Dear Vance, In the past, you’ve written about a number of private airports in our area: Martin Field on Macon, Mid-South Airways on Winchester, and Wilson Field farther east. I’ve come across a reference to another one, apparently called Wright Air Field. What can you tell us about that one?— T.L., Memphis
Dear T.L.: Thanks for remembering my earlier efforts. It’s ironic, really, that I’ve devoted so much space in this column to airports and airfields, since it was the popularity of the newfangled “aero-plane” that brought about the demise of my family’s line of dirigibles. Well, that and the explosion of the Hindenburg , one of the last airships constructed by the Lauderdales, though we don’t like to talk about that one.
Let me warn you right now that what I’m going to tell you about Wright Air Field is going to disappoint you, because there’s a good deal of mystery surrounding this establishment, one that I haven’t been able to resolve to my satisfaction. But wait — I’m getting ahead of my story.
The man involved in this venture was John C. Wright, and right away let me say that I simply don’t know much about him. He’s not listed in old city directories in the 1930s or early 1940s, but in 1942 he just showed up in Memphis, as the owner of a used-car lot downtown at 216 Union, operating out of a former gas station.
The very next year, he evidently expanded his business and moved it to a larger location at 395 Union, and he ran newspaper ads that proclaimed, “You Can’t Go Wrong With Wright.” Who could resist such logic? But then, in 1946, he branched out in a rather astonishing way, by selling airplanes out of the same building where he was also selling used cars. An ad in the 1946 Central High School yearbook showed that he was offering Champion and Chief planes built by a company called Aeronca, and he lured buyers with the promise, “We teach you to fly with the purchase of each airplane.” Well, I should hope so.
His newspaper ads announced, “We buy and sell used aircraft” and he also offered another service: “Wrecks rebuilt by licensed mechanics.” Downtown Union Avenue would seem an unlikely place to haul your wrecked airplane — assuming you were lucky enough to survive the crash in the first place — but that’s what Wright Aircraft Sales & Service said they could do. And remember, he was still in the used-car business, so if you stopped there to get a Plymouth and instead thought an airplane might provide a much snazzier means of transportation, Wright urged customers, “Trade your car for an airplane.” Oh sure, that sounds like a swell idea. Back in those days, with many pilots returning from the war, so much aviation-related news was happening in this area that the Memphis Press-Scimitar hired an aviation editor with the remarkable name of Hilmon Pinegar, who wrote a weekly column called “Wings over the Mid-South.” On March 29, 1946, he announced that John Wright was building a new, state-of-the-art airport “on Highway 51, six miles north of the city.” He wasn’t more specific than that about the location, which is part of the problem with this story, and I’ll get to that later. But in this column, Wright says, “We started flying from the new field on Sunday and our new Aeronca Champion was busy hopping passengers all day long.” So clearly, some kind of runways were in place at the time, unless by “new field” he just meant a cotton field. A lot more features would come later, it seems. According to the newspaper, “Mr. Wright has elaborate plans for development of the airport, including a large modernistic administrative and display building, and a 30-acre artificial lake for recreation and fishing.”
And why stop there? He was also going to sell “a complete line of new cars, trucks, tractors, farm implements, and household appliances” and “has also taken on the distributorship of U.S. Royal tires for Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi.” This man was nothing if not ambitious. Wright noted that his airfield “is conveniently located near two tourist courts, and two restaurants serving good food are also nearby. And we have a large parking area right alongside the highway.” And yet, he never bothered to give readers — or me — a specific address.
Wright had even hired a professional pilot, Leo Valvoda from Cresco, Iowa, to oversee the entire operation. Described as a “veteran ferry pilot,” Valvoda’s war service (this was 1946, remember) included “flying the hump between India and China and flying between Casablanca, Cairo, and Italy.” After all that exotic experience, how he was persuaded to work at a tiny airport between Memphis and Millington is beyond me.
But at any rate, the newspaper ads and the aviation column certainly suggested that a major airfield and commercial center were being developed just outside the city limits. The stories even included a photo of Wright and Valvoda posed next to one of their planes, but the image is cropped so tightly that I can’t see the airport at all; the photo could have been taken anywhere. I located another photo of Valvoda posing with one of the sleek new airplanes (below), but mountains in the distance — dimly visible on the original — suggest this shot wasn’t taken “six miles north of Memphis.”
So here’s the mystery: How much of this actually happened? I guess we can assume that Wright sold airplanes on Union Avenue. But did he ever build the airport and sales center described in such detail in the newspaper? Paul Freeman, an aviation history buff who maintains a website called “Abandoned and Little-Known Airfields,” doesn’t think the airfield was ever constructed: “There was a lot of hype in 1945/46 about a postwar boom of general aviation — the old ‘every returning serviceman will want to fly.’ So, barring any specific photographic/map evidence, I’m not convinced that airport ever existed, other than in some plans or advertising hype.”
And even though I have spent hours and days and weeks poring over old maps and aerial photographs and topographical renderings of the area, I can find no trace of an airport. No hint of runways or landing strips or any of the other distinctive physical features of an airport, which — even if they’re no longer marked on maps — tend to stick out in aerial views or programs like Google Earth.
Today there is a privately operated airport in that general area, called Charles W. Baker Airport, which began life during World War II as a military installation. It’s located on Fite Road, about one mile east of Highway 51, and at first I presumed this might be Wright’s old airfield. But the folks at Baker say they never heard of Wright, and they doubted that he — or anybody else, for that matter — would have built another airport so close by. Aviation folks tend to be a rather tight-knit bunch and would certainly know about these things.
Here’s something else to ponder: Remember that Wright announced his bold plans in 1946. Well, for reasons I can’t explain, no city directories from 1947 exist at any of our local libraries, so that leaves a gap in my detective work. But the very next year, when you would assume his new airfield and sales office would have been up and running, the 1948 telephone directories no longer listed him as the owner of either a car lot or an airplane sales company. The location on Union became home to a different car dealership called Harville Motors. Wright’s own occupation, normally listed in the old phone books, wasn’t even mentioned, just his home address (3582 Highland Park Place, in case you’re curious). And in 1948 Leo Valvoda, his professional pilot, was working for Dixie Air Associates, an aircraft dealer located at Memphis Municipal Airport. So apparently, they parted ways.
Over the next ten years or so, Wright went back to selling cars, working at Union Chevrolet downtown. Valvoda began working as a salesman for something called Nutrilite Food Supplements, and by 1961 he was vice president of the Muzak Corporation in Memphis, with offices downtown. He was still holding that job by the mid-1960s; meanwhile, John C. Wright and his wife, Mildred, dropped out of the phone books entirely, suggesting they either died or moved away from Memphis.
I managed to turn up Social Security records (don’t ask how; it’s complicated) that told me that Leo Valvoda died in Florida in 2001, at the age of 84. But death records, marriage records, even birth records — anything at all that might tell me more about John C. Wright — have eluded me. So I’m as frustrated in that search as much as I am in finding any trace of the airfield and sales center that he may — or may not — have constructed on Highway 51.
Got a question for Vance?
Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103