Paine Field (Snohomish County)

  • By Margaret Riddle
  • Posted 8/22/2007
  • Essay 8266

Built in 1936 and funded by the Works Progress Administration, Everett's Paine Field was originally planned as a commercial airport for Snohomish County. World War II changed the focus and it served as a military airfield from 1941 to 1946 and again in 1951 during the Korean War. The airport was named Paine Field in 1941 to honor a local World War I Air Corps pilot, Second Lieutenant Topliff Olin Paine (1893-1922). Paine Field saw mixed military and commercial use until the mid-1960s, when Snohomish County took over full management of the site and opened it for new commercial development. In 1966 the Boeing Corporation chose adjacent property to build the 747 and set the direction for aviation commerce at the site for decades. Paine Field, bordered by Mukilteo and Everett, developed into an important aviation and commercial center that has included Alaska Airlines, the Willard Flying School, Curtiss-Wright Flight Systems, Crown Aviation, Honeywell, and Goodrich Aviation Technical Services. By 2015 Snohomish County, which continued to manage the airport, had plans underway to bring regular commercial passenger service to Paine Field, raising concerns over the impacts on nearby communities.

Beginnings: Snohomish County Airport

One of Snohomish County’s largest relief projects of the 1930s Great Depression was the building of Paine Field, originally called the Snohomish County Airport.  Planned by local Works Progress Administration officials and the U.S. Department of Commerce, the project was designed to create a first-class airport and bring both jobs and economic growth to the Pacific Northwest. 

First recommended by pioneer Northwest aviator Elliott Merrill (1901-1992), the chosen site consisted of 640 acres, then owned by Merrill Ring Logging and the Pope and Talbot Company.  Situated eight miles southwest of Everett and 17 miles north of the Seattle city limits, the chosen location was unpopulated and offered fog-free conditions at an elevation of 576 feet.  It also lay on a direct route from Portland to Vancouver, B.C. and Alaska.

Snohomish County matched federal dollars, and the project commenced on September 10, 1936.  In the initial work phase, more than 300 workers were hired to clear, grub, and excavate land. A well was drilled to provide water power for the locomotives, a power line was installed by Puget Sound Power and Light, and temporary buildings were constructed on skids and moved along as the work progressed. When completed, the airfield was to have four runways.

World War II and Topliff Paine

World War II changed both the use of the airfield and its name. By the spring of 1941, the first Army Air Corps contingent arrived at the airport to develop a military base that would support the nearby Bremerton shipyards, the Boeing plant, and Boeing's Seattle airfield which housed B-17 and B-29 Bombers.  The airport was renamed Paine Field, in honor of a World War I Air Corps pilot and Air Mail Service flyer from Everett, Washington, Topliff Olin Paine (1893-1922). 

Born in Ohio in 1893, “Top” Paine moved to Everett, Washington, with his parents in 1903.  He graduated from Everett High School in 1911 and attended the University of Washington for two years.  Paine began working for the U. S. Forest Service in 1914 and became a park ranger the following year. When the United States entered World War I, he enlisted with Everett’s 12th Company of the Army Infantry, took flight training at March Field, California, and was commissioned a second lieutenant.  After his 1919 discharge, he flew for various commercial concerns in California and Mexico and in 1920 was appointed to fly the experimental Air Mail Service. Topliff Paine had several narrow escapes flying the mail in bad weather, but met his death from a wound received while cleaning his gun on April 30, 1922.  He died the following day.  At first rumored to be a suicide, his death was later officially listed as accidental.

The Air Corps stay at Paine Field lasted from 1941 to 1946, with some personnel on site until 1948.  During that time, the military improved runways, installed and improved lighting, constructed more buildings, and added concrete aprons to the runways.  Paine Field now had fueling capabilities for the patrolling B-26s. 

In the early 1940s, Alaska Airlines established its overhaul and repairing service at Paine.  They were joined by the Willard Flying Service, which offered training sessions and commuter services.  Both enterprises continued at Paine for more a decade.

County Supervision and The Korean War 

The military presence at Paine decreased following World War II.  By 1946 administrators began turning over operations to county supervision, in hopes once again of creating a county airport.  Plans were only beginning when in 1951 the Korean Conflict interceded.  Following his tour of Pacific Northwest Defense installments, House Representative Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983) recommended more military presence in the area and Paine Field was reactivated as a military airbase.  An Air Force Aerospace Defense Command Unit was stationed at the field and the official name was changed to Paine Field Air Force Base.  While the county relinquished most of its commercial facilities to house Air Force personnel and installations, the site did not have an exclusive military presence.   In a shared use agreement, the county rented to businesses such as Alaska Airlines.  The military operated the control tower. 

Paine Field was considered a vital Western Defense Command post, an alert-status military base with tactical radar installations and jet interceptors.  F-89C fighters were the first generation of jets at Paine, and by the 1960s the field was able to accommodate the F-102 and the F-106.  The field was now part of the 25th NORAD (North American Defense) region and supported the 25th Air Defense Command (ADC) station at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma.  It was part of a horizon radar system of stations along the coastline that linked to a central computer system able to transmit to all ADC bases.

The Civil Aeronautics Administration once again opened the way for economic expansion of Paine in 1953, allowing business and industry unrelated to aviation to establish at the site.  This mixed-use function brought economic strength to the region.  Now with sleek, supersonic jet interceptors, the military portion of Paine Field was expected to defend the Northwest against air attacks.  An Aerospace Defense Command unit had ben stationed at the field in 1951 and land surrounding the Paine site was appropriated for military facilities and extended runways.  The federal government acquired 205 acres east of the airbase in August 1957 for construction of a Bomarc Missile site that turned out to be obsolete before it was completed.  

Commercial Endeavors

George Forbes (1910-1995) was hired as first manager of Paine Field’s commercial endeavors. Erecting a substantial terminal and civilian hangar, and planning expansion of air-terminal facilities as well as businesses, Forbes hoped that profits from business and industry at Paine would pay for improvements on the site.  It was Forbes’s plan to begin running regularly scheduled commercial flights. Money would also be earned from the rental of hangars and buildings and from tie-down costs from emergency landings.

In 1960, George C. Petrie, an ex-Naval Commander and businessman flier, was employed as Paine Field’s new manager.  The county commissioned a comprehensive planning study by the firm of Anderson, Bjornstad and Kane which recommended “incubator complexes.”  The incubator idea was to grant short-term leases to small, startup firms, allowing them the low overhead needed for fast business expansion.  Paine Field followed this course, and within six years, the Polk’s city directory listed 16 tenants in Paine Field’s industrial park.  In addition, there were aviation-related businesses selling aircraft and offering charter flights and flight instruction. 

Boeing Arrives

In 1968, the Air Force quit operations at Paine Field when enemy missiles replaced manned bombers as the major threat and made ADC units obsolete.  Military withdrawal from Paine Field once again left the site ready for either greater economic expansion or creation of a regional airport.

The Boeing Corporation determined the course taken when the company purchased property north of Paine Field in 1966 as the site of its 747 plant. By 1969 Boeing was firmly established at this location.  And there was still talk that the region needed a better airport.

Growth and Community 

By the mid 1970s, a sizeable population inhabited the area near Paine Field and Boeing.  When Paine Field was considered as a possible commercial air-carrier airport, local residents protested.  Citing rising noise levels, devaluation of property and reduced personal safety as issues, residents demanded alternatives.  In 1978, a coalition of the Snohomish County Planning Commission and public-interest groups began working on plans to determine Paine Field’s role.

Four options were considered, ranging in the extreme from leaving Paine as it was to developing it as a major airport.  On April 11, 1978, the County Commissioners Board approved a combination plan that allowed light aviation, commuter services, and aviation-related activity at the field.  Improvements and additions were allowed to provide new hangar space, as well as maintenance and service terminals.  A noise abatement plan was undertaken.

Business development accelerated in the 1990s, and Paine’s mixed use as an airport and aviation commerce site was well established.   At 1,320 acres in size by 1999, the site once again was being looked at for its potential as a major commercial airfield. 

A New Century

By the start of the twenty-first century, business and residential communities surrounded Paine Field. Many citizens living nearby worried that expansion at Paine would lessen the quality of life in their neighborhoods. The cities of Mukilteo, Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace, and Woodway all issued resolutions opposing commercial flights at the airport and a citizen group called Save Our Communities formed in 1992 to halt development of what they termed "Sea-Tac North." But airport expansion had many supporters, including a group named Fly from Everett, as well as county residents who saw benefits outweighing problems. As businessman Greg Tisdel expressed it, "We're doing this to get the rest of the county engaged in the process. We still don't feel that Mukilteo owns Paine Field. The citizens of Snohomish County own it" ("Is Paine Field ...").

Aaron Reardon who served as Snohomish County Executive from 2003 to 2013 (when he resigned amid scandal and criminal investigation) and Snohomish County Council members made efforts to work out a cooperative plan, particularly regarding environmental concerns and noise abatement. The 1978 Snohomish County Airport/Paine Field Master Plan was updated and a Paine Field Community Council (originally formed in 1980) looked at prospects for airport development between 2002 and 2021, divided into three phases: short-range (0-5 years), intermediate-range (5-10 years), and long-range (10-20 years). The long-range phase, which got underway in the second decade of the century, included major airport improvements.

By 2015 it appeared that commercial passenger flights at Paine could become a reality. In March of that year the Snohomish County Council approved, in a 3-2 vote, a lease arrangement between Paine Field and Propeller Airports, Inc., a New York company, to build an air-passenger terminal. Under the agreement, Propeller Airports would be given three years to design a passenger terminal and conduct the necessary environmental studies, a requirement before a contract could be signed. Approval would then allow Propeller a 30-year lease, with options for two 10-year extensions. Propeller would pay for building and operation of a two-gate terminal which could be 30,000 square feet in size. Participating airlines remained to be determined.

The City of Mukilteo and Save Our Communities filed a petition in King County Superior Court seeking to void the lease option, but in October 2015 King County Superior Court Judge Samuel S. Chung rejected the petition. Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson expressed disappointment in the court ruling and promised to pursue all avenues to protect Mukilteo from the negative impacts of commercial flights. While it was estimated that flights would begin at five per day, residents near Paine Field worried that this number could easily quadruple, given the planned terminal's capacity.

Whatever the outcome of the debate over commercial flights, there was no doubt Paine Field had become an important tourist location, offering the Future of Flight and Boeing Tour Center, the Museum of Flight Restoration Center, the Flying Heritage Collection and the Historic Flight Foundation. Although Snohomish County's economic base extended from agriculture to aerospace, as of 2015 the combined Boeing-Paine Field complex was the county's largest employer.

Sources: Margaret Riddle, “Paine Field,” in Snohomish County: An Illustrated History (Index: Kelcema Books LLC, 2005), 250-251; Clark Squire, “Paine Field, Depression Project,” The Seattle Times, Sunday, March 17, 1957; "Paine Field History," Paine Field website accessed July 10, 2007 (; W. D. Hewitt, “Snohomish County Building Major Emergency Airport,” in Western Construction News, March, 1938, p. 123; “50th Anniversary of Paine Field, Everett, Washington, 1936-1986,” anniversary pamphlet issued in 1986, Paine Field file, Northwest Room, Everett Public Library; Paine Field staff, “Paine Field History: 1936 to 1986,” typescript dated 1986 in notebook marked with title, in Paine Field Collection, Northwest Room, Everett Public Library, Everett, Washington; "Airport Begins Master Plan," Paine Field Report, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 1993, Paine Field file, Northwest Room, Everett Public Library; "Market Information on Snohomish County," The Herald website accessed August 7, 2007; John Wolcott, "Paine Field Got Its Start as Super Airport," Everett Herald, April 27, 1964, p. 11 ; "Bomarc Site Plans Here Halted by Big Cutback," Ibid., March 3, 1960, p. 10; Bill Lipsky, "Air Force to Leave Paine Field," Ibid., May 10, 1968, p. 1; "Paine Field: Its Future Touches Us All," Ibid., March 18, 1978, p. 5-D; Bill Sheets, "Is Paine Field Airport Service Winning Support," Ibid., August 13, 2007, p. 1; Noah Haglund, "Ruling Upholds Paine Leasing," Ibid., October 17, 2015, p. 1; Noah Haglund, "Still Circling Paine Field," Ibid., October 20, 1015, p. 1; Sharon Salyer, "Paine Field Passenger Flights Resound With Voters," Ibid., July 30, 2015, B–1; Noah Haglund and Scott North "Aaron Reardon's Fall from Grace," Everett Herald, June 2, 2013 (; Save Our Communities website accessed November 10, 2015 (
Note: This essay was updated on December 8, 2015.

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