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Get your kicks above Route 66Get your kicks above Route 66

Join the Route 66 Air Tour Join the Route 66 Air Tour

The Albuquerque EAA Chapter 179 is sponsoring a fun fly-out Feb. 16 to 19, 2018, that will take you across New Mexico and into Arizona, following Route 66, the “Mother Road.” If you sign up, you’ll get lots of great flying, stay in historic hotels, enjoy fabulous food, meet interesting people, and have a blast, but you’ll also come away with a new historical perspective. Participants will interact directly with all three of the great transportation systems that revolutionized America in successive waves over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. First the history, summarized below, and then the Air Tour itinerary, presented in the accompanying photos and captions. 

  • The tour “kicks” off in the eastern New Mexico town of Tucumcari, home to several classic 1950s-era Route 66 motels. You’ll drive by the Blue Swallow Motel to see its famous neon sign, promising “100% Refrigerated Air” inside. In Tucumcari, tour participants will stay at the Roadrunner Lodge or Motel Safari. Photo by Sylvain L. via Flickr.
  • Participants in the Route 66 Air Tour will arrive at Tucumcari Municipal Airport between 3 and 5 p.m. Mountain time on Friday, Feb. 16. Aircraft of all types are welcome! Here, a Stinson Gullwing and a Cessna 205 (which flew all the way from Michigan) participate in the 2012 Centennial Air Tour, sponsored by the New Mexico Pilots Association. Photo courtesy Joyce Woods.
  • In Tucumcari, you’ll tour the Route 66 Museum, home of the world’s largest collection of Route 66 photos, enjoy a Route 66 history presentation, dinner, socializing, and stay in a classic 1950s Route 66 motel. The Roadrunner Lodge is completely decked out with mod mid-century furnishings and memorabilia. Saturday’s breakfast will be at the Kix on 66 Diner. Photo courtesy Roadrunner Lodge.
  • Departing Tucumcari, you’ll follow Route 66 west. Although not a stop on the tour, pilots can drop down to land or at least do a touch-and-go on the runway at Santa Rosa Airport, because the runway is actually part of the original Route 66. That’s a good one for the logbook! The next stop is Moriarty Airport, home to the Lobo Wing of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF). You’ll have lunch at their hangar and enjoy an airport presentation/community event, to help the local non-flying community understand the importance of general aviation and their local airport. Shown here is a restored PT-26 in the CAF hangar at Moriarty. Photo courtesy Phil Thompson.
  • Departing Moriarty Airport, you’ll head northeast to Las Vegas, New Mexico, observing historic sites along the way that are more easily seen from the air. These include the original Santa Fe Trail, a Civil War battlefield, ancient Native American pueblos, and relics from the railroad’s heyday. After another airport presentation/community event, you’ll head to the historic Plaza Hotel. Built in 1882, this hotel has hosted countless dignitaries and has received significant upgrades—the addition of Spanish Colonial antiques, an expanded and refurbished bar and restaurant—since 2014, when it was purchased and restored by the same owner who did such a magnificent job with La Posada hotel in Winslow, Arizona (where you’ll stay later). Photo courtesy Plaza Hotel.
  • You’ll enjoy fine dining Saturday night and Sunday morning at the brand-new Range Café in the historic Plaza Hotel. At the Plaza Saloon, you can unwind at the full-service bar with patio seating. The saloon features a 25-foot-long solid granite bar and has elevated views of Plaza Park through an entire wall of tall Victorian era windows. The saloon offers an extensive selection of New Mexico craft beers, plus casual comfort fare. Photo courtesy Plaza Hotel.
  • Fans of the Netflix series “Longmire” might recognize the view outside the Plaza’s lobby—the Las Vegas Plaza Park is across the street from Sheriff Walt Longmire’s office in the fictional Durant, Wyoming. An exceptionally well-preserved frontier town that in 1900 boasted New Mexico’s largest population, Las Vegas contains an enormous trove of architecturally significant buildings, many housing one-of-a-kind shops, galleries, and eateries. Generations of ranchers, merchants, and artisans have thrived here, their livelihoods enhanced by the development of the Santa Fe Trail and Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railway. Photo courtesy Plaza Hotel.
  • Departing Las Vegas, New Mexico, pilots will head southwest to Grants-Milan Airport, about 60 nautical miles west of Albuquerque on old Route 66. Both before and after landing at Grants, you’ll observe some of the arrows built to help Air Mail pilots navigate across the country nearly 100 years ago (see article text). The first commercial airline services also used the arrows. Photo courtesy Joyce Woods.
  • On the ground at Grants, after a presentation/community event and lunch at the 1960s-style WOW Diner, you’ll tour the Cibola County Aviation Heritage Museum, which honors those pioneer aviators who crossed the West along the 1929-era Los Angeles-to-Amarillo segment of the Midcontinental Airway. You’ve seen one of the giant arrows that literally pointed the way across the country from the air. Now you’ll see a beautifully restored arrow with the complete beacon and generator station, right here. Photo courtesy Joyce Woods.
  • Departing Grants, pilots will view more airway markers and then overfly the Painted Desert, about 40 nautical miles east of Winslow, Arizona. The desert is composed of stratified layers of easily erodible siltstone, mudstone, and shale of the Triassic Chinle Formation. These fine-grained rock layers contain abundant iron and manganese compounds that provide the pigments for the various colors, often amplified in the low light just before sunset. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Before you land at Winslow, you’ll fly over Meteor Crater, the world’s best-preserved meteor impact site and almost a mile across. The meteorite, a chunk of nickel and iron about 150 feet across, weighed 300,000 tons and slammed into the ground about 50,000 years ago. The blast was about 150 times the force of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. The crater eventually filled with water, which evaporated after the climate dried out. Photo courtesy USGS.
  • The Winslow Airport was built in 1929 by Transcontinental Air Support (TAT). Aviator Charles Lindbergh, who served as head of TAT's Technical Committee, chose Winslow as one of twelve critical refueling stops on the nation's first transcontinental passenger line. Coast-to-coast service began in July of 1929 with a combination of daytime flights and railroad sleeper cars on two rail lines, reducing travel time between New York and Los Angeles from four days via train only, to 48 hours via aircraft/train. You’ll see the original TAT hangar, shown here during the High Desert Fly-In and Car Show that normally takes place each summer. Photo courtesy High Desert Fly-In.
  • No visit to Winslow is complete without standing on THE corner—about 100,000 people do it each year. In 1999, city leaders paid tribute to the classic Jackson Brown/Glenn Frey song “Take It Easy,” the first mega-hit by the country/rock band The Eagles, by creating Standin’ on the Corner Park on a downtown corner of Route 66. They put a bronze statue of a 1970s-era troubadour with his guitar and put the word out to the public to “Slow down and take a look.” The bronze, named “Easy,” stands in front with the flat-bed Ford. Photo courtesy Winslow Chamber of Commerce.
  • La Posada's Ballroom with a roaring fire and handmade Mexican tin sconces designed by Master Tinsmith Verne Lucero. Back in the era of cross-country train travel, tourists flocked to Winslow, Arizona, lured by this magnificent Fred Harvey property, which opened in 1930. But in the 1950s, Americans turned to the automobile and inexpensive “motor hotels,” or motels, and La Posada closed. Then in 1997 an idealistic quartet of artists with no hotel experience decided to buy and restore La Posada, doing most of the work themselves. Now La Posada, with its Turquoise Room restaurant, is better than ever. Photo courtesy Daniel Lutzick.
  • La Posada’s Turquoise Room opened in 2000 under the direction of Chef John Sharpe, nominated for the 2011 James Beard Award. They source local produce, including herbs from their own garden. Traditional items fill the breakfast menu, but try the baked egg dishes, popular during the Fred Harvey era. Dinner items include elegant game, Harris Ranch beef, lamb, and Southwest specialties like crispy pork carnitas and mango salsa over black beans and red chile, with creamy polenta and fresh vegetables. Photo courtesy Dan Lutzick.

After the Civil War, the United States launched a program to quickly build a transcontinental railroad to unite the country from coast to coast and greatly speed the movement of people and goods. Once this monumental task was accomplished, railroad companies built additional lines and spurs to cover more of the vast Western spaces. Into this mix burst Fred Harvey, who partnered with America’s largest railroad, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, to create the first national chain of hotels, restaurants, and retail stores, positioned at key locations along the rail lines. Eastern folks thought of the West as uncivilized, which it was, but Harvey served the finest cuisine both on the trains and in the hotels, complete with white linens and crystal, and hired an entire corps of adventurous, bright, independent young women—the Harvey Girls—to tend to the needs of his customers. Lured by luxury, tourists flocked to New Mexico and Arizona via train, and a huge tourist industry was born.

Although the automobile was invented before the airplane, cars were, at first, essentially curiosities for personal use. Once the airplane was invented, it was almost immediately put to commercial use—first as an instrument of war during World War I, and then as a tool for the second great transportation revolution: airmail. Transcontinental delivery of mail by air began in 1920, but pilots lacked navigational tools. In 1924, Congress approved funding for the U.S. Postal Service to construct a ground-based visual navigation system. A series of concrete arrows 50 to 70 feet long, visible from the air, and spaced 10 to 25 miles apart, would literally point the way across the entire nation. To increase the effectiveness of the system, a steel tower, topped by a beacon, was constructed at each arrow. Two rotating lights of between 1.25 and 2.5 million candlepower could be seen by pilots from many miles away. By 1933 about 1,500 towers and beacons marked about 18,000 miles of multiple routes and reduced transcontinental delivery time from 83 to 30 hours.

Your other lodging choice in Tucumcari is Two Gun Larry’s Motel Safari, a Route 66 icon since 1959. Photo courtesy Motel Safari.

The third transportation revolution was, of course, the car. After World War II, as the prosperous U.S. economy produced a huge middle class, travel tastes changed. Americans explored their country in their own new cars. Fancy was out; inexpensive “motor hotels,” or motels, were in. Railroad travel faded as tourists put rubber to pavement on Route 66, “the Mother Road.” Many motels employed creative neon signage to lure tourists, while souvenir shops plastered billboards along the road for miles to advertise their wares. Alas, the glory days of Route 66 were already numbered.

La Posada originally opened in 1930. Due to the Depression, architect Mary Colter’s extensive garden plans went unrealized; the plans were subsequently lost. During the renovations that began in 1997, a BNSF employee found the original garden plans on microfilm, and now you can stroll down to the secluded sunken garden, where koi live in a petrified wood fountain. Photo courtesy Daniel Lutzick.

Way back in 1919, a government convoy traveled from New York to California to make the case for federal involvement in road development. Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower was along on that ride, which, together with his later experience on the German autobahn network during World War II, convinced him that the United States needed a well-planned highway network, a concept he implemented as president. In 1956, the Highway Trust Fund was created to fund the Interstate Highway System, which has facilitated U.S. transportation ever since. Interstate 40, parts of which parallel the old Route 66, bypassed many of the towns that depended on auto tourism, and local businesses suffered. La Posada, the great Harvey hotel in Winslow, Arizona, suffered the double loss of train and auto tourists, and went bankrupt in 1957. But as you’ll see on this tour, La Posada has been restored to its former glory, and then some! Read more about Winslow and La Posada here—as the last stop on the tour, you can explore it on your own if you wish. Check the photos for a visual itinerary and make plans to join the tour!

La Posada, the last and most elegant of the Fred Harvey hotels built by the Santa Fe Railroad, opened in 1930 and soon became a haven for Hollywood. But with the decline of railroad travel, visitation declined, and the hotel closed in 1957. Forty years later, four young partners with no hotel experience bought La Posada and restored it to its former glory, and then some. Today you can again stay in this beautiful hotel, stroll out back, and watch the trains go by. Photo courtesy Daniel Lutzick.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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