The late 1940s and all of the 1950s were a golden age for air travel in La Grande.
It’s an era made possible by the late aviation pioneer Bert Zimmerly, a courageous man whose inspiring but often overlooked story will not be swept away by the hands of time.
Author and historian Richard Roth, a man with deep Grande Ronde Valley roots, is making sure of it.
Roth has written a recently released book about Zimmerly, “Empire in the Sky: The Bert Zimmerly Story.” The profusely illustrated coffee-table book tells the story of the man ultimately responsible for bringing daily passenger airline service to the Grand Ronde Valley in 1948 via a company he started, Empire Airlines.
“It was a big addition. Now (La Grande) was connected by air with nearly every other city in the world. It was no longer dependent on the Union Pacific Railroad,” said Roth, who grew up at Hot Lake in the 1940s and ‘50s.
Empire Airlines provided daily air service between Spokane, Washington, and Idaho Falls, Idaho, stopping at cities including Walla Walla, Pendleton, Baker and Ontario.
Whether in La Grande or Boise, passengers had to hustle to avoid missing flights since Empire Airlines planes stopped for only three minutes before taking off again. One of each plane’s two engines would remain running after landing to allow for it to take off faster and to be able to maneuver on the runway, Roth said. Such quick stops were possible because there were often only two or three passengers to pick up.
Empire Airlines pilots often had to make a dozen landings and takeoffs a day, which took its toll.
“Pilots were exhausted at the end of the day,” said the author, who now lives in Orting, Washington.
Zimmerly demanded a lot from his pilots and everyone who worked for him and could lose patience easily, Roth said. Still, he was very devoted to his family and had a heart like few others when it came to rescuing those in emergency situations. Zimmerly was well known for the numerous mercy flights he made for those who needed help.
“The mercy missions of Zimmerly became so numerous that people in the mountain vastness of Idaho accepted as routine the arrival of a Zimmerly ambulance plane which landed on spots never intended by nature to be landing fields,” Roth wrote.
One of Zimmerly’s best known mercy flights was made in 1939 to rescue a rancher in Hells Canyon who had just suffered a serious stroke. Zimmerly landed his plane on the bottom of Hells Canyon, becoming the first pilot to land there.
“This was a pioneer undertaking as no one thought landing in the canyon was possible,” he wrote.
Zimmerly had a reporter for the Lewiston News Tribune and a physician with him as passengers. When making the landing, Zimmerly told his passengers, “This will be the smallest field you ever landed on,” Roth wrote.
The author described the landing: “The field was rutted with irrigation ditches and the landing was made crosswise to them and parallel to the ditches.”
Not surprisingly, the landing was about as rough as Zimmerly feared.
“The heavy ship bounced, groaned, and almost screamed with terrific jolting,” Roth wrote.
Regardless of where he was flying, Zimmerly, who lived in Lewiston, Washington, often tried to put those flying with him at ease.
“He would tell passengers, ‘A bird doesn’t go down and neither does a plane,’” Roth said.
Zimmerly’s Empire Airlines had a perfect safety record, for none of its planes ever crashed and no passengers were lost. The same could not be said for Zimmerly, who while on mercy missions and personal flights took many chances. A plane he was flying in October of 1934 crashed near Elk City, Idaho, when it hit a tree, but both Zimmerly and his passenger walked away from the crash.
About 14-1/2 years later he was flying alone on a trip from Spokane to Clarkston, Washington, when he suffered fatal injuries in a crash near Pullman, Washington. To some it must have seemed like the odds had finally got the best of him.
“Up until the time of his death he flew into many places that required extremely skillful flying and involved a high degree of skill. Bert flew into areas that many pilots would not even attempt,” Roth wrote.
The many people who paid tribute to Zimmerly after his tragic death included Roben Maaske, who was then the president of Eastern Oregon University, then named Eastern Oregon College of Education.
“Bert was a fine, kind and generous person and I always thought very kindly of him,” Maaske said in a quote from “Empire in the Sky.”
Maaske likely was familiar with Zimmerly because in the early 1940s his company, Zimmerly Brothers Air Transport, ran a military flight training program at the La Grande/Union County Airport.
French Ellsworth, a close friend of Zimmerly’s, spoke of Zimmerly in a fashion similar to Maaske in a quote in Roth’s book taken from a Feb. 18, 1949, edition of the Spokane Daily Chronicle.
“There was a wholesome quality about the personality of Bert Zimmerly that made his presence inspiring company,” Ellsworth said.
Zimmerly’s son, Bert Zimmerly Jr., said his father always wanted to get people to buy into his “project.”
“He believed that if people worked with him, he could make things work and get people caught up in his enthusiasm,” said Bert Zimmerly Jr., who lives in Hillsboro.
Bert Zimmerly Sr. died about three years after leaving Empire Airlines — he had been voted out of the company by its board for reasons that are still not known today. He then continued operating Zimmerly Air Transport, which provided services including aerial crop spraying, pilot training and airplane repair. His wife, Edna, ran the company for four years after his death before selling it in 1953.
Meanwhile, Empire Airlines merged with West Coast Airlines in 1952.
“It was good merger,” Roth said.
He explained there was not a lot of flight route overlap because Empire served the east part of the Northwest and West Coast served the west side. Another plus was that both companies used only DC-3 aircraft, thus nobody had to learn how to fly or fix aircraft they were not familiar with.
West Coast Airlines provided passenger plane service in La Grande through the early 1960s, Roth said. West Coast pulled out of the area because of declining passenger volume. Roth attributes part of this to better driving opportunities.
“Cars were getting better and so was the highway, so a lot of people were driving to Portland instead of flying,” he said.
Roth also said ridership slipped because the economy in the 1960s was not as strong as it was in the 1950s and that fewer people were flying just for the sake of flying.
“Air travel was still a novelty in the 1950s,” said Roth, noting one pilot told him in 1950 just 10 percent of Americans had ever flown in an airplane.
Roth was among those in the Grande Ronde Valley enthralled with flight, and the chance to see the DC-3s of Empire and West Coast airlines come into the valley provided him with an unforgettable thrill.
“They flew so low I could almost see the passengers inside when I stood on the third floor at Hot Lake (then a health care facility),” Roth said.
He also recalls watching the pilots of these passenger planes struggle a bit while getting started on their trips to Pendleton.
“They would have to circle the Grande Ronde Valley twice to get enough altitude to get over the Blue Mountains,” said Roth, the author of four books about Hot Lake and “The Central Railroad of Oregon — Oregon’s Blue Mountain Route,” which is about the old railroad between Union and Cove.
The La Grande/Union County Airport has not had passenger air service since around 2001, according to a story in the Feb. 29, 2016, Observer. Roth believes it would be more difficult today for someone like Zimmerly to start an airline service for small communities in the Northwest. He said one reason is there are many more government security and environmental regulations that have raised the cost of operating airlines.
Still, Roth believes if Zimmerly were a young man today, he would be a successful entrepreneur in the airline business.
“He was always thinking about the future. He was ahead of the curve while everyone else was trying to catch up,” Roth said.
“Empire in the Sky” was proofread by David Yerges of Summerville, and its cover design was created by Patrick Rodwell of Seattle.
A copy of Roth’s book is now at Cook Memorial Library. For information about obtaining a copy of “Empire in the Sky,” email Roth at email@example.com .