As we all know, Yellowstone National Park owns the distinction of being the “First” National Park in our nation. In my research I discovered that the airport constructed in West Yellowstone was the first airport to service a National Park. This is a state owned public use airport just north of town. It covers 735 acres at an elevation of 6.649 feet above sea level. It has one runway with an asphalt surface which ensures 8400 by 150 feet.
In the early 1930’s the Montana Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) allocated over $50,000 in grants and labor which resulted in the construction of 74 airports throughout Montana and the West Yellowstone Airport was one of those projects.
The West Yellowstone Commercial Club was formed at this time by some progressive West Yellowstone residents. Among those involved in the Commercial Club were Sam Eagle who, at that time was the local Postmaster, along with Alex Stuart, H. G. Bartlett, George Whittaker and C. S. Peterson. In 1932 the Club filed a Special Use Permit application with the U. S. Department of Agriculture. In 1934 this permit was reissued to Gallatin County and the designated project leaders were Forest Service officer J. C. Whitman and Sam Eagle.
With $1,100 in donations from local businesses and individuals as well as Scenic Airways the initial work was soon to begin. The Forest Service contributed 130 acres directly west of the city limits and across from Iris Street. If you drive west out of town on Highway 20 you will notice the large open field to your left adjacent to Iris Street. This is the site of the original West Yellowstone airport is now referred to by locals ad the “old” airport. Now you know why this space is absent of all trees!
The task of cutting and removing the standing timber was contracted to Herklas Righteour in the autumn of 1933, The CWA and FERA contributed labor in order to accomplish this massive task. The logs that could be used were trimmed and salvaged and the slash piles were burned and stumps pulled out of the ground. The runway needed to be leveled and this was accomplished by using approximately one thousand pounds of gravel which was removed from a large pit that was between the two runways. In May of 1935 a letter reporting that the runway was “fixed” was sent to Sam Eagle.
Work on the airport was delayed by a snowstorm in early May of 1935. The final landing strip was 500 feet wide by 5000 feet long and was in the shape of a block letter “V”. The airport included a private hangar belonging to Scenic Airways, a gasoline pump and an airplane repair shop. Scenic Airways offered air tours and charter services over the Park while National Parks Airways had regular scheduled air and mail service until 1937 at which time they were purchased by West Air Express.
The grand opening ceremony and dedication was held on June 22, 1938. In 1941 the air service to West Yellowstone was classified by the government as “non-essential” because of the war and service was discontinued. After the war, Western Airlines, formerly Western Air Express, resumed service in 1946. By this time the trees at the end of the runway had grown dangerously tall and, for safety reasons, Western Airlines ceased service in the fall of 1947.
Air service would not resume in West Yellowstone until 1964 when the new (and current) airport was completed.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s Western Airlines serviced the airport. They were sold to Delta Air Lines which turned service at the airport over to their affiliate Delta Connection which is operated by Sky West Airlines. Frontier Airlines served the airport from 1950 to 1986. On June 1, 2015 – the first time since 1978, the Yellowstone Airport was pleased to welcome back commercial jet service when Delta Connections (which is operated by Sky West) replaced their 30 seat turboprop with a 50 seat Canadair Regions Jet 200.
The airport operates on a seasonal basis from June through September. And, of course, most of the other services available at the airport like car rentals and food service operate on the same seasonal schedule as the airport.
Rental cars are available from Avis, Budget and Big Sky Car Rentals. Food service is available at the airport on a seasonal basis at the SmokeJumper Cafe which offers a wide variety of selections for breakfast and lunch as well as appetizers and Express Meals- from eggs to sandwiches including a Hot Buttered Lobster Roll.
For non commercial flights and pilot services you can check with Air Methods and Yeti Aviation.
Choice Aviation is the fixed-based operator and offers fuel, flight instruction, aircraft/hangar rental as well as other services.
Not only does the airport offer commercial air service but is is home to the West Yellowstone Interagency Fire Center which oversees aerial fire fighting operations. The base was established in 1951 at the old airport but moved to its present location in 1965. It is operated jointly by the U. S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. It has a primary response area of the Gallatin, Shoshone, Beaverhead/Deer Lodge, Targhee, Bridger/Teton and Custer National Forests as well as Yellowstone and Teton National Parks.
During the summer it serves as a base for 21 smokejumpers, pilots for the jump plane as well as the fire fighting air tanker. It supports visiting jumpers, tankers and other aerial fire fighting resources.
The long runways at the airport can easily accommodate the large tanker planes that the fire fighters use. It has also accommodated Air Force One when the President came to visit Yellowstone.
Check with you lodging facility to see if they offer airport shuttle service.
For additional information about the airport and the services available check out www.yellowstoneairport.org. And starting this year, the West Yellowstone Airport season will be extended and will have flights from May 9 – Oct. 13. Fly right into West Yellowstone, Montana to get a jump on your adventure.
AUTHOR: SUE KNAPP