Charles Lindbergh Airport in Winslow sits in a unique position at the bottom on of Little Colorado River Valley at 4,800 feet between the San Francisco Peaks, Mogollon Rim and high desert mesas. This airport has historically been in a strategic position that attracts an assortment of pilots and planes. Last week, an old almost forgotten friend came back for visit that has not been here for 64 years.
The 1937 Lockheed 12A Electra Junior "Ellie" for LE or Lockheed Electra glistened under the big skies; looking more like a strapping 40s-era rocket vision for the future with its shiny aluminum build and red retro striped lighting paintjob.
The last known time this particular Ellie, called, "The Spirit of TWA," had been to Winslow, it was being flown by flown by Paul Richter, executive vice-president and one of three founders of Transcontinental and Western Air (later Trans World Airlines). He would bring the plane through Winslow to refuel while checking the routes as they were increasingly establishing flight paths.
The Ellie flown by Richter was also TWA's high-altitude research lab, flown by famed pilot Tommy Tomlinson. Developments discovered on this plane included: over weather flight, static discharge, and the de-icing equipment found on today's modern aircraft.
This machine is solid. There isn't a drop of soot and oil anywhere on the plane even inside the 450 horsepower Pratt & Whitney propeller engines. Each of the 130 Ellies built, were all hand-made. Each one is slightly different and they are all solid. It is one of the few airplanes never to have had a FAA airworthiness directive issued against it, meaning it has never had a serious mechanical problem that required fleet-wide action.
Ellie stopped in Winslow during those early days of commercial aviation. TWA or its predecessor Transcontinental Air Transport was in fact, the first to begin commercial airplane flights for public travel. At the time, Winslow was a fueling stop on the TAT and later the TWA cross-country route in North America. Ellie was here blazing the aerial trail.
The current owner of the Ellie was recently reunited with it only a year ago since she was a young girl during the early 1940s.
"I remember being here in Winslow and coming off the plane in my pajamas as I sometimes tagged along with my father on his trips," said Ruth Holden. "I can even remember running over there to the airport ticket booth and being so excited to get a soda."
Soon into her teens, Holden's father passed away and Ellie disappeared into the skies.
After growing up and working as an airline stewardess, Holden had been collecting much of her father's boxes of correspondence, TWA Advertisements, logbooks, awards and memorabilia.
A 1941 aviation article quoted Richter to say," But no matter the length of the war, the expansion of aviation is coming, just as sure as new life is coming," he said. "And it will be an astonishing expansion to the entire world. Even during the war some expansion will come. We have become dependent upon aerial transportation and nothing can stop the progress nowŠ"
"My father received an Arizona pilots license #2. He was the second in the state to receive one." Holden said. "His partner, TWA President Jack Frye, got the first."
Part of Frye and Richter's earlier success came from a their enterprise with other TWA founder Walter Hamilton, which played off the fame of Lindbergh transatlantic flight. After Richter left the Thirteen Black Cats, an aerial stunt group that put on shows and performed in Hollywood movies, he, Frye and Hamilton founded an aviation school and people were coming out of the woodwork to get their pilots license. This grew into a crop dusting company which grew to a commercial flight business from LA to Phoenix then to connect with the railroad in El Paso. Soon the TAT path that went through Winslow merged with Western Air Express and TWA was formed.
Since Richter's passing, and after many years, Ruth decided she would learn to fly and has had her pilots license for over a few years now.
"I'm living proof that you are never too old to live your dream," she said.
Around the time of getting back to the skies, Holden became more interested with her father's work, so she created a website to help preserve his history.
"Then one day out of the blue, a woman calls me to get information about aircraft history because she had an old Lockheed Electra for sale and wanted the information to promote the sale of the plane," she said.
Holden and her daughter went through all her father's documents and they discovered that not only was the plane owned by TWA from '40 '45, but that it had been flown by Richter and was the same plane that Holden had been in as a child.
"Why am I helping to sell this airplane to someone else?" Holden thought at the time.
"I was getting daily confirmation from my father's old papers and logbooks that I was supposed to have this airplane," she said.
Nineteen owners and 60 years later, Holden did everything she could to get enough money together and bought Ellie.
With the help of her friend Curt "Rocky" Walters, an American Eagle pilot, they flew back to Georgia to reunite Holden with the plane from her childhood.
"I feel everything I have done in my life has culminated to the point where I became involved with this airplane," Walters said.
Since then Pilot Holden and Captain Walters have restored Ellie to look as it did when it rolled off the line in '37 after being created from plans by notable aircraft designers Kelly Johnson and Hall Hibbard.
Holden and Walters climbed aboard the plane on their last stop in Winslow before flying home in San Luis Obispo, Calif. They were on their way home from the Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisc., where they displayed Ellie. This huge airshow attracts about 500,00 750,000 people a day for one week to see almost 24 hours of events with displays from The Spirit of St. Louis to the Stealth fighter.
"We both strongly feel that our purpose now is not as plane owners you cannot own history we just the guardians of this flying museum," Holden said.