For many years I drove past St. Louis-Lambert International Airport on my daily commute to the University of Missouri-St. Louis where I served as a faculty member. The soaring arches of Terminal 1, the expansive runways, and the buildings along the north side of the airport property sparked my interest. What was the story behind Lambert Airport? My new book, The Aerial Crossroads of America: St. Louis’s Lambert Airport (published by the Missouri History Museum Press), provides a glimpse into the significant role St. Louis-Lambert International Airport played in the unfolding story of flight.
Lambert Airport has a rich aviation history, dating from 1920 when Albert Bond Lambert leased 170 acres of Missouri farmland with the dream that it would become the site of a world-class commercial airport for St. Louis. Despite many obstacles, Lambert’s dream became a reality. His airport not only became one of the first municipal airports in the United States, but it also boasted airframe manufacturing since 1928.
Tens of thousands of civilian and military aircraft, including the first U.S. Navy jet fighter and the first U.S. manned spacecraft, were all built at Lambert. It was the site of the 1923 International Air Races and the location of military aviation activity for more than eighty years, including the training of thousands of U.S. and British naval pilots during World War II.
James Howard, the only U.S. fighter pilot in the European Theater of combat to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, served as the chief of aeronautics for the City of St. Louis (overseeing Lambert Airport) after World War II. Some of the most famous aviators of the twentieth century at one time called Lambert home, including Jimmy Doolittle and Charles Lindbergh. Before the world knew him as “Lucky Lindy,” Charles Lindbergh flew the first airmail flight between Chicago and Lambert Airport in April 1926—the earliest flight of any airline that would eventually become part of American Airlines, the largest in the world. The nation’s first air traffic controller was Lambert’s Archie League, who started directing aircraft at the airport in 1929 with signal flags.
Decades before envisioning the iconic World Trade Center towers in New York City, a young Minoru Yamasaki designed the iconic Lambert Airport Terminal 1. Opened in 1956, the soaring concrete-shell structure with a copper roof inspired (Gateway Arch architect) Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Even with multiple additions, Lambert’s terminal proved insufficient to handle passenger traffic at the airport as Trans World Airlines (TWA) established its primary domestic hub at Lambert.
In the second half of the twentieth century, other large metropolitan areas in the United States (such as Dallas–Fort Worth, Atlanta, and Denver) opted to build new regional airports beyond the congestion of the city. But Lambert expanded from its initial footprint to accommodate the rapid growth of air travel despite multiple attempts to build its replacement elsewhere in the greater St. Louis metropolitan area.
Just as Lambert’s traffic peaked at the turn of the twenty-first century, American Airlines purchased TWA and air travel declined in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As American dramatically reduced its presence in St. Louis, Lambert became one of the first large airports in the United States to experience the painful process of dehubbing. The activities on the airport’s footprint serve as a microcosm of the triumphs and tragedies of American aviation.
Recently, the airport’s name was changed to St. Louis-Lambert International Airport from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport for the purpose of better marketing the airport globally. Changing the name proved less controversial than when the Airport Commission dropped “Lambert” from the name in 1970. After receiving hundreds of individual letters (one from none other than Charles Lindbergh) and a petition containing thousands of signatures in support of putting Lambert’s name back in the airport’s title, the Commission unanimously voted to rename the airport “Lambert-St. Louis International Airport” in 1971.
I was pleased that, over 40 years later, the Commission voted to retain “Lambert” in the airport’s name — honoring not only the essential role of Albert Bond Lambert in the airport’s genesis and development, but also his historical significance as St. Louis’s most important aviation enthusiast.