The first pilot to land an airplane in Payson was Texas-born Cliff Edwards. They called him "Tuffie" from the time he was a youngster and already a capable cowboy. By 1910, at the age of 12, he was riding with the best of them, and soon hired on at ranches in New Mexico and Arizona.
As he grew, he claimed Tonto Basin and Payson as the place and people he enjoyed the most. But in the 1920s, his growing love for the air took him to California where he did stunt flying for the movies. Soon, his moniker became "Tailspin" Edwards.
It the summer of 1935, when he flew his new Canadian Fleet airplane to the August Doin's in Payson. Cliff tells how he "pancaked down in the old Pyeatt meadow."
Writing in his book "Horseback and Airborne" (available at the Rim Country Museum gift shop), he said, "No one was expecting me as it was the first time an airplane had ever landed in Payson. The celebration lasted two weeks. I had never seen so many people at a celebration. Nearly every day, I flew one or two flights to Phoenix with injured cowboys, bull riders and bronc riders. I also flew many flights with sightseeing passengers ..."
His presence proved to be timely. During those weeks, his sister, Estalee Wade (who with her husband had built the Payson Hotel, later to become the Ox Bow Inn) became very sick and he flew her to the doctor in Phoenix.
He continued writing about that summer, "I would fly from daylight to dark and then dance until 12 or 1 o'clock. Then I would go to Mother Hilligas' home, draw a bucket of cold water from the well and pour it over my head. I would then pull my boots off and fall asleep on my bed."
The surprise landing in the meadow west of Payson's Main Street was only the beginning of an airplane fever that gripped local ranchers and residents for the next decades. Some local buffs went together and bought a new airplane for $2,500.
"They were Keith and Lucinda Hathaway, Bob Chambers, Dave Davidson and myself," Audrey Harrison said. "And I think the other was Jimmy Deming."
They called it the Payson Flying Club, and developed Payson's first genuine airstrip along what became Aero Drive (thus the name). This was about 1946, and the 1,800-foot runway went from Ponderosa Street west almost to McLane, past the barn on Doctor Risser's ranch. That airfield had a lot of action for several years, but when the Bush Highway came into town, the Aero Airstrip was cut in two.
It was around 1948 when Preston Dooley developed a second airstrip on the north side of town. He bulldozed the trees down the middle of the valley, creating a strip 250 feet wide. Pilots reported that landings and takeoffs took real skill because the crosswinds made it tricky.
Dooley built a four-plane hanger where the Masonic Lodge is located, and he planned to develop a resort. There was to be a swimming pool and homes for people from the Valley who could spend the season here. It was called Payson Air Park. After four years, the project went bankrupt, and the area was subdivided.
Because of the air park, the streets of the new subdivision were named Airline Drive and after prominent builders of airplanes. The landing strip became Rancho Road, and occasional planes from the Valley continued to land on it. Objections from the new residents soon stopped that practice however.
By this time, the Payson Flying Club had dwindled to three members, and without a place to land, they used the new Bush Highway as a landing strip. Because power lines crossed the road in three places, it was difficult getting in and out. The planes were tied down near Aero Drive. They would taxi out onto the unpaved highway and run up as far as Main Street, turn and take off to the south. As the plane pulled up, it would bank to the right and gain altitude going down the valley. The drivers of autos arriving over the hill into town at those moments were shaken up to say the least. The sheriff would stop traffic, if he was available, but there was not much to worry about. In the '40s, it was still taking five hours of travel between here and Phoenix and the traffic was sparce.
By 1958, the highway had been paved, and its name changed to the Beeline. The presence of more traffic and all the machinery it took to build the road ended the flyway south of town. For awhile, Fritz Taylor allowed the flying club to use his pasture (just south of Rumsey Park).Several fliers unfamiliar with Payson ended up in the oak trees beside the cow pasture and had to be rescued by the Flying Club.The cow tracks made for a pretty rough landing strip, but Fritz drew the line on smoothing it up.
In 1953, a twister hit Star Valley and a hailstorm in Payson stripped the fabric off the planes. Even the frames were severely damaged, and for all practical purposes, that ended the Flying Club. Soon, however, a landing strip was established on Burch Mesa that was destined to grow into today's Payson Municipal Airport.
It took the incorporation of the town in 1973 to give the airport the professional attention it needed.
By 1975 there was an asphalt runway and one tie-down.
The saga of Payson's pioneer fliers is all but lost in the busy air traffic surrounding today's modern airport. But some still remember back 67 years when the first plane landed in the pasture, and horses began to give way to airplanes in the Rim country.