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Desiring to expand markets for petroleum products, Tulsa oilman William G. "Bill" Skelly took notice of the rapidly expanding aviation industry. In January 1928 he purchased the Mid-Continent Aircraft Company of Tulsa, a firm that had experienced indifferent success in its attempts to manufacture airplanes. Renamed the Spartan Aircraft Company, it marked Skelly Oil Company's first departure from the petroleum industry.

The firm was soon manufacturing the Spartan, a two-place biplane noted for its stability and sturdy construction. To boost sales the company in 1929 established the Spartan School of Aeronautics to train prospective buyers of the aircraft. From the ranks of the school's instructors came such persons as racing pilot Jimmy Haizlip and his wife, Mary, one-time holder of the world speed record for women.

Bill Skelly nursed the Spartan venture through the troubled years of the Great Depression. During the 1930s and 1940s the company manufactured several models of aircraft, the most notably the Spartan Executive. Introduced in 1935, the sleek, low-wing cabin monoplane was designed as a corporate aircraft, presaging the business aircraft of later decades. During World War II Spartan produced the NP-1, the U.S. Navy trainer on which a future president, George Herbert Walker Bush, would earn his wings.

During the late 1930s controlling interest in Skelly Oil was transferred to J. Paul Getty's interests, and with the coming of World War II, Getty took over direct management of Spartan Aircraft. He expanded aircraft manufacturing and, aside from complete aircraft, produced thousands of subassemblies for use in aircraft such aircraft as the B-24 Liberator, B-29 Superfortress, and the P-38 Lightning. Training was also expanded, and branches of the Spartan school were established at Miami, Muskogee, and Ponca City, where thousands of pilots and mechanics were trained. Included in their ranks were Royal Air Force pilots who participated in the Battle of Britain and several pilots of the famous Doolittle Raid on Tokyo.

When the anticipated postwar personal-aviation boom failed to materialize, Getty scrapped plans to manufacture new models of civilian aircraft. Although it continued to provide aircraft repair and modification services, Spartan capitalized on the postwar housing shortage by manufacturing mobile homes. By the time production was suspended in 1961 some forty thousand homes had been built.

Spartan School of Aeronautics outlived the parent manufacturing firm to become and remain one of the most prestigious schools of its kind in the nation. At the end of the twentieth century Spartan continued to train pilots and mechanics for the modern aerospace industry.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Vern Folz, A Brief History of the Spartan School of Aeronautics (Tulsa, Okla.: Vern Folz, 1985). J. Paul Getty, My Life and Fortunes: The Autobiography of One of the World's Richest Men (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1963). Roberta Ironside, An Adventure Called Skelly: A History of Skelly Oil Company Through Fifty Years, 1919-1969 (Tulsa, Okla.: Skelly Oil Company, 1970). Keith Tolman, "Business on the Wing: Corporate Sponsorship of Oklahoma Aviation, 1927-1935," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 66 (Fall 1988).

Keith Tolman

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