Ask McGehee

When was Mobile’s airport downtown?

Bates Field, known today as Brookley Field, was Mobile’s second airport and dated to 1929. The Mobile Airport Authority is currently conducting a feasibility study to determine the impact of moving the airport back to this location. Erik Overbey Collection, the Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

Technically, Mobile’s airport was never downtown, but it was a heck of a lot closer than it is now. While many believe that the city’s first municipal airport was located in the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley, this is not the case.

Around the time of World War I, a young college student named Herndon Smith drove down to the end of Michigan Avenue to check on some family property. The roughly 100-acre site had been purchased as an investment by his father, attorney Harry T. Smith, but, unbeknownst to him, the barren site would soon find a purpose.

To his surprise, the young Smith discovered that the flat landscape was occupied by a number of airplanes. As he watched them land and take off, he got an idea. He approached one of the pilots and explained that this was private property and that the landing fee was $25. To his surprise, the man handed him the money and other pilots did likewise.

From Legion Field to Bates Field

It wasn’t long before the city of Mobile had leased the Smiths’ property to serve as the area’s first airport. The level, treeless expanse was ideal for landing strips. The facility was named Legion Field.

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Legion Field lasted a decade before a larger parcel was obtained near Mobile’s bayfront on Cedar Point Road. A new airport was dedicated there in November 1929 and named Bates Field in honor of Cecil Bates. A longtime city commissioner, Bates had served six terms as Mobile’s mayor and would later be appointed a circuit judge.

The dedication of Bates Field was a busy two-day event, with entertainment arranged by future congressman Frank Boykin. His predecessor, Rep. John McDuffie, arrived from Washington by air for the festivities. This was the first time in the state’s history that an Alabama congressman traveled in an airplane. The experience left the Monroe County native “an enthusiast for the development of aviation, ” according to a newspaper account.

Thousands flocked to Bates Field to watch a parade of planes, followed by parachute jumps and a “maneuverability contest” by naval aviators. Next, the appreciative audience observed an air race between commercial planes whose engines could not exceed 90 horsepower.

Bates Field lasted less than a decade at its 1929 site. In 1938, the property was chosen for a military air depot, which would become Brookley Army Airfield. That base was originally intended for Tampa, but thanks to the political wrangling of Rep. Frank Boykin in Washington, Mobile was selected instead.

World’s Largest Municipal Airport

In March 1941, Mobile’s “Giant Million-Dollar Airplane Field” was dedicated on what was then known as Government Street Road. The rural two-lane road would ultimately be renamed Airport Boulevard. The airport may have moved, but it kept the name of Bates Field.

According to a newspaper account, Mobile could now boast the “largest municipal airport in the world” thanks to its 791-acre site. Nearly eight decades since its opening, the airport has been enlarged, rebuilt and renamed Mobile Municipal Airport.

Airport Boulevard has been widened and traffic continues to draw retailers and car lots. The resulting traffic concerns have certainly assisted in the effort to place the airport back at its second location (Brookley). Supporters cite the accessibility from the interstate as well as a booming downtown Mobile.

And the fate of the first airport location? As a development built to house workers from Brookley, its winding streets today pay homage to a different sort of aviator. It’s called Birdville.

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