Long before talk of a Johnson County airport, Overland Park had a bustling airfield

A statue of William B. Strang — developer, trolley magnate and airfield impresario — looks out on 80th Street and Santa Fe Drive in downtown Overland Park.
A statue of William B. Strang — developer, trolley magnate and airfield impresario — looks out on 80th Street and Santa Fe Drive in downtown Overland Park. Special to The Star

One should check William B. Strang’s statue off downtown Overland Park’s Santa Fe Drive.

If it’s cracked a smile, it’s not from a casting flaw, but the Kansas governor’s recent suggestion to replace Kansas City International Airport with a Johnson County airport.

That was exactly Strang’s idea a century ago. His Overland Park airfield was the first west of the Mississippi and it was top-flight, equipped with an aviation pavilion, hangars, grandstand and pilot school.

Strang, best known for his interurban trollies running out to Olathe, also was a developer. Attract potential suburbanites out of the soot and clamor of Kansas City, and maybe they’d buy a town lot out on his piece of the prairie.

His first attraction: a baseball field near the limestone trolley car barn that today anchors downtown Overland Park’s north end. But manned-balloon ascents spurred bigger crowds.

Hearing how Charles K. Hamilton was shipping his Curtiss biplane to California, Strang persuaded him to stop here to perform the first flights in Kansas.

The 26-horsepower craft was reassembled in a tent at 79th and Marty, while colored flags on downtown buildings kept excited Kansas Citians apprised of flight conditions. The first “Red Flag Day,” Christmas 1909, packed Strang’s southbound cars.

Over the next days, before cold but clapping crowds, Hamilton set records: 22 minutes aloft, 500 feet altitude, 18 miles distance.

Strang soon built a real airfield a few blocks south, sloping downward, southwest into prevailing winds, perfect for getting flying machines aloft.

Or not. Lost to history, another aviation pioneer wished to soar Overland Park skies three years later. The Kansas City Times was there to sneer at Mike Mikulich and his 200 immigrant supporters.

“Aside from the fact that the engine refused to run, the first machine perpetrated by the Interplanetary Navigation Company was a complete success.”

“Success” in that the dubious craft — three levels, folding wings, 93 gear wheels — did not soar, and thus, the aspiring Serb escaped death.

But injury occurred. Just as the engine seemed about to sputter to life, the propeller cranker’s handlebar mustache snagged in the gears. Ouch!

The reporter couldn’t or wouldn’t translate the frustrated meat cutters’ names for the balky bird. He suggested “Sitting Hen.”

On other days, thousands came for the barnstormers, wing-walkers and parachutists. In World War I, the field produced both trained aviators and Army aircraft. By 1919, one could book a $10 flight to any pasture within 100 miles.

Waking up, Kansas City officials began envisioning a commercial hub just across the Missouri River. Strang offered them his already operating field for free.

We know how that turned out.

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh famously bumped down on the bog that grew to be Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport.

Strang’s dream? Autopsied into house lots.