Friday, October 15, 2010

Wilson Field and Amelia Earhart

Posted By on Fri, Oct 15, 2010 at 1:03 PM

Harry Wilson and chief pilot R.S. Weaver at Wilson Field in 1950
  • Harry Wilson and chief pilot R.S. Weaver at Wilson Field in 1950
Six years after Amelia Earhart vanished in the Pacific, her airplane crashed and burned at a little-known airport in Memphis.

If that sounds like an episode from The Twilight Zone, let me explain. A Lockheed Vega was one of the first airplanes that Earhart purchased, but she replaced it with a larger plane before attempting her doomed flight around the world in 1937. The Vega crashed upon takeoff at Wilson Field on August 26, 1943, while it was being ferried across the country by a new owner. Blurry pictures taken right after the crash (such as the one below) are filed away in the Memphis Room at the main library.

The wreckage remained visible for years, joining a fleet of other demolished and dismantled aircraft that caught the eye of anyone driving past the cluster of hangars and dirt runways at the northeast corner of Ridgeway and Raines Road.

Wilson Field was owned and operated by Harry T. Wilson. A self-taught pilot since 1915, Wilson had flown in the Signal Corps during World War I and teamed up with Vernon Omlie, one of this area's first aviators, in the 1920s. He took over Omlie's Mid-South Airways Corporation after the older pilot died in a plane crash near St. Louis in 1938.

Wilson moved the company to Memphis Municipal Airport, but had to relocate several miles east when the U.S. Army commandeered the city's main airfield during World War II. During the war, he supervised pilot training for the military. In later years, he provided flight classes, aircraft maintenance, and other services, and slowly built up a sprawling "boneyard" of vintage airplanes and parts.

In the 1960s, a reporter visited Wilson Field "in the quiet countryside" and noted that "airplanes remain on the field from World War II training days. Weeds and young trees grow through their fuselages. Wilson says one man wants one of the old planes as a plaything for his children."

It was certainly an odd place. Many years ago, I confess to a bit of trespassing, when I went with some friends to explore it at night. At the time, there was even a big old DC-3 parked there, and we climbed through a door, roamed through the cluttered cabin, and sat in the cockpit. Suddenly, a light flashed on in the hangar across the field — we didn't know anyone stayed there at night! — so we got spooked and scurried away, half-expecting to get shot before we reached our cars.

Wilson, hailed by the Memphis Press-Scimitar as "a pioneer figure in aviation in Memphis," died in 1975. I don't really know what became of all the wrecked airplanes, but rows of houses now stand atop the old grass runways of Wilson Field.

PHOTO OF HARRY WILSON COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES. PHOTO BELOW COURTESY BENJAMIN HOOKS CENTRAL LIBRARY.

Amelia Earharts former plane
  • Amelia Earhart's former plane

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