"Mr. Ainslie is recognized as one of the most skillful aviators in the country. Visitors from all over the world last summer said his was the finest air work they had ever witnessed."
- Avalanche Echo, Nov. 25, 1920
Perhaps nothing caught the attention of Glenwood Springs residents more than the sound of an engine high in the clouds. In May 1920, pilot Walter M. Ainslie did just that when he landed his new Curtiss Humphreys biplane on the polo grounds. Ainslie brought awe, curiosity and a fledgling industry to Glenwood Springs.
Ainslie was not the first pilot to land in Glenwood Springs. Just eight months earlier, on Aug. 16, 1919, four DeHaviland bombing planes flown by the Transcontinental Aerial Squadron, landed on Glenwood Springs' polo field, the location of today's Polo Road.
The mission of the Transcontinental Aerial Squadron was to interest others in the new and rapidly expanding field of aviation, and to demonstrate how flight could bring economic benefits to a post-war society.
When Lt. Erick H. Nelson and his mechanic, Sgt. J.J. Kelly, landed the first plane, the crowd, which had anticipated their arrival for days, had to be ordered away from the plane. Ropes were installed to prevent damage from the curious.
The vision of aviation's future held by Ainslie was more than mere stunts performed by barnstormers. In April 1920, Ainslie formed the Colorado Aviation Corp., capitalized with $10,000. He offered airplane sales, passenger carrying, exhibition and aerial advertising.
Ainslie was no novice to the skies. During World War I, Ainslie served as an aerial instructor. He grew up in Laird, a small community in northeast Colorado.
Strawberry Day 1920 found Ainslie performing aerial stunts which amazed visitors and encouraged the bravest to take a ride in the sky. At $10 to $25 per ride, the experience was one none forgot.
In the months following, Ainslie took his plane to communities across Colorado's Western Slope and into Utah, where there, too, he often gave communities their first glimpse of an airplane. At times his wife, Lura, home economics teacher for Garfield County High School in Glenwood Springs, traveled with him.
The summer of 1920 closed, and Ainslie shifted his operations to warmer climates, flying to Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Accompanying him was his mechanic Harold A. Park, and a student pilot from Gypsum, V.J. Olesen.
Bad weather, bad gasoline and aircraft damage plagued the trip. At Farmington, N.M., the plane was held as collateral until settlement could be reached regarding a car damaged in a fire accidentally set by mechanic Park.
Ainslie had only been in operation for about three months when Rex Smith entered the field. Smith, a 1916 graduate of Garfield County High School, had also enlisted in the Aviation Corps in World War I.
Smith and his plane competed with Ainslie. The Glenwood Springs newspapers hoped both men would make the town the new center for the aviation industry for the Western Slope and Utah.
As competition increased and the novelty faded, Ainslie's sales fell. In January 1922, the Denver hangar storing Ainslie's planes burned, signaling the end of Ainslie's business. The Colorado Aviation Corp. dissolved in March 1922. Ainslie later became a salesman in Illinois.
Many a Western Slope man learned to fly from Walter Ainslie, and it was through his passion and skill as pilot, instructor and showman that the future of Colorado's aviation industry was shaped.
Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. "Frontier Diary," which appears the first Tuesday of every month, is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Summer hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.