Williams aviation history part IV: Nearly 3,000 attend opening of Webber Field in 1925
“In five years from today you will be able to buy a ticket in New York, eat your breakfast there, cross the continent and eat your dinner in the evening in San Francisco,” said Walter Lindblom, the toastmaster at the celebration of the opening of Webber Field in Williams in 1925.
The year 1925 was pivotal for aviation; World War I had ended and Congress passed the Air Mail Act that authorized the postmaster general to contract for domestic airmail service with commercial air carriers.
The Webber Field dedication was attended by about 3,000 people and included seven aviators from Fort Bliss, Texas and Rockwell Field near San Diego, according to the June 12, 1925 edition of the Williams News.
The community was eager to view the seven army planes and two commercial planes that flew in to Williams, near the present day rodeo grounds, for the ceremony.
The crowd was not disappointed as they were treated to aerial stunts by C.N. Mays and Ted Penney, an evening banquet at the White Café and hours of dancing to the Barney Googlers downtown that evening.
The dining and dancing were broken up by talks from various aviators.
“With men like Henry Ford and Wrigley of chewing gum fame taking up the airplane and testing it out, you may be sure that the day of universal flying is near at hand,” said Colonel Graham, commander of Rockwell Field that evening.
The Rockwell aviators were behind the naming of the new field in Williams. Although the community was planning to name the field after Lieutenant Alexander Pearson, who used Williams as his base for the first surveys of the Grand Canyon in 1921, they suggested naming it for Lieutenant Charles T. Webber after revealing that a field had already been named for Pearson who died in a crash in 1924.
According to historian Alexander D. Bevil’s article “The Aircraft Crash Memorial on Japacha Ridge,” Webber was a 26-year old Army Air Service pilot stationed at Rockwell who conducted numerous surveys for possible air routes and emergency landing sites around the Southwest.
Webber, along with Colonel Francis C. Marshall, went on a fact-finding mission of cavalry posts across the Southwest in December 1922 from Rockwell Field near San Diego when their plane crashed in the Cuyamaca Mountains and both were killed.
Webber was born in 1896 in Mosca, Colorado and joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ Aviation Section in 1917. He completed a short stint in the Philippines and then was stationed in Rockwell Field in 1922. He became chief test pilot and officer in charge of flight training with one of his main responsibilities to test every repaired airplane before it was put back in service.
He and his partner, First Lieutenant Virgil Hines, also spent considerable time making flights over the southwest looking for auxiliary landing fields. He logged nearly 4,000 miles in his de Havilland DH4B recording possible air routes and emergency landing sites throughout the southwest.
His commander, Major Henry Arnold ,recognized Webber and Hines for their contribution to the establishment of future transcontinental airways.
When Webber and Marshall went missing in 1922, the ensuing search and rescue mission was the largest scale operation ever undertaken.
The war department issued instructions to use every facility at the command of the government in an effort to clear up the mystery of the missing aviators.
According to the Washington Post, the search would become one of the most comprehensive air and land search and rescue missions ever by the US government. At its peak, 40 military planes, two civilian aircraft and nearly 100 pilots would fly the border region between California and Texas.
After 12 days of searching, the operation was scaled back and most believed Webber and Marshall had perished.
Three months later, in May 1923, a local rancher came upon the crash site of Webber’s de Havilland airplane while riding horseback along Japacha Ridge. He found a large 12-cylinder engine lying on its side and a jumble of twisted metal that appeared to be an airplane fuselage, according to Bevil.
Next to the wreckage, investigators found sections of the canvas wings with the red, white and blue star and circle of the Army Air Service. The also found the charred remains of the two aviators.
Investigators later determined the aviators had hit trees because of low fog, which brought the aircraft down with such force they believe the aviators died on impact.
Six months later, Webber and Marshall’s fellow aviators returned to the crash site and created a memorial for them. The rancher eventually sold his ranch during the Great Depression to the California Department of Beaches and Parks in 1933. The ranch became Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, and Civilian Conservation Corps workers developed the park with facility upgrades and trails, including the Japacha Ridge Trail that led to the airplane crash monument site.
In 1968, the site was upgraded and the monument rebuilt by park workers. In 2003, the Cedar Firestorm tore through the park destroying numerous archaeological and historic artifacts, but the memorial to the aviators remained unscathed.
Bevil said that aviators will be remembered for flying outdated machines through treacherous skies over forbidden terrain to map potential air routes and emergency landing sites throughout the Southwest.
Webber Field in Williams remained an important airstrip for northern Arizona until it was replaced by H.A. Clark Field in 1934.