How did Las Vegas, which started the 20th century as a tiny town in the middle of the vast desert where trains stopped to refuel, become a world class tourist destination? Does the credit go to the legendary mobsters? Doubtful. Or to people like Howard Hughes and Steve Wynn? Partly, of course. But Daniel Bubb claims that the Fabulous Las Vegas we know today owes its existence to commercial aviation.
By following the history of commercial aviation in Las Vegas, Bubb makes a convincing case. When commercial flights first arrived in Las Vegas in the mid-1920s, they were carrying mail between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. Las Vegas was an old railroad refueling stop and not much more. The mail planes just needed an airstrip and a place to refuel so they could be on their way again. When the airlines began to take paying passengers aboard, enterprising Las Vegans realized they could sell these visitors more than fuel and a few beers. Hotel resorts started going up, replacing the rougher hotels that were little more than saloons. The new hotels had restaurants, live music, swamp coolers (a kind of air conditioning), and slot machines. People began to make Las Vegas their destination rather than just an unavoidable overnight stop.
Arriving by air, even when air travel was in open biplanes that flew at low and turbulent altitudes, was still better than trying to drive to Las Vegas in the 1920s and 1930s. Parts of the road from Los Angeles were not paved, there was no air conditioning in cars yet, and there were few roadside services.
Bubb also details Senator Pat McCarran's successes in getting federal funds for expanding the airport and establishing an Air Force base in Las Vegas. The story continues through the Second World War and into the jet age up to the present day.
Landing in Las Vegas is a short book at 124 pages of text and photos. There's plenty of documentation, footnotes, and sources. In addition to an original interpretation of the rise of Las Vegas, Bubb includes many intriguing details, such as the story of the first woman passenger to arrive in Las Vegas by air. Maude Campbell was a telephone supervisor from Salt Lake City who wanted to visit Southern California. She "paid $90 to fly round trip to Los Angeles on June 10, 1926, with an overnight stop in Las Vegas. The flight took six hours and fifty minutes each way... Campbell donned a flight suit, golf knickers, and a parachute, sat on mailbags for the entire flight. If anything catastrophic happened to the plane en route, she was told, she should jump, count to three, and pull the cord." With Americans willing to take such risks just to travel by air, a gambling resort must have seemed a sure bet.