LogoGreat Falls International Airport

Airport History

Great Falls (county seat of Cascade County) is located on the scenic Missouri River less than 120 miles from the Canadian border, 93 miles northeast of Helena (the state capital), and a few hours drive from Yellowstone or Glacier National Parks. The airport is approximately three miles southwest of Great Falls.

Cascade County is located in west central Montana in the transitional area between the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. At 2,698 square miles, it is the twentieth largest county by area with the third largest population in the state.

Early 'air-mail' plane

Great Falls contains approximately 21.6 square miles, including the airport. However, because of the so-called "4-1/2 mile planning area" law, the City's jurisdiction may contain any land within 4-1/2 miles of the City limits, which translates to an area covering 122 square miles of land.

The Blackfeet Indian Nation controlled the Great Falls area prior to white settlement. This fierce nomadic Plains Indian Tribe presented the sole armed confrontation to the U.S. Government's sponsored Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804. White settlement of Montana began in the early 1860s as precious metals were discovered in southwestern Montana.

Great Falls was founded in the early 1880s as an agricultural center and as a low cost hydro-power production center for smelting and refining precious metals. The City is noted for three sets of major waterfalls on the Missouri River, each harnessed with a hydro-electric dam.

What is today the Great Falls International Airport was recommended to the City of Great Falls in 1928 by the U.S. Department of Commerce as an excellent site for a future airport. In November 1928, the city acquired 640 acres of land and construction was started on Runway 16/34, which was completed in June 1929. Development continued at a steady pace for the next ten years, and in 1939 the airport facilities included four runways, a large hangar, and the familiar white administration building that is currently used by one of the airport's Fixed Base Operators.

In 1939, the Great Falls Airport Commission appealed to Harry H. Woodring, Secretary of War, to locate an Air Corps squadron at Great Falls. In 1941, the Civil Aeronautics Authority provided money for the further development of the Great Falls Municipal Airport, which was known as Gore Field.

During World War II the airport was leased by the U.S. War Department and used as a base for the 7th Ferrying Command. During the war years, more than 7,500 bombers and fighter aircraft passed through Great Falls on their way to the war fronts in Europe and the Pacific. While using the airport as an airbase, the U.S. Army acquired an additional 740 acres of land and built many buildings and other facilities.

In June 1948, the U.S. War Department deeded the airport back to the City of Great Falls with the stipulation that the facility could revert to military control in the event of a national emergency. The airport was released from this clause in 1961.

In May 1942, construction began on an Army Air Corps base six miles east of Great Falls. The base (now known as Malmstrom Air Force Base) was known as the East Base and consisted of four 8,850-foot runways with connecting taxiways leading to a parking apron. While the base was being built, the Air Transport Command's 7th Ferrying Group was assigned to the Gore Field Municipal Airport. Their mission was to establish an air route between Great Falls and Ladd Field in Fairbanks, Alaska, as part of the lend-lease operations with the Soviet Union. In addition, numerous bombardment groups were trained at Great Falls before the units were moved in 1943.

Prop engine in front of the first airport terminal
First Terminal
March 31, 1927 -- Misters Lease, Leedom, Rogers, and Brown
March 31, 1927
W. T. Lease, Reyn Leedom, Will Rogers, and Frank Brown

In 1948, the Soviet Union closed all land travel between West Germany and West Berlin. The United States and Britain vowed not to abandon the West Berliners to the Berlin Blockade, but also realized that any attempt to bludgeon a corridor through Russian lines could ignite World War III. Operation Vittles was born, and Great Falls played a very important role in this drama. Operations Vittles was the code name for the strategic airlift of supplies to a city of over 2 million, and Great Falls was selected as the training site for Berlin Airlifts C-54s due to its favorable flying weather.

In 1975, the terminal at Great Falls International Airport was replaced and all runways, aprons, and taxiways updated. With use of FAA matching funds, the Airport Authority performs annual operations, maintenance, and capital improvements.