The new air traffic control tower that soared over Terminal 1 became an immediate architectural landmark when it opened in 1952. The cylindrical tower was composed of underground fuel storage tanks that had been welded together, and topped with a stylish, art deco control cab equipped with the latest communication technology. The tower’s appearance was even lauded by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, though the building did have its shortcomings. “As beautiful as the tower was, the structure lacked such amenities as a restroom and an elevator, which made going for snacks and toilet breaks a real adventure,” Operations Assistant Michael D. Jones says.
Early Sky Harbor air traffic controllers were a hardy bunch. The control cab was air-conditioned, but the interior of the tower, which contained the 129-step spiral staircase that led to the air traffic communication center, was not. “The final test to see if you could work up in the control tower was to make the climb when it was 120 degrees in the summer and survive,” retired Sky Harbor maintenance employee Bob Erickson says with a laugh.
After 25 years of service, the Terminal 1 tower was deemed too short to provide adequate air traffic control. The control tower handled its final commercial airline landing in 1977. “Continental 56 cleared to land Runway 8R. New tower from old tower, it’s all yours – am shutting down. Enjoy that elevator!” was the last official transmission, according to the book Desert Wings. Unlike Terminal 1, the old tower found a second life. Cutter Aviation relocated the structure to its Sky Harbor facility and has used it for directing general aviation traffic since 1985. The control tower still lacks an elevator and air conditioning in the stairwell.