LeRoy (left) and Murl (right) Johnston standing in front of the hangar at the State Line Airpark. Photo courtesy of the LeRoy Johnston family.

Gone but not forgotten: The State Line Airpark  

“At its peak, it was a beehive of activity.”

By Diane Euston

 In the last several decades, the South Kansas City boom has quickly demolished much of the farmland which was the livelihood of generations of families. A majority of the modest houses which stood hundreds of yards away from one another on large parcels have been demolished to make way for roads, subdivisions and shopping centers.

  But one small stretch of just over 40 acres of undeveloped land sandwiched in between 133rd St. and 135th St. on State Line. Steps away to the west of Walmart, Lowe’s and a new QuikTrip, the field has been plowed and planted with soybeans. The perfect rows of crops are interrupted by chunks of broken concrete heading in a north-south direction. 

  Those who are new to the area may have never noticed that concrete – or they have written this anomaly off as an old driveway. Others who have called South Kansas City their home for decades will point out that parcel of land and recall, “That was the State Line Airport.” 

  Decades before there was suburban development in the southern portion of Leawood, there were few landmarks that would draw those from the city south. But, for those looking to take up a popular hobby post-World War II, the State Line Airpark was a drive into the country to learn how to navigate the sky.

State Line Airpark looking northwest. The road to the right is State Line where it intersects with the Martin City Road. The road to the left is 135th St. Photo courtesy of the LeRoy Johnston family.

The Beginnings of Private Aviation

  History books tell us that the first airplane, piloted by Orville and Wilbur Wright, took flights in December 1903. Just over a decade later during World War I, the airplane changed how war was fought and won. 

  Starting in the early 1900s, Kansas City welcomed aviators to show off their flying abilities. Because there were no airports, Swope Park was used as an early landing field. Because there was no appropriate place to land, there were several plane accidents. 

  As early as 1919, the city proposed the need for 1200 to 1500 feet of smooth ground. A local poultry farm operator named Ernest Kellerstrass (1865-1946) stepped in with a solution. Kellerstrass owned 100 acres bounded by 85th St. to the north, 89th St. to the south, Oak St. to the west and Troost Ave. to the east. This field was the “highest point in the surrounding territory,” thus making it an ideal landing space. Kellerstrass turned over 80 acres of land for use as a public landing field for airplanes; this was the first public airport in the Kansas City metropolitan area.

  Within a short amount of time, airports got their start in Kansas City. In Kansas City, Kan., an airfield was created in 1921 when the American Legion sponsored a flying show. In 1928, the airfield was named Fairfax Airport. Dedicated by Charles Lindbergh in 1927, Municipal Airport just north of downtown Kansas City became the city’s first commercial airport and Trans World Airlines (TWA) was headquartered there.

  After World War II, thousands of trained pilots returned home with a love of aviation. Flying commercially was on the rise, and even with the creation of these airports, there were few places in Kansas City where someone could land a private plane.

Oliver L. Parks (1898-1985), pioneer of pilot training and aviation.

  Oliver L. Parks (1898-1985), pioneer of pilot training and aviation, entered Kansas City from St. Louis looking for a solution. Parks started Parks Air College at Lambert Field in St. Louis in 1925. Friends with Lindbergh, Parks had suffered serious injuries when he crashed his plane near a Jesuit seminary in Florissant, Mo. Although he was hospitalized for over four months, he survived and felt deeply indebted to the Jesuit priests who saved his life. 

  Parks trained 24,000 pilots during World War II and his school was the first federally approved school of aeronautics. In 1946, Oliver Parks paid back his debt to the Jesuits who saved his life and donated his school, worth about $3 million dollars, to St. Louis University. It exists today.

  When Oliver Parks visited Kansas City in 1944, he found that there were few places to land a private plane safely. He suggested there should be at least six to eight small fields or airparks. “This is the poorest city in the nation for the private flier,” Parks told the Kansas City Star. “There is no place for service or repairs.” 

  Parks looked at possible locations for airports at 63rd and The Paseo, 110th and Wornall and 75th and State Line. None of these locations panned out to be the place for a private airport.

The Founding of State Line Airpark

  By 1946, 300 aircrafts were being flown by local Kansas City pilots. Most were using the “badly overcrowded Municipal Air Terminal.” Airplane enthusiasts were looking for places to build airports, but homeowners near proposed sites complained about the noise.

  A team of two brothers had a solution to the problem.

  Born 25 miles southeast of Topeka in Eskridge, Kan., Murl and LeRoy Johnston had an early love of aeronautics. The first to get the flying bug was LeRoy (1915-1992). He turned his love of flying into a career. After graduating from Washburn University law school in 1936, he started a flight school in Topeka and trained pilots at the beginning of World War II. One of his students was his older brother, Murl (1905-1987).

  LeRoy flew for TWA starting in 1939 and moved to the Kansas City area in 1941. Murl flew during World War II for the Navy, serving at Midway, Pearl Harbor and other places in the Pacific.  

  LeRoy and Murl Johnston heard the call for more airports, and together the brothers located some reasonably flat land at 135th and State Line. Few houses existed in 1946 south of 85th St., so complaints from neighbors wouldn’t be an issue.  Prior, the land simply held space for a cornfield and cherry orchard. 

  In February 1946, the brothers started what they coined the State Line Airpark on 65 acres of flat land south of the city. LeRoy “selected the site near Martin City as being ideal for flying conditions – away from the congested areas but close enough to a large number of people to be convenient.”

An early photo of the State Line Airpark with Murl (left) and LeRoy (right) Johnston, founders of the airport. Photo courtesy of the LeRoy Johnston family.

  Murl later told the Kansas City Star, “It was rugged in those days starting an airport from nothing. We didn’t even have enough money to grade the field properly at first.”

  State Line Airpark started business with two airplanes owned by the Johnston brothers, and in the first few years, they only occasionally held a flight school there. They had to get a co-pilot from one of the major commercial airlines to come out to the airport on their day off to instruct students.

  Within just a few years, State Line Airpark was in the business of buying airplanes because there was a need for more aircraft. They offered 15-minute airplane rides for two dollars. They also expanded to four sod runways, the longest being the north/south strip (2,200 feet long) with two rows of hangars on the southeast portion of the land. A little one-room white structure with “State Line Airpark” painted on a sign welcomed air enthusiasts to the airport. 

  By 1950, the flying school was up and running, training about 100 students annually. The brothers began advertising the State Line Airpark as “the finest and only Airpark in Kansas City.”

May 11, 1947 advertisement for State Line Airpark from the Kansas City Star.

The 1950s

  Business was booming into the 1950s at the State Line Airpark, but the location wasn’t free of accidents. On October 30, 1951, Charles Watkins, 19, and his friend, John Orrison, 20, were practicing landing approaches when something went incredibly wrong.

  Both of the young men were licensed pilots; Watkins was licensed on his 16th birthday and bought a plane that he kept at State Line Airpark. About three-quarters away from the runway, the plane stalled as they approached the airport from the east. The nose struck first.

  Murl and a flight instructor saw the plane go down and called for help. Watkins had passed away before the ambulance arrived, and Orrison died a few hours later.

   By 1953, the airport offered an air charter service, air ambulance service, hangars for rent, flight instruction, plane rentals and aircraft sales and service.

  At the time, Municipal Airport had about 160 small planes based there, but airspace was dangerous “by mixing large and small aircraft there.” Locations such as the State Line Airpark offered an alternative, and by 1953, it was one of only two private airports in the area. The other was the Thirty-First Street Airport at 700 E. US Highway 40. The State Line Airpark, which started business seven years earlier with two planes, had 75 planes and seven full-time employees.

  Jill Rodick, LeRoy Johnston’s daughter, fondly remembers days spent out at the airport with her father. In the office, there was a well-stocked chest freezer with ice cream bars and cold drinks. “At its peak, it was a beehive of activity,” Jill recalled. “Until the Executive Airport near Olathe opened, State Line – that’s what everyone called it – was the only place in the region for small aircraft to use.”

The office at the State Line Airpark, cir. 1960. Photo courtesy of the LeRoy Johnston family.

  The flight school was able to entice would-be pilots to 135th and State Line where it took an investment of about $65 to $75 to learn to fly. To earn a private license, a student needed 40 hours of flying time.

 Murl and LeRoy  also entered into plane sales. At the time, a plane could cost up to $30,000, but there were more affordable options. A “light plane” was available for purchase for as little as $500. A 1953 article in the Jackson County Times proclaimed, “Since all planes must undergo a strict inspection, the plane you buy must be ‘air worthy,’ unlike a $500 used car which may prove to be less than ‘road worthy.’”

  In 1956, the State Line Airpark offered a popular option for everyone. For $5, two passengers could take a 15-to-20-minute plane ride to the Plaza and back. “This provides a mountain-top view of Kansas City’s tremendous spread southward,” the Kansas City Star wrote. “Newly-built suburban homes thin out along the city’s edge into open fields of pastureland.”

  On slow days at the airport, LeRoy would take Jill and her sister on airplane rides. “It was always exciting,” Jill said. “There was a row of trees at the end of the runway. My dad knew just how to pull up and lift that plane right before the trees or drop down right past them to land!” 

  It wasn’t uncommon for area residents, especially as suburban houses began their descent south, to park their cars at the State Line Airpark and watch the planes take off and land. 

Onto New Ownership

  Private airports were fewer in number because of high flying costs and increased regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), founded in 1958. Increased air traffic meant more responsibility for privately-run airports.

  Slowly but surely, owners of large tracts in the area began to sell off their land to investors. In 1955, land just northeast of the airport was sold off and would become Blue Hills Country Club. Red Bridge was already being developed. The suburbs had arrived. “Today, Leawood is practically off our north runway, and Red Bridge is just over the hedge,” Murl told the Kansas City Star in 1962.

This aerial view shows the growth of the airpark with 135th St or Martin City Rd. to the left and State Line Rd to the right.

  In May 1963, a group of 17 investors bought the 65 acres from the Johnstons for $500,000. Murl went on to work as director of aviation for the Johnson County Airport Commission until he retired in 1981. LeRoy continued to fly for TWA until his retirement in 1975.

  These investors were in no hurry to build, however. They leased the land to continue as the State Line Airpark to Bill Nixon, as they thought it would be about five years before they could develop the land for commercial use. “The new owners said that an analysis of Johnson County’s future growth indicates the corner tract eventually will be a strategic development property,” the Kansas City Star reported.

  It would be well over five years before development would cover the 65 acres of the State Line Airpark. Just to the north of the airport, Leawood South began development of 600 homesites and an 18-hole golf course in 1967. 

  As new amenities and homes encroached nearer to the airport, the care of the facilities at the State Line Airpark declined. My father, Larry Euston, earned his private license to fly when he was 18 years old, and as a freshman at Rockhurst College, he and his friend Jeff Johnson would go to the old State Line Airpark. Jeff’s father kept his Cessna 172 there in the late 1960s.

  “It was a hokey little airport,” my dad recalled. “Probably three or four times, Jeff and I would take off from State Line and fly out toward Lake Jacomo, loop around, and fly around the south part of the city.”

  By the late 1960s, the runway was no longer flat and was only one-lane wide. The asphalt didn’t cover the runway, so gravel in patches complicated takeoffs and landings. The row of trees on the north end that Jill remembered her father, LeRoy navigating past were also an obstacle for my dad. “That hedge row of trees forced you to stay higher,” my dad remembered.

  That hedge row of trees still remains just west of Blue Ridge Blvd. and borders the southern portion of Leawood South.

  Even with the decline of the airport’s facilities, the State Line Airpark stayed in business for another decade. The airport did offer commuter service daily to the new Kansas City International Airport, opened in 1972. In 1982, State Line Airpark closed for good.

Even though the land is utilized as a soybean field, the old runway can clearly be seen at 133rd and State Line.

State Line Airport Lives on in Countless Memories

  Surprisingly, one of the last fragments of land to remain undeveloped is a little over 40 acres that once held the State Line Airpark. It sits between 135th St. and 133rd St. In 2006, 133rd St. cut through the old airfield, and the northern portion was developed.

  But even today, little fragments of that old runway peek through the field, a simple reminder for thousands of people of a time long since past – of a time when an airport was a destination in the middle of farmland. 

  It’s just a matter of time when that 40 acres of what remains of the State Line Airpark is covered over by apartments and more retail space. The intersection sees thousands of cars a day as drivers whiz home to the suburbs or stop to shop in one of the many businesses. But for some, they take the time to gaze at that vacant field, recalling a time when so many memories took off and landed there. 

 Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.



1 thought on “Gone but not forgotten: The State Line Airpark  

  1. Diana, I love this story and it is well written and informative. I took my first orientation flight there in an Aronca in 59 or 60 for my boyscout merit badge. My family would go and watch the activity for years before that. We live in Overland Park at 80th terr. Before LAmar existed. My wife and I remember it fondly. I went on to become a private pilot in 71′. 35.5 hours in Manhattan Ks. While attending KSU. I was flying new Cessna T210s with 45 hours. Moved to Overland Park for about 5 years before moving to California. I worked at Midway Ford Trucks and developed several customers because I was able to cove 4 states in a hurry. Sue and I flew in and out of Johnson County Executive and the old Downtown Airport and also Fairfax. I loved landing over the River.
    Again a great article and many fond memories. I would love to share it with my Kids znd Grandkids. Could I please get a complete copy including the pictures. I would be very happy to pay with an invoice.

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