The Aerial Crossroads of America Is Full of Surprises

9, November 2016
Photo of Albert Bond Lambert and Orville WrightAlbert Bond Lambert seated on a Wright aircraft with Orville Wright in 1910. Missouri History Museum.

While researching and writing The Aerial Crossroads of America: St. Louis’s Lambert Airport, I encountered many surprising facets of the airport’s history. From the fact that Charles Lindbergh’s April 1926 airmail flight was the origin of what would become the world's largest airline, to Minoru Yamasaki’s trailblazing design of Lambert’s Terminal 1, to the more than 80 years of military flying at the airport, the history of Lambert Airport amazed me at every turn. In particular, I was fascinated by the extent of Albert Bond Lambert’s direct involvement in the creation and development of the airport from its inception until his passing 26 years later.

The son of Jordan W. Lambert (founder of Lambert Pharmacal Company, best known for Listerine mouthwash), Albert Bond Lambert was one of the first licensed balloonists and airplane pilots in St. Louis. In fact, he took his first airplane ride with Orville Wright in 1910 and learned to fly with the Wright organization, receiving his pilot’s license in 1911. Lambert organized air tournaments and events to promote aviation in St. Louis. He even helped fund the construction of the airplane hangar in Forest Park (which currently serves the St. Louis Mounted Patrol Unit) for the U.S. Post Office airmail connection between St. Louis and Chicago in 1920. Seeking a more suitable location for an airport, he selected and leased a 170-acre site 11 miles northwest of downtown St. Louis. He had the site cleared, graded, and drained, then constructed a small hangar—all at his own expense. He welcomed all interested aviators to use the facility free of charge. This was the origin of today’s Lambert Airport.

Photo of groundbreaking for 1923 International Air RacesAlbert Bond Lambert (far left) helping break ground to prepare Lambert Field for the 1923 International Air Races. Missouri History Museum.

Albert Bond Lambert was instrumental in attracting the 1923 International Air Races to St. Louis, the seminal event that showcased St. Louisans' “airmindedness” and attracted a young aviator from Minnesota by the name of Charles Lindbergh. Lambert purchased the Lambert–St. Louis Flying Field property when his lease expired in 1925 and then offered the land and buildings to the City of St. Louis at his cost, making it one of the first municipal airports in America. Lambert was also the first backer of Lindbergh’s historic 1927 New York-to-Paris flight, the event that caught the world’s imagination and sparked global development and growth of aviation.

Photo of the Mercury spacecraftThe seven Mercury astronauts pose with James S. McDonnell (back row, second from left) and Walter Burke, McDonnell Aircraft’s Mercury project manager (middle, far left) around a Mercury spacecraft. Missouri History Museum.

I was also amazed to learn that Lambert Airport has been the location of aircraft manufacturing continuously since 1928 when B. F. Mahoney Aircraft Corporation began building Broughams based on the design of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. That same year, Curtiss-Robertson Airplane Manufacturing Company began building the Robin, the precursor of the high-wing light aircraft that dominated the private aviation market from the 1930s through the end of the 20th century. Curtiss-Robertson became the St. Louis division of Curtiss-Wright Corporation, which produced a wide range of commercial and military aircraft in the 1930s and 1940s. The company leased 60 acres from the City of St. Louis to construct a 1.2-million-square-foot factory at Lambert in order to build thousands of military aircraft during World War II. James S. McDonnell started McDonnell Aircraft Corporation at Lambert in 1939 and moved into the former Curtiss-Wright factory after the war. McDonnell developed the first American jet to operate from an aircraft carrier and went on to produce more than 10,000 jet fighter aircraft at Lambert. The company also designed and built the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft—important milestones on America’s path to the moon.

Photo of Albert Bond Lambert atop dedication stoneAlbert Bond Lambert stood atop the airport's dedication stone and proclaimed: “This field will enable St. Louis to control the trade of the Southwest, Mexico and South America. It will make of this city a seaport, or rather, an airport. The commercial possibilities are unlimited, if we only want to avail ourselves of them.” Missouri History Museum.

Above all, I was impressed by the fact that Albert Bond Lambert’s efforts to make St. Louis a center of aviation activity had far-reaching consequences that no one could have foreseen. The recent decision to retain Lambert’s name in the airport’s official title appropriately commemorates his contributions to St. Louis and to aviation.

—Daniel L. Rust, author of The Aerial Crossroads of America: St. Louis’s Lambert Airport

EDITOR'S NOTE: To meet the author and learn more fascinating facts about Lambert Airport, please join us on November 16 at 7pm for a special presentation and signing.

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