Colanthe “Florence” Murphy was born in Fernley, Nevada and attended the University of Nevada for two years, where she met her husband, John. They were married in 1930 and came to Las Vegas in 1936 when John, an engineer with the State Highway Department, was transferred to work as a division engineer. Soon after their arrival, both Florence and John had the opportunity to ride in a small J-3 Cub plane that had landed in town. The pilot took his hands off the controls and allowed Florence to take over for a few minutes; she later reported that this experience made her immediately hooked on flying. In 1938 she began formally taking flying lessons and earned a private pilot’s license, making her the first female pilot in Nevada and one of only a few pilots in Las Vegas. She followed this achievement by earning her instructor’s license in 1941 and a commercial pilot’s license three years later.
Florence and John took their flying lessons at Western Airfield, in the northern part of Las Vegas Valley. In 1941, Western Airfield was converted to the Las Vegas Air Gunnery School for the U.S. Army (now Nellis Air Force Base), leaving no airfields in Las Vegas for private pilots. Recognizing this need, the Murphys and their friend and business partner Bud Barrett acquired a strip of land to build another airfield, creating Skyhaven Airport (now North Las Vegas Airport). A huge crowd of locals came out to the new airfield to watch the air show on its opening day, December 7, 1941. Midway through the festivities, a plane from the nearby Air Gunnery School arrived with the news that Pearl Harbor had just been bombed, and all planes in the U.S. were to be grounded until further notice.
During the war years, John Murphy and Bud Barrett volunteered to serve the Army as flight instructors, leaving Florence to run the brand new airport by herself. In 1948, the Murphys and Barrett sold the airfield to become involved in a new venture, Bonanza Airlines. Bonanza Airlines began as a small charter service that connected Las Vegas with the towns of Northern Nevada. The route was so in demand that soon the company was flying a north-south route seven days a week. Florence acted as a business manager for the new company, overseeing negotiations with local airfields and government authorities and managing new personnel. As the airline grew, adding interstate routes and larger planes and more pilots, Florence officially became vice president of the company.
Florence spent her time at Bonanza Airlines making waves in the industry. As an executive at Bonanza Airlines, she was involved in many national and international aviation organizations, often as the only woman present. When she arrived at the Airlines Personnel Relations Conference, for instance, she was the only woman present out of 70 representatives of American commercial airlines. She felt some hostility and mistrust initially, but soon proved herself to be a serious and competent member of the organization, eventually being elected to its board of directors. In 1958, she left the airline to pursue a real estate venture with Larry McNeil, a construction company magnate and fellow pilot.
Florence and McNeil formed Murphy-McNeil Realty company to build up the new McNeil Estates housing project. After McNeil’s death in 1971, Florence struck out on her own, forming the Florence J. Murphy Realty Company. She remained involved in real estate development for the rest of her life.
Photo courtesy of UNLV Special Collections.
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