A Short History of Flying in Idaho

Varney Airlines, courtesy Idaho State Historical Society

Idaho's storied connection with aviation begins early in the twentieth century. It was here, in the Intermountain West, that commercial airmail first took hold, on the Pasco-Boise-Elko route.

"The airmail had been flown by the army to start out with," said historian Arthur Hart. "But they were killing too many pilots, so the army got out of it. Congress put it out for contract in 1925, and that's when Walter Varney put in a bid for a route that he was sure nobody else would want."

Fire patrol plane, courtesy Idaho State Historical Society

Varney Airlines came to Idaho, not to carry passengers, but to carry the mail. "That was their specialty, but they soon became part of the larger conglomerate called United Airlines – one of several small companies that joined. So United quite correctly considers that its history begins on April 6, 1926, when Varney flew the first commercial mail. Commercial passenger service was immediately thereafter."

According to Hart, Idaho has one other claim to fame. "As far as I can tell, the first smoke jumpers jumped into Idaho. They were based in Missoula, but the first jump was into Idaho, and I think that was in a Travelair."

In its infancy, aviation was propelled by industry, often by mining companies needing equipment flown in to remote locations. In fact, just about every major business in Idaho had its own plane and pilot.

Penn Stohr, of Johnson Flying Service, was one of the most famous of backcountry pilots. He seemed right at home in any kind of weather.

Penn Stohr, courtesy Dan Stohr

In the winter of 1943 Stohr became a national hero when he spotted and rescued five crew members of an army B-23 bomber that had crash landed in the rugged mountains near Loon Lake, outside of McCall. You can still see the wreckage along the shore of the lake.

The headlines of The Idaho Statesman said it all: "Primitive Area Flier Saves Five Airmen Marooned Near Lake." Stohr had been flying the mail plane from McCall to Warren when he noticed the tops of a string of pine trees had been clipped off on the south shore of Loon Lake. "The wings appeared to have been sheared off as the plane was landed," said Stohr.

Bill Woods sits in his plane

The men were rescued the next day. The newspapers called Stohr "Idaho's miracle pilot."

And people still talk about Bill Woods, the self styled "Old Man of the Mountains." He spent 30 years hauling in every conceivable kind of machinery, including tractors and mining equipment and even livestock. Pilots say he left parts of wrecked planes scattered all over the backcountry. Sometimes the wreckage would be hauled down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River to be reassembled later.

But the Old Man of the Mountains managed to log 29,000 hours of mountain flying and, impressively, walked away from every accident.