Chasing the Clouds

Chasing CloudsWinston-Salem's involvement with aviation dates back to 1911, when the city hosted its first air show. By 1920 Winston-Salem had two airfields; however, they were inadequate. The city initially considered joining with the neighboring cities of Greensboro and High Point to develop a new airport that would serve all three communities. However, the location chosen for a joint airport was not convenient for the city. Led by the local chamber of commerce, a site for a Winston-Salem airport was located just north of the city limits, and just in time: Charles Lindbergh, fresh from his trans-Atlantic triumph, announced that he would tour the United States. Winston-Salem, as North Carolina's largest city at the time, was on the itinerary.

The field was completed just in time for Lindbergh's visit. It was named Miller Municipal Airport, in honor of the local businessman who donated money to equip the field. Two years later, the National Air Tour, underwritten by Ford Motor Company, came to the field. Locally, R.J. Reynolds, Jr., the son of the tobacco magnate, started Reynolds Aviation. It was one of the nation's first commercial air services, with operations in New York City, Rochester, NY, and Winston-Salem.

Chasing the Clouds: The Story of Smith Reynolds Airport combines vintage home movies, rare recordings, never-before-seen photographs and sound effects to document origins of Miller Municipal Airport, its heyday in the 1940s as one of the finest airports in the United States, and its slide from prominence as larger forces shaped commercial aviation.

Smith Reynolds, another Reynolds heir, who was pursuing a career in aviation, also frequented Miller Municipal Airport. In 1930, at the age of 19, Smith Reynolds set an unofficial record for the fastest flight from New York to Los Angeles. A year later, he completed an epic solo flight from London to Hong Kong.

Miller field's initial status as one of North Carolina's best airports declined in the 1930s as rapid improvements in airplanes outpaced the airport's capabilities. However, in 1939, a group of local business leaders, led by R.J. Reynolds, Jr., decided to undertake improvements to the airport that would again make it the best in North Carolina. These leaders were determined to keep the city at the forefront of this developing new form of transportation. They remembered Winston-Salem's struggle for adequate rail service in the 1800s after being initially left on the periphery.

Reynolds hired Howard Cheney, the architect of the groundbreaking new terminal at Washington National Airport, to design a new terminal for Winston-Salem's airport. The Reynolds family also paid for the new terminal, with the understanding that the airport would be renamed after Smith Reynolds, who had died in 1932.

With completion of the expansion in 1942 the city realized its dream, as first Eastern Airlines, then Capital Airlines (the precursor to Untied Airlines) began serving the city. Locally Piedmont Airlines was started after World War II to serve as a feeder airline. The Eastern representative at the dedication of the new terminal said, "No one can deny that this is the finest terminal in the United States." It featured a two-story high wall of windows overlooking the landing field, a restaurant and snack bar, and a luxurious private club with fine wood paneling and a marble fireplace.

Well into the 1950s, Winston-Salem's airport remained the standard by which all other airports in North Carolina were measured. And as Piedmont Airlines grew into a national airline, the airport continued to grow and expand to serve Piedmont's growing needs.

However, aviation was evolving. In 1960 the Civil Aeronautics Board ruled that national airlines should serve only one airport in this part of North Carolina, and that it would be Greensboro's airport, which also served High Point. With that decision, Winston-Salem's airport began a slow atrophy. It remained a busy place, thanks to Piedmont's airline maintenance and general aviation businesses, but the die was cast. Eventually, even Piedmont moved its passenger service to Greensboro. The merger of Piedmont with US Air in 1989 was the final blow.

Today the airport remains a busy general aviation airport. And, because it was bypassed as other airports grew, the 1942 terminal retains its vintage appearance. Chasing The Clouds features photographic archives of the former Piedmont Airlines, including photos from the R.J. Reynolds estate, family photo albums compiled in the 1930s by the original manager of Miller Municipal Airport, and family movies taken at the airport in the 1930s by Charles Norfleet, the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce Airport Committee.