Branson & Orr Airport was Lubbock’s first quest in commercial aviation

Editor’s Note: This week’s Caprock Chronicles is written by Lubbock-based author and aviation historian John McCullough, who holds a master’s degree in history from Texas Tech. This article is about Lubbock’s first airport, Branson & Orr Airport, a private commercial venture located in the northern part of the city.

Before Lubbock Municipal Airport opened in 1930, there was Branson & Orr Airport. Ben Branson and Dayton Orr were Lubbock’s early aviation pioneers. Had their initial business venture been more profitable, they could have enjoyed lasting careers as aviation leaders in Lubbock and West Texas.

At the end of the 1920s, Ben Branson, originally from Dallas, decided to open the first airport in Lubbock. He located it a mile and a half north of the Lubbock County Courthouse and just east of the Amarillo Freeway, now IH-27. He partnered with Lubbock native Dayton Orr, a novice pilot several years his junior, to operate the airfield as a private enterprise.

The original Branson & Orr airport was very primitive. It was just a big grassy field and there was no hangar for planes. However, it temporarily served as Lubbock’s first airport until the larger and better equipped Lubbock Municipal Airport opened in 1930.

Around this time, Ben Branson and Dayton Orr abandoned their original airfield and moved their flight service to the new Municipal Airport.

Everything went well for the first two years. However, a dispute arose over the price of aviation fuel charged by the municipal airport, as reported in the Lubbock Morning Avalanche of April 17, 1932.

“The movement for a new port was launched after a controversy with the city over the price of gasoline, oil and the rental of the shed on the municipal land.”

The article explained that aviation fuel was sold at the airport at 29 cents per gallon, which brought a profit of 10 cents per gallon to the city. Acting city manager James Holt said “10 cents was the usual profit in small ports where the volume of gasoline sales was low.”

The Big Air Circus at Floydada, May 29, 1932.

Unable to resolve this disagreement, Ben Branson and Dayton Orr moved their flight service from Lubbock Municipal Airport to their original location and reopened Branson & Orr Airport on May 1, 1932.

According to an article in the Lubbock Morning Avalanche, the improved Branson & Orr airport had five planes, one of which had a 100 hp Kinner engine with a cruise speed of 95 mph and a top speed of 110 mph. Three of the planes were used for training and two for trips across the country. Initially, there were 25 students at Branson & Orr Airport.

Longtime Lubbock aviator and World War II veteran Van White remembered Branson & Orr Airport. In a 2018 interview, White recalled that Lubbock’s first airport had a flat-roofed metal building that served as a hangar.

He described the airport in detail noting its location, the size of its single hangar (30 feet wide and 40 feet long), and other details. It was situated on 40 acres of land.

“They had borrowed enough money to buy two brand new Aeronca planes, which probably cost $1,200 each. They brought them on a train and started teaching people to fly on them,” Van White said.

His father, Gene White, flew solo at the airport in Ben Branson’s Aeronca.

Gene was an electrician. Branson and Orr asked him to wire their shed for electricity, but they were short on money.

“My dad wired this shed, and they couldn’t afford it. So they told him they would teach him to fly for that [wiring job]. When he had two hours and thirty minutes [of flying time], they put it solo. Dayton Orr soloed my dad,” Van White explained.

At any one time, Branson and Orr had 8-10 students learning to fly. They also provided charter flights.

An overview of Branson & Orr Airport.

Some of Lubbock’s leaders chose Branson & Orr Airport for their departures, possibly because it was three miles closer to downtown Lubbock than the municipal airport. According to Abdon F. “Ab” Holt, this gave Branson & Orr Airport a definite advantage over Lubbock Municipal Airport.

Charles A. Guy, editor of Lubbock Avalanche-Journal Publications, chose to fly Ben Branson and two other prominent Lubbock businessmen to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in July 1932. The party flew from Branson & Orr airport to Amarillo in 56 min.

According to “Ab” Holt, Ben Branson and Dayton Orr closed their private airport permanently sometime later in the 1930s due to declining profits, partly caused by the Great Depression.

Dayton Orr rose to the rank of major in the United States Air Force during World War II, flying in the Air Transport Command. He is assigned to 503rd FAA. After the war, he accompanied President Truman to various destinations in his presidential C-54, nicknamed the “sacred cow”.

Van White said he visited the grounds of the old Branson & Orr airport around 2015. The concrete foundation that the metal hangar once stood on was still there. The rest of Lubbock’s original airport, however, was long gone.

Melissa C. Keyes