MSO History

Missoula has a long and fascinating aviation history. Since the early 1900s, there have been airplanes flying to and from the Garden City. Missoula’s previous airport, Hale Field, was located on the south side of the city. In 1938, the Missoula County Airport Board purchased 1300 acres of land west of Missoula adjacent to Highway 10 West as the site for a new airport, which officially opened in 1941.

Today, Missoula International Airport has grown into an expansive complex. Hundreds of aircraft take off and land on our runways every day. Some of those aircraft are being piloted by Missoula’s newest aviators who will continue to write new chapters in our historical archives. We invite you to take some time to learn about how aviation began here in Missoula.


1911 – June 26, exhibition pilot Eugene Ely departs from the ballpark at Fort Missoula for a scheduled performance in a Curtiss bi-plane. 3000 people come from miles away to witness the event

1917 – At the age of 24, Missoula resident Bob Johnson enlists in the army and is sent to Camp Lewis, Washington. Johnson is discharged less than a year later. Johnson goes into business for himself, opening an automotive service station


1923 – Missoula’s first landing strip is laid out in May. The field is located near the base of Mount Sentinel, roughly between what is now the University of Montana and South Avenue

1926 – Bob Johnson purchases a Swallow bi-plane for $2500 and continues his flying lessons with instructor Nick Mamer, believed to be the first pilot to ever fly over Glacier National Park. Bob Johnson decides to start Johnson Flying Service to teach others how to fly

1927 – Bob Johnson, in an interview with a University of Montana journalism student, says he believes airplanes will eventually make regular stops in Missoula. Decades later, that same journalism student, who thought Johnson was crazy for making such an incredible statement, would eventually fly out of Missoula International Airport aboard a large passenger airliner; a group of men meet at the Palace Hotel to discuss Missoula’s future in aviation. Missoula, it was felt, needed an airport to succeed. City businessman Harry O. Bell was elected president of the Missoula chapter of the National Aeronautic Association. Their first act was to secure an airmail route to Butte and Salt Lake City; Walter Beck secures a 60-day option on eighty acres of land just east of the Missoula County Fairgrounds. The County officially purchases the 80 acres of land, as well as an adjacent strip to construct an east-west runway. Total cost was $5000. A northwest-southeast runway was later built.

1929 – through additional financing secured by Harry Bell and state Senator John L. Campbell, Missoula’s Garden City Airport now covers 225 acres


1934 – Northwest Airways inaugurates regular mail and passenger service to Missoula at the Garden City Airport

1935 – The Garden City Airport is officially named Hale Field, after county surveyor and civil engineer Dick Hale, who spent many hours at the airport as an aviation enthusiast

1938 – President Roosevelt authorizes W.P.A. funds for the construction of Missoula’s third airport. The Missoula County Airport Board purchases 1300 acres of land seven miles west of Missoula adjacent to Highway 10 West as the site for a new airport. Since the Forest Service needed access to an airport, and Missoula County needed heavy equipment to build the new airport, a deal was struck between the two parties. The airport board gave the Forest Service a perpetual easement at the airport site, while the Forest Service granted the use of their equipment for construction. The agreement eventually led to Missoula becoming a major center for aerial firefighting and research. The new airport would feature four runways each a mile or more in length, capable of accommodating any airplane in service at the time. Total estimated cost, including the land, for the new Missoula County Airport: $1.5-$2 million


1940 – July 12, Rufus Robinson and Earl Cooley become the first firefighters to parachute from a Johnson Flying Service airplane to extinguish a fire in the Pacific Northwest Region. On that day, the legendary Smokejumper program was born

1941 – In addition to Hale Field, Missoula now has two airports as the newly completed Missoula County Airport opens; The Army Examining Board comes to Missoula to determine if a bomber-training base can be located at the airport. The idea is ultimately rejected due to the height of the rising mountainous terrain that surrounds the valley; Boeing Aircraft Company considered building a manufacturing plant at the new airport

1942 – Johnson Flying Service trains more than 4,000 pilots for the U.S. armed forces

1949 – Hale Field continues to grow. Now located at the airport are a new and modern maintenance facility, three large hangars, two tee-hangars, offices, a cafe, carpenter shop, a parachute loft, a classroom, and 32 aircraft; The Mann Gulch fire occurred when a wildfire in the Helena National Forest spread out of control and ultimately claimed the lives of 12 smokejumpers. The fire was spotted by a forest ranger around noon on August 5. James O. Harrison, the recreation and fire prevention guard for Meriwether Canyon Campground had given up his former job as a smokejumper to find a less dangerous profession. On this day, however, he fought the fire on his own for four hours before he met the crew of smokejumpers who had been dispatched from Missoula in the C-47. Foreman Wagner Dodge led the team towards the Missouri River. The fire, however, spread faster than anticipated and had already cut off the path to safety and the men had to turn around. When Dodge realized that they would not be able to outrun the fire, he started an escape fire and ordered everyone to lie down in the area he had burnt down. The other team members hurried towards the ridge of Mann Gulch instead. Only two of them managed to escape through a crevice and found a safe location, a rock slide with little vegetation to fuel the fire. Two other members survived with heavy injuries and died within a day. Unburnt patches underneath the bodies indicates that the rest of the team, including Jim Harrison, suffocated before the fire caught up with them; Missoula aviation pioneer Walter Beck dies in Long Beach, CA.


1952 – Congress authorizes $700,000 to construct a new aerial fire depot west of Missoula near the new airport; Red Skies of Montana is released in theaters. The film portrays the dangerous lives of Smokejumpers who battle fires in the Pacific Northwest by parachuting into the flames below

– The Missoula County Airport has some of the longest runways in the state at the time. The main runway 11/29 is 200 x 7000 feet long. The remaining three runways are 5900, 6400, and 5620 feet in length

1954 – After a failed attempt by the city of Spokane to have the aerial firefighting depot relocated to their town, President Dwight Eisenhower arrives in Missoula in a Lockheed Constellation to dedicate the newly completed facility; Hale Field closes its runways forever. The former airport property is now the site of Sentinel High School, Playfair Park, and Splash Montana Waterslide Park

1958 – The new terminal at the Missoula County Airport, a 2,738 square-foot two story concrete reinforced structure designed by Missoula’s Fox and Ballas architectural firm, is completed


1961 – The Missoula air traffic control tower opens

1962 – Missoula aviation enthusiast Dick Hale dies in his home from a heart attack at the age of sixty-five

1968 – On a warm Memorial Day afternoon, Bob Johnson and Harry O. Bell both step out of a Johnson Flying Service Ford Tri-Motor. Greeting the two aviation pioneers are several members of the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, who escort them to a nearby reviewing stand. In a ceremony which follows, the Missoula County Airport is officially re-named Johnson-Bell Field


1970 – November 1, a Cessna 180 and an Ercoupe collide in mid-air over a lumber yard in the middle of the city. As the Cessna was on a skydiving flight, one passenger miraculously was able to parachute to safety, landing near the 50-yard line at Rollin Field. Ironically, he was later killed in another skydiving accident

1971 – Missoula businessman and aviation visionary Harry O. Bell passes away

1975 – Bob Johnson sells Johnson Flying Service to Evergreen Helicopters of McMinnville, Oregon

1978 – Evergreen sells its Missoula operation to Minuteman Aviation

1979 – The passenger terminal is expanded to approximately 53,180 square-feet. At a cost of $2.5 million, the new terminal features a bronze plaque honoring Bob Johnson and H.O. Bell for their achievements and contributions to Missoula’s aviation history


1980 – Bob Johnson passes away. “When Bob Johnson was just getting started flying in 1923, aviation and airplanes were considered absolutely a thing for fools, daredevils and irresponsible playboys,” said aviation historian Steve Smith of Missoula, whose book Fly the Biggest Piece Back chronicles the history of Johnson Flying Service. Johnson had accumulated over 17,000 hours during his flying career

– Seattle based Horizon Air is formed

1986 – East general aviation ramp is rehabilitated; Seattle based Horizon Air is purchased by Alaska Air Group. Horizon begins service to Missoula

1987 – Construction begins for the new air rescue fire fighting and snow removal equipment building


1990 – The airport main entrance road is expanded and widened; Medium intensity runway lights are installed on runway 7-25

1991 – Rehabilitation begins on main runway 11-29, including replacing the high intensity runway lights and installation of new taxiway guidance signs

1994 – The passenger terminal is again expanded to 102,430 square feet

1996 – Taxiway Alpha, the main taxiway for runway 11-29, is extended to full runway length

1997 – Mark Timmons moves Neptune Aviation from Alamogordo to a brand new hanger complex at Missoula International Airport

1998 – NASA Space Shuttle astronauts David Brown and Kalpana Chawla arrive in Missoula aboard a NASA T-38 Talon. Both are lost in the 2002 Columbia disaster; A new $10.5 million Airway Boulevard and I-90 interchange officially opens, providing a direct link to Missoula International Airport from Interstate 90


2001 – MSO begins preliminary studies for a new parallel runway 29L-11R. The new runway would be south of the existing runway; Airport enplanements at MSO increase an incredible 37% compared to the same time one year earlier; All flights are grounded after the September 11 attacks. Airport re-opens on September 14th; The 2001 Transportation Appropriations bill includes $500,000 to begin the process of replacing the Missoula air traffic control tower

2002 – The Museum of Mountain Flying opens it’s doors at Missoula International Airport; TSA federal security screeners begin screening passengers in October; The airport completes over $8 million worth of improvements to MSO’s runways, taxiways, and ramp areas; As Northwest airlines continues to phase out it’s aging Boeing 727 fleet, the airline begins service to MSO with the Airbus A319 and A320 series aircraft

2003 – MSO completes a major reconstruction and expansion phase of the entire air carrier ramp; Taxiway Delta is re-aligned, similar to the Foxtrot re-alignment project earlier; US Air Force Thunderbirds perform for the Montana Airfest 2003 air show at MSO; Congress authorizes $4 million towards the construction of the new Missoula air traffic control tower

2004 – Congress authorizes an additional $3 million towards the replacement of the Missoula Air traffic control tower; The Region One Aerial Fire Depot celebrates 50 years since President Dwight D. Eisenhower dedicated the facility; US Forest Service breaks ground on a new $2 million hanger and administrative office complex; Homestead Helicopters begins construction of a new hanger complex; Congress authorizes $6 million for a terminal expansion project and land acquisition

2005 – Cris Jensen of Elko, Nevada is named as the new director of the Missoula International Airport; The Missoula County Airport Authority awards the new terminal expansion project. The $4 million project will add approximately 22,000 square-feet to the west end of the existing terminal, with construction set to begin early in 2006; Missoula air traffic increases 19.5% when compared to the same time one year ago; The Missoula County Airport Authority and EAA Chapter 517 publish the inaugural issue of MSO GA News, a quarterly aviation newsletter featuring articles about the Missoula aviation community and the airport; is launched

2006 – Terminal expansion project begins March 13; Airport begins construction of a second air rescue fire fighting station located near baggage claim; Delta and United passenger loading bridges replaced with new ones built by FMC Jetways; Localizer relocation project begins in September; the Airport officially tests its fog dispersion system. A resounding success, the system uses super cooled carbon dioxide gas to freeze fog water droplets, turning it into ice crystals that fall to the ground

2007 – April 13, the new terminal expansion project is officially completed and open for business; Runway 11-29 Reconstruction Project begins August 27

2008 – Airport begins construction of the new aircraft deicing facility next to Taxiway Foxtrot; Runway 7/25 Rehabilitation Project begins; New tee-hangar construction begins adjacent to the approach end of Runway 25; Automated Weather Observation System begins broadcasting on ground control frequency after the tower closes (121.9Mhz); Runway 7/25 project begins to remove deteriorating shoulders and install a new runway lighting system