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Aviation On South Hill

by Carl Vest

As the spring flying season starts the residents of South Hill are reminded of the Pierce County Airport located at the south end of the community.  Commonly known as Thun Field it is a general aviation airport, one of two owned by the County.  The facility does not have a control tower.  Thus, the flying behavior of those using the airfield is dependent on how closely the pilots choose to obey the general aviation rules set by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Thun Field was not the original airbase on South Hill.  The first one was located at about where the Walmart complex now sits — basically across Meridian Avenue from the current campus.  This airstrip was known as the S & S Airport and was started in the mid-1930s by James Sagmiller.  He was a native of North Dakota where he had once operated an air facility in support of agriculture.
John Thun, for whom the current facility is unofficially named, did not start Thun Field.  A group of Puyallup businessmen hoping to cash in on the benefits of the World War II GI Bill originally conceived the idea of a landing strip as a training facility for World War II veterans.  The thought was to teach returning servicemen aviation skills for civilian occupations.  For many reasons this idea did not succeed and eventually the land that has been acquired passed into the hands of John Thun (about 1949) who originally thought of it as a place to grow Christmas trees.
When he acquired the land John Thun was not a pilot.  He subsequently trained for the profession and became licensed.  During the decades of the 1950s and 60s John and his family slowly developed the airport into a thriving business and as a result rightly deserve the credit of having the airport named in his honor.

In 1967 John Thun decided to give up running an aviation facility and sold it to a group of local investors.  This group in turn sold it to a single stakeholder.  Pierce County acquired the property in late 1979 and designated it the Pierce County Airport.  The County has operated the complex — airstrip, hangers, commercial facilities, etc. — for almost 40 years.  During this period there have been a number of onsite managers with different ideas about how to integrate operations with an ever increasing population grown around the reservation.  The suburban newcomers have not always been appreciative of the flying practices they are forced to endure and are very vocal in making their opinions known.

An attempt by local citizens to control airport operations was started when the South Hill community plan was written and approved by the County in 2003.  The design established a Thun Field Advisory Committee made up of airport users and local citizens.  This committee still meets regularly and the chair position rotates among the interest groups.  The idea was to create an assembly to establish policy about flying behavior and other airport matters.  The results have been mixed.

Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.