Ben F. Redman was a short and stocky Salt Lake businessman who resembled somebody’s grandfather, and he had a passion. He was convinced that the new field of aviation held great promise, not only for the country, but also for Salt Lake City.

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Ben Redman and J.A. Tomlinson pose in front of the Douglas M-2 biplane the flew in to become the nation’s first airline passengers.

As chairman of the aviation committee of the Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club, he lobbied long and hard for improvements to the new airport, then called Woodward Field after an airmail pilot named John Woodward who crashed en route to Cheyenne from Salt Lake City. And as a major stockholder in the new Western Air Express, he worked hard to bring commercial airmail service into being. He was a principal in Redman Van and Storage, and the confluence of his business and civic responsibilities was a boon for the city.

Western Air Express would later be rechristened Western Airlines. But for that to truly happen, it had to start carrying passengers. So, just five weeks after it began running airmail on a scheduled basis, the time had come for it to add people to its cargo.

Redman stepped forward, along with fellow businessman J. A. Tomlinson. Because he was chairman of the aviation committee, Redman was designated as the official passenger No. 1. It was a momentous event. As the Deseret News reported, “Opening of passenger service between Salt Lake and Los Angeles by Western Air Express, Inc. Sunday marks the dawn of regular commercial aerial passenger traffic in America.”

It was to be the first time in the history of U.S. aviation that daily aerial passenger service has been offered by a commercial air line on a fixed schedule, said the paper, quoting James G. Woolley, traffic manager who had arrived on Friday’s mail plane to complete the arrangements.

Redman lobbied hard for the honor. He and Tomlinson paid $90 ($918 in 2002 dollars) for their one-way flight, Redman making his reservation with a $20 check as a deposit. On May 23, 1926, they were given coveralls, leather helmets, goggles, and parachutes. Then they positioned themselves out in the open in the Douglas M-2 biplane, sitting in the mail hold in front of the pilot, Charles N. “Jimmy” James. Someone gave them box lunches and a tin can for a portable toilet facility.

The M-2 was a strong, sturdy aircraft powered by a 400 horsepower Liberty engine and had a wingspan of nearly 40 feet. It was chosen by the Post Office for its durability. The six-foot long mail compartment could carry 1,000 pounds and had two removable seats. An aluminum cover folded down so the passengers could enter, then they sat well down in the hold and were protected by windshields.

They took off at 9:30 a.m. Mountain Time–right on schedule. They flew to Las Vegas for about six hours, landed for a short stay, then flew off to Los Angeles, arriving at 5:30 p.m. Pacific Time. Two Los Angeles businessmen, Charles Kerr and A.B. deNault, made the east-bound trip on the same day.

The new service was designed to cut 19 hours off the travel time between Los Angeles and points to the east, claimed the airline’s Woolley. Presumably, people in a hurry could fly from Los Angeles to Salt Lake, then take a train the rest of the way east. That would make Salt Lake an important junction for both air and rail travel. Besides, it would bring prominent visitors to the city and lengthen their stay in the city, he said.

“Passenger service will be available every day unless weather conditions are such that it would be dangerous,” said the Deseret News. “There are two seats that may be occupied.” And the airline boasted that in 35 days of operating the air mail route, the carrier had flown 45,000 miles “with no serious mishap, no defaults or forced landings, which is considered a remarkable record for a new line.”

Maude Campbell accepts flowers after becoming Western Air Express’ first woman passenger in 1926.

Historian Roger D. Launius noted that the new service caught on quickly. By the end of the year, Western had carried 209 passengers and made $1,029. One of those passengers was the first woman passenger, Maude Campbell of Salt Lake City, who flew about two weeks after Redman’s flight on May 23. Her round-trip ticket cost $160 ($1,632 in 2002 dollars).

Western’s success brought others into the field. Actually, two airlines claimed to be pioneers in carrying passengers. Varney Air Lines said it flew passengers a few days before Western, and Varney became one of the group of carriers that merged to form United Air Lines. Western maintained it was the nation’s oldest continuously operated airline, and that Redman was the first passenger in the country. And he had the ticket to prove it.

Five years later, in 1931, Redman was honored by the Chamber’s board of governors for his long work and service to the community as head of the aviation committee and a member of the board. They sent a petition to the city to have the airport change its name from Woodward Field to Redman Airport. It would have been a great honor, but it didn’t fly.


Sources: Deseret News. 22 May 1926; 13 March 13, 1976. Roger D. Launius “Crossroads of the West: Aviation Comes to Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly, 58 (Spring 1990): 108-30. Smithsonian National Aerospace Museum Web site, Minutes of the Board of Governors, 18 June 1931, Salt Lake Chamber papers, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah.