LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - July 1 will mark 75 years since a Braniff Airlines flight landed in Lubbock. It was the first commercial passenger flight to come to Lubbock and was piloted by Edwin “Rhea” Mitchell from Lockney.
“Tom Braniff, the CEO or the founder of Braniff, gave him permission to [pilot] because he was flying the route from Dallas to Chicago and St. Louis, and occasionally to Albuquerque,” Wes Mitchell, Rhea’s son, said. “When they found out that Lubbock was going to get air service, he said, ‘Well, since you’re from that area, I’ll let you make the inaugural flight.‘”
Wes, who lives in Lubbock, still has his father’s airline log books, which documents that inaugural flight on July 1, 1945. A DC3 carried dignitaries, including Tom Braniff, making a deviation in order fly over Mitchell’s hometown.
“Braniff gave him the permission to make a flight over Lockney on the way here,” Wes said. “As he went by, went over Lockney and he waggled the wings and said hi, basically, and then came on down and finished the flight here.”
Rhea made the move to Dallas to join Braniff a year before as the airline began expanding into markets around the United States and the world.
“They were starting to branch out into the smaller markets and to provide better air service capability to smaller towns like Lubbock,” Wes said. “Lubbock was growing. There was getting to be a need for air travel out here. Other than having to drive to Dallas or something to try to catch a plane to maybe Chicago, that opened up the door here.”
Rhea spent most of his life in the air. He graduated from Lockney in 1938. He attended Texas Tech where he took ground school flight lessons.
He joined the Army Air Corps during World War II and was stationed at Randolph field in San Antonio. He received flight instructor training at Sheppard Air Base in Wichita Falls and became a civilian military flight instructor. He was later transferred to the pilot training auxiliary base in Lamesa after becoming a civilian military flight instructor.
“He was very particular and things are very, very organized,” Wes said. “He was a no nonsense type guy. One thing he said, if you ever lose respect for the airplane, you better get out of it.”
Wes said his dad decided to leave commercial passenger flights to return to Lockney when it was clear he would be based in South America.
He joined his family on the farm and was a flight instructor in Plainview.
“Early on, my dad was involved with flying the Hutcherson Flying Queens basketball team to some of their games, a practice started by Claude Hutcherson owner of Hutcherson Flying Service in Plainview,” Wes said. " This was the girl’s team at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, who are now known as the Wayland Flying Queens.”
Wes inherited the desire to fly from his dad and got his license when he was 17 years old. He’s proud of his dad’s historic achievement and said the passion for flight never goes away.
“I like to eat,” Wes said. “But, I like to fly better than I like to eat.”