to Dallas. That motivated them with the possibilities of the talk of the airmail coming in. So, they started clearing land."

On February 4, 1929 Standard Airlines landed its maiden flight at the Douglas Airport, ushering in passenger travel to Southeast Arizona.

First commercial flight in Douglas

At the southern end of the runway, officials in Agua Prieta had completed their own runway. Only a fence separated the U.S. from Mexico.

"When people continuing on down the line, they would taxi through the gate," Huish explained. "Somebody would get down, open it up, taxi through the gate, clear customs there, and fly on to Mexico. And vice versa."

Fence between Douglas Airport and Agua Prieta.jpg

On February 5, 1929, the first international flight taxied between the two countries, making Douglas the first international airport in the U.S.

In August of 1929, the Douglas Airport hosted the first Women's Air Derby, a transcontinental race for female pilots.

Women's Derby Day at Dougals International Airport 1929

Nicknamed the Powder Puff Derby, the race made its third stop in Douglas.

"Amelia Earhart was part of that. She was currently in third place when she landed here. She had some engine troubles apparently on the way over here and was able to get them fixed and going. That really put us on the map."

Amelia Earhart
FILE - American aviatrix Amelia Earhart poses for photos as she arrives in Southampton, England, after her transatlantic flight on the "Friendship" from Burry Point, Wales, June 26, 1928. A leather helmet that Amelia Earhart wore on a flight across the Atlantic in 1928 and later lost in a crowd of fans in Cleveland, sold at auction for $825,000, Heritage Auctions said. (AP Photo/File)

Also putting Douglas on the map, the start up of transcontinental airmail service in October of 1929.

Then in 1933, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt made a stop at the Douglas Airport to officially designate it as the first international airport in the country.

"It was a short stop," said Huish. "She was here for roughly two hours, but she designated the international airport. The interesting fact about that one is she did it with a bottle of soda water, because it was in the middle of prohibition so she used the bottle of soda water to christen the Douglas Airport."

You'll find Eleanor Roosevelt's signed certification letter on display at the Border Air Museum, located at the Douglas Municipal Airport.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt dedication

You'll also learn that the airport was the first to use runway lights in Arizona.

And that the airport lost its international designation in 1949.

That's when the Bisbee-Douglas Airport, located nine miles north of Douglas, took over that role.

The Douglas Municipal Airport continues to operate today, with much less fanfare.

A much needed resurfacing of the runway will happen this summer thanks to a $1.5 million grant from ADOT, which should help revitalize the airport.

Mayor Huish is also upbeat about a plan to develop the area around the airport.

"I think it's something that's going to come back," Huish said. "Especially if we, we're in negotiations with the developer to do the land round about. If that happens, he has visions of fly-in homes. We're hoping that those type of things take off."

That remarkable Border Air Museum is only open by appointment.

The city is working to upgrade the museum and also working to replace a plaque outside the museum commemorating Eleanor Roosevelt's visit and dedication as the first international airport. It was apparently stolen.

Pat Parris is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. He is a graduate of Sabino High School where he was the 1982 high school state track champion in the 800 meters. While in high school and college, he worked part-time in the KGUN 9 newsroom. Share your story ideas and important issues with Pat by emailing or by connecting on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.