By Bob Mayer
Nearly everyone who lives in Everett and Snohomish County is familiar with Paine Field. It is the home to the Boeing factory and the world’s largest building by volume, where 747, 767, 777 and 787 wide-body jetliners are built. It is a busy hub of general aviation. It is the home for three world-class aviation history museums: the Future of Flight Center and Boeing Tour, the Paul Allen Flying Heritage and Combat Armor Museum, and the John Sessions Historic Flight Foundation.
From the time the airfield was built in the 1930s, activities at and around the field have attracted new residents to the area and provided employment for many people. The Snohomish County Airport was built by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression to provide work for many who had lost their jobs.
When it opened in 1938, the airport was intended to be one of the nation’s 10 commercial “super airports.” But with impending U.S. war involvement in 1941, Paine Field, as it was then newly named, was repurposed to become an Army Air Corp base for P-38, P-39 and P-40 fighter aircraft with their crews and support personnel. During World War II, Paine Field served as a training base for crews prior to deployment overseas and provided protection for airplane factories, shipyards and other industries in the area that were critical to the war effort.
Many people from the post-war baby-boom generation would not be here if it were not for Paine Field, since it brought servicemen from all over the country to Everett during the 1940s. Many of them fell in love with local girls and with the area, and then returned from all parts of the world after the war to marry, settle here and raise families.
During the Korean War and the Cold War in the ’50s and ’60s, Paine Air Force Base was home for such jet fighters as the F-86, F-89, F-102, F-106 and the T-33 jet trainer. From that time into the 1990s, the field was the site of huge summer air shows attracting large static displays and world-famous precision aerial teams and pilots including the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and test pilot Bob Hoover. These air shows, initially sponsored by the Everett Elks Club and Lynnwood Rotary, drew large crowds, often with over 100,000 attendees for the Saturday and Sunday events.
Paine Air Force Base was deactivated in September 1968. But by that time Boeing was well along with the construction of its 747 factory and with the design and construction of the first 747 jumbo jet, aptly named “The City of Everett”.
As familiar as Paine Field is to local residents, many do not know the story of the man it was named after and his connection to Everett. He was 2nd Lt. Topliff Olin Paine. Paine was born in Orwell, Ohio, in 1893 to Everett M. Paine and Lucy Jane (Olin) Paine. In 1903, his family — including Topliff and his two older brothers George and Sumner — moved to Everett. The family lived at 2020 Wetmore Ave. Topliff graduated from Everett High School in 1911 and attended the University of Washington. He worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a forest ranger until the United States entered World War I, when he enlisted in the Army. There he received pilot training and a commission as a second lieutenant.
After the war, Topliff became a commercial pilot. In 1920 he became nationally recognized as an airmail pilot and one of the top-rated fliers in the Western Division of the experimental Air Mail Service. Air routes in the Western Division were some of the most dangerous because of rugged terrain and severe winter snow storms through the Rocky Mountains. The Smithsonian National Postal Museum website describes his flights during two days in early March 1921 between Salt Lake City, Utah, and Cheyenne, Wyoming. On the first day of the flight from Salt Lake City, he had to fly above heavy rain clouds and rely on his compass rather than visual landmarks to reach his destination.
The return trip to Salt Lake City got even more dangerous when a heavy snowstorm frosted his goggles and caused him to fly blind for over a minute through the mountains. During the next day’s flight, the weather conditions were just as treacherous, and a fire had to be built on the ground to help him visually locate the landing field.
Topliff Paine died in 1922 just after turning 29. Ironically he survived all of the perils of his short flying career but died from a non-aviation related accident. In 1941, the Earl Faulkner Post of the American Legion in Everett recommended that the airfield be named in his honor. Like so many other airfields in our country, Paine Field was named posthumously in honor of a fallen hero of early aviation. Paine is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Everett.
In September 2015, at the Everett High School class of 1965 50th reunion, two classmates, Tom Paine and Nick Moe, shared an interesting story related to their family and a mystery surrounding a tribute to Topliff Paine. The pilot’s two brothers, George Granville Paine and Sumner Emerson Paine were their grandfathers. George, Everett Water Department superintendent, was the grandfather of Tom Paine; Sumner, Everett city engineer, was the grandfather of Nick Moe. In 1955, Sumner’s wife Margaret sculpted a bust of Topliff Paine to be permanently displayed at the Paine Air Force Base officers’ club. Tom and Nick, both about 8 and being the pilot’s closest descendants, were chosen to unveil the sculpture in a dedication ceremony. Family photos recorded the event. A few years later the bust disappeared, most likely as a souvenir for some visiting Air Force unit, probably from California according to Tom and Nick. Their family believes that it ended up in Texas, but its location is still a mystery. Nick has examples of his grandmother’s sculptures but not a copy of the bust of Topliff Paine. Perhaps sometime the sculpture will be returned to Paine Field where it belongs or be replaced by a new monument in his honor.
An excellent source to learn more about the history of Paine Field is a 2014 book in the Images of Aviation series titled “Paine Field” written by Steve K. Bertrand.