Did You Know: Sky Harbor Airport Once Had A Nickname

November 26, 2013

(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez-KJZZ)
A photo courtesy of the Tempe Arizona Historical Society of Sky Harbor Airport in 1928 when it was partially completed.
(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez-KJZZ)
A photo courtesy of the Tempe Arizona Historical Society of Sky Harbor Airport in 1930 from an office building rooftop.
(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez-KJZZ)
A photo courtesy of the Tempe Arizona Historical Society of Sky Harbor Airport in 1933.
(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez-KJZZ)
A photo courtesy of the Tempe Arizona Historical Society of Sky Harbor Airport in 1938 looking westward.

It is the ninth busiest airport in the U.S. and among the top 15 in the world. Among its unique features is its location in the middle of the city, but once upon a time our airport was considered to be a distance away from…everything.  

In 1928, this airport was a landing hub for airplanes used to tour the Grand Canyon and for private pilot training. It was built in an isolated area away from communities and city life. Did You Know Sky Harbor International Airport was once known as "The Farm?"

“It was a rural area. It wasn’t even a park or in the city limits at the time, and it was an area that was a lot smaller it is today," said Arvin Schultz, an Arizona Aviation historian.

While standing near the airport he told me how businessman and airport founder J. Parker Van Zandt came to build the foundation for today’s travel hub. Van Zandt flew over the Grand Canyon in 1927 and was taken by the view. With investors, he created an air tour business right here in the Valley.

“Started up at the Grand Canyon at Red Butte Airport, and that was a summer operation. So then they came down to Phoenix, (and) he purchased some land from farmers here at 24th Street and Washington," said Van Zandt.

This was a cotton farming area during the 1920s and '30s. It was several miles outside the Phoenix city limits. Van Zandt purchased about 300 acres of farmland, cleared them off and built a landing strip, an office and a hangar and called it Sky Harbor Airport.

Soon after the Depression a new owner took over. By the mid 1930s the City of Phoenix acquired it. Airlines and mail service began operating from the airport and, Schultz said, that is when the airport became known as something else.   

“The pilots are the one nicknamed it The Farm because they knew that it was a rural area and that it had been a farm," said Schultz. 

The nickname stuck for about two decades. In 1949, the Arizona National Guard signed a 99-year lease with the city making the airport its home base. Within that time the Valley began changing and the nickname dwindled.

“Second World War is was what changed everything at Sky Harbor here, because of training that had taken place and then after the war the growth of the city came about and just mushroomed, and it is what it is today," Schultz explained.

He said there have been attempts in the past to change the name of Sky Harbor Airport, but each time it has failed. Interestingly, Sky Harbor has maintained its name since it was founded in 1928, and Schultz said, the direction of two of the runways we use today are longer versions of the original ones Van Zandt created.