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Aviation City

Chicago takes to the air

See Illinois (unpublished)


Chicago achieved ascendancy in aviation for the same reason it did it in railroading: its location between the American East and West made it a convenient place for airlines to connect cross-continent flights. This sketch, which was part of my never-published history of Illinois history and culture, relies heavily on David M. Young’s excellent histories of Chicago aviation, Fill the Heavens with Commerce: Chicago Aviation, 1855–1926, with Neal Callahan (Chicago Review Press, 1981) and Chicago Aviation: An Illustrated History (Northern Illinois University Press, 2003).


Between 1890 and 1903, when flying in heavier-than-air machines was just getting off the ground, French-born civil engineer Octave Chanute lived in Chicago. Among his workaday achievements was the design and supervision of the building of the Chicago Union Stock Yards. in 1865, and bridges for such Midwest railroads as the Illinois Central and the Chicago & Alton.


The engineering of a bridge and a wing are not dissimilar, and in his financially comfortable retirement Chanute indulged his long interest in manned flight. Beginning in 1895, Chanute built and flew gliders on the beach off Huron Street in Chicago and on the sand dunes of Indiana; by some reckoning, his biplane glider achieved, if not the first, at least the then-most successful early manned flight in 1896 and thus signaled the dawn of aviation.


Chanute was a mentor rather than a daredevil or tinkerer, which types accounted for most of the early aviation pioneers, and he drew the world’s best aviation inventors to Chicago to learn from him. When the World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago decided to stage an International Aeronautics Congress, they asked Chanute to organize it. Chanutes's 1894 text on flying machines was a technical road map for the Wright brothers, for which they were grateful; when Chanute died in 1910, Wilbur Wright delivered the eulogy.

As happened with cycling and the automobile, flying, which at first was a passion of the inventor, became a recreation available  to the well-to-do. From 1910 until the U.S. entered the war in Europe in 1917, the wealthy flying enthusiasts who gathered as the Aero Club of Illinois staged giant air shows that helped focus world attention on aviation's emerging technologies. Nor was it only airplanes that were seen above Chicago.  In 1919 the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company was operating its own version of the commercial airliner in the form of hydrogen-filled passenger blimps. On July 21, one such machine operating as the Wingfoot Air Express was carrying passengers over the Loop from Grant Park to the White City Amusement Park when it caught fire. The subsequent explosion sent the machine tumbling through the skylight and into the main banking room of the Illinois Trust & Savings Bank at LaSalle and Jack­son. The craft’s pilot and the chief mechanic parachuted to safety but three people aboard the blimp and ten bank employees died and another 27 banks employees were hurt. The Chicago City Council belatedly banned hydrogen-filled dirigibles from flying over populated parts of the city.


The daring of Chicago’s pilots was of a different kind from that of its engineers, but they bowed to no one when it came to derring-do. Jack Vilas, who made the first flight across Lake Michigan (from St. Joseph, Michigan to Chicago) in 1913, is only one of many Chicagoland citizens who took to the air. Charles Lindbergh knew the area well, as he flew the regular air mail route between St. Louis and Chicago in the 1926.


Most of these daredevils are little remembered today, except by buffs. An exception is Bessie Coleman. Bessie Coleman was the first African American to earn a pilot's license. A Texan, she came to Chicago at 23, in 1915. Flight schools then abounded in Chicagoland but none would accept a black-skinned person, much less a black-skinned woman. French flight schools would, so Coleman spent her savings earned as a manicurist and the manager of a chili parlor on language lessons and travel expenses. Once in France, it took her seven months but she got her license.


Back in the States she made a living as a stunt pilot and used her new fame to try to open doors for other black people. (Once in the South she refused to give an exhibition on white school grounds unless blacks were permitted to use the same entrance as whites.) She died in Florida while testing a new machine in 1926—the show was a benefit for the Negro Welfare League in Jacksonville. She was 28. In 1990, Mayor Richard M. Daley redesignated Old Mannheim Road at O'Hare Airport as Bessie Coleman Drive.


Those magnificent flying firms


Just as Chicago produced inventors and builders of automobiles but not an auto industry, so it was with airplanes. A few Chicagoans got an aircraft manufacturing company off the ground, but none stayed aloft for long. The Lawrence-Lewis Aeroplane Co. brought together those classic business partners, the visionary—in the form of aerial balloon photographer and tinkerer George R. Lawrence—and the money man in the person of stockbroker Harry S. Lewis. Between 1913 and 1919 the firm struggled to perfect a striking-looking enclosed-cabin seaplane, which they tested on Lake Calumet and Fox Lake but the project never got beyond the testing of a handful of prototypes.


Chicago has been a more fertile ground for builders of airlines. Champion among Chicago commercial aviation firms is United Air Lines. United was born in 1931, as the holding company of four pioneer U.S. carriers. From hauling air mail for the government, the airline expanded its reach, its services, and its fleet of aircraft. When, in 1960, UAL took over Capital Airlines, it became the largest airline in the free world. It later lost that title to American Airlines, but in 2002 it was still a massive presence in the industry, employing around 62,000 people—18,000 in Chicagoland alone—and operating around 540 aircraft.


In 2001 Chicago became an aviation capital of sorts when Boeing, the largest U.S. maker of civilian aircraft and its No. 2 defense contractor, moved its world corporate headquarters from Seattle to Chicago. The move was controversial for the city because of the cost of the relocation incentives offered the firm by a City of Chicago desperate to land a Fortune 500 headquarters after waving bye-bye to so many of them in the 1980s and ‘90s; it was controversial for the firm because of the risks of severing its deep roots in the Northwest for what it hoped would be a more conspicuous and convenient locale. The economic impact of the move on the city has been minor—the company does not make airplanes in Chicago, only corporate policy, which it does rather less well; since the move Boeing has continued to suffer lost sales to competitors and has been beleaguered by scandals. Even so, the firm remained Chicago’s biggest company as measured by revenues, which came to more than $50 billion in 2003.


Flying fields


In those early days, airplanes simply took off and landed in the open spaces of Grant Park. The Aero Club’s backing resulted in the construction in 1912 of a proper airfield on the outskirts of the city at 22nd Street and 48th Avenue; Cicero Flying Field was Chicagoland’s first modern airport and for a time the nation’s finest. Financed by International Harvester money through enthusiast Harold McCormick, Cicero Field was the site of aviation meets, test flights, shops, and flight schools until McCormick grew bored. Ashburn Field near 83rd Street and Cicero Avenue was the place to flay for a while;  later, small fields were built near Maywood.


By the 1920s, it was plain that flying had a commercial future, and Chicago wanted in on it. The city’s enthusiasm exceeded its means; a 1922 plan called for several “flying fields” to be built on the edge of the city, but only one, at Cicero Avenue and West 63rd Street on the site of Maywood Field, was built. This, Chicago’s new Municipal Airport, was dedicated in 1927, and by 1928 it had become the nation’s busiest airport, which it remained for some thirty years; in its busiest year, ten million passengers went through its gates.


Lake boats suddenly were not the only craft that needed to be guided through dark and storm in the days before radar. An aviation beacon shone for a time in the 1930s from the top of the 41-story LaSalle­ Wacker Building in the Loop. More famously, a beacon atop the Palm­olive Building at the north end of Michigan Avenue for 40 years directed aviators toward the Chicago Municipal Airport. (The massive rotating light may have been a boon to fliers but it became the bane of residents in the high-rise apartments that began to spring up around it in the 1960s, and it was extinguished in 1981.)


Municipal Airport was conveniently close to the city—too close. The city’s pestilential coal smoke obscured pilots' vision in the days before radar. When the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Corporation, established by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, was looking for a site for the Chicago link in its chain of airports across the country, it looked for clear air, which it found in central Lake County outside of Glenview. Curtiss Field opened in October of 1929. (The facility was first named Curtiss-Reynolds Field, after a local financial backer; just after it opened, a merger saw Curtiss’s company become the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, with the result that the field was known variously as  Curtiss-Wright, Curtiss-Reynolds-Wright, and Curtiss-Chicago; most locals referred to it simply as Curtiss Field.)


Curtiss Field was a commodious state-of-the-art facility. Chicago architect Andrew Rebori was engaged to design its main hangar. From his drawing board there emerged three separate hangars under a common roof. This Modernist mammoth spared no expense for the amusement of passengers. It terminal was equipped not only with a restaurant and lounge but an upper-level promenade that permitted views of the planes on the outside and galleries that permitted views of the mechanics working on the inside. Its innovations eventually earned it a placed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Alas, the Depression stymied the commercial expansion of flying, and while Curtiss Field’s distance from the city proved a boon in terms of visibility it was a detriment in terms of traveler’s convenience. Few commercial flights were based there, and it was forced to pay the bills by hosting small aircraft and schools for pilots and mechanics. It also staged air shows, which then as now were popular entertainments; in 1933 the International Air Races were held there in conjunction with the Century of Progress World's Fair.


Up and at 'em


Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy needed an airport. The Navy had for years trained seaplane pilots at its Great Lakes reserve base, near Waukegan. That facility added land-based planes in 1923 but could accommodate only a small airfield. In 1937, what had become the Naval Reserve Aviation Base was relocated to Curtiss Field, where it was welcomed as a paying tenant. Glenview evidently met the Navy’s needs; as the military buildup in late ‘30s got underway in earnest, Curtiss Field was sold to the government (at a loss) and became Naval Air Station Glenview (NASG).


The bombing in faraway Pearl Harbor in 1941 caused an explosion in Glenview.  The Navy suddenly had a need for pilots able to fly airplanes onto and from aircraft carriers, which were then bearing the brunt of the fight against the Japanese. Glenview was chosen to be the only military carrier pilot training location in the U.S., it being (among other reasons) safe from attack from the ocean coasts. A facility that had housed fewer than 250 officers, men, and cadets before the war was, in a mere seven months, expanded into a mini-city of 1.5 square miles that housed nearly 5,000 officers, cadets, and enlisted men and nearly 350 aircraft. In time the field would boast 1.5 miles of runways and 108 buildings.


NAS Glenview managed to train torpedo bomber and dive bomber pilots for carrier duty in spite of having no aircraft carriers, which the Navy sensibly decided were more useful elsewhere. Instead, the Navy fitted two Lake Michigan steamers with carrier-type decks on which cadets could practice landings and takeoffs. The hybrid ships were berthed at Navy Pier overnight and commuted north for work each morning, where Avengers, Corsairs, and Hellcats—fabled names in the World War II aviation arsenal—awaited the day’s adventures.


By the end of the war, fifteen thousand carrier pilots had earned their wings at Glenview (including President-to-be George Herbert Walker Bush). Thus did Japan's defeat begin on the Lake County front.


NAS Glenview remained a Naval and Marine carrier pilot training air base for a further 50 years, although in its latter years it trained mainly reservists. In 1992 the Navy announced plans to close the base, which it did in 1995. The facility was handed over to the Village of Glenview, which has since developed it into a mixed-use upscale residential and commercial development known as The Glen. The runways are gone and so is most of Rebori’s Hangar One. All that’s left is a vintage airplane suspended from the ceiling of the Glen’s flagship department store.


Chicago takes to the air


For years, most of the cargo that moved through Chicago on airplanes was mail rather than people, but passenger traffic boomed too as aircraft became safer and more reliable. By 1932 Chicago Municipal was the busiest airport in the world, not merely in the U.S.


Municipal Airport was renamed Midway in 1949 in honor of the famous World War II battle in which combat airplanes played a key role. Postwar prosperity and the advent of the classic propeller-driven airliners like the Lockheed Con­stellation and DC-6 pushed Chicago’s passenger numbers in the mid-1950s ever upward—nearly seven times what they had been a decade earlier.


By the 1950s, however, the neighborhood around what was now Midway Airport was no longer on the fringe of the city, and further expansion was not feasible. Longer runways and more commodious ground facilities were needed to accommodate the new passenger jets then coming into service; to provide them, the city elected to build a new and larger airport at the Orchard Place Airport northwest of the city. Orchard Place had been the site of a massive assembly plant and airfield constructed in 1942–43 where the Douglas Aircraft Company assembled C-4 military trans­port aircraft. The airfield was known as Orchard Place Airport/Douglas Field, after the farming community that was buried beneath it. Sold to the City of Chicago after the war, the facility—now simply Orchard Place Airport—was to become the site of the city’s new and improved civil airport.


In 1949 the city renamed Orchard Place O’Hare Inter­national Airport, in honor of Navy Lt. Edward O'Hare, a local aviation hero killed in the war. Mayor Richard J. Daley, during whose administration most of the airport was built, habitually referred to it as “O’Hara Airport,” perhaps on the assumption that if its namesake was a hero, he must have been Irish.

O’Hare’s first commercial flights commenced in 1955. The new field matched the phenomenal rate of Midway’s early growth but on an even larger scale. It now sprawls across some 7,000 acres. From the start, its size posed problems for travelers; Richard Bissell at least saw the funny side when he complained in 1968, “Transferring from Podunk Airlines to Trans Universe Airways Inc. [at O’Hare] can entail a hike of eleven or twelve miles involving rucksacks, pocket compasses, and primus stoves.”


Those hikes only got longer. As commercial aviation grew, so did O’Hare. The 1980s alone saw $1 billion spent on expansion and modernization of a facility that already was one of the largest in the world—new international terminal, relocated freight operations, new remote parking, extension of the el line into the bowels of the terminal complex. Among the improvements was a computerized “people mover” monorail which, with the moving sidewalks, escalators, el trains, taxis and limos, buses, makes the airport a theme park of 21st century transportation technology.


The steady expansion of O’Hare—by 2000, it had four terminals with 178 gates and was served by more than 70 airlines—put plenty of wind into Chicago’s boosters, who hadn’t had much to brag about since the opening in 1935 of the largest sewage treatment plant in the world at Stickney. In 1970 arriving and departing passengers numbered nearly 30 million, but by the late 1990s some years saw 80 million passengers pass through the facility.


O’Hare’s economic impact is measured in the billions of dollars. But Chicago’s very success threatened to bring growth to a halt. For decades, no place on earth had more railroads entering and leaving it than did Chicago—or as many crossing delays. What happened with rail in mid- to late 19th century happened to air in the mid- to late 20th. “World’s busiest airport” is a term that, like the world tallest building, varies in definition according to who do the defining. Takeoffs and landings? Per day or hour? Number of passengers processed?) but however defined Chicago no longer always it.


The world’s busiest airport became the world’ latest airport. Midwest weather had something to do with it—a major reason O’Hare lost its title as the nation’s busiest airport to Atlanta’s Hartsfield International in both 1999 and 2000 for example, was flight cancellations due to storms. But among the remediable causes of the chronic delays were infrastructure failings in the form of too few runways of the wrong configuration and an antiquated air traffic control system.


O’Hare’s miseries proved a boon to Midway. The city’s No. 2 airport had languished for 20 years during O’Hare ascension, relegated to hosting business flights and training center. But newer jets made the use of the short runways at Midway possible; overcrowding at O’Hare made it desirable. Airlines began offering limited flights out of the old airport—Southwest Air uses it exclusively—and traffic gradually built up. By 2002 the once-outmoded airport had been equipped with a new terminal and an el link to the Loop and was handling more than 15 million passengers on more than 300,000 flights a year in recent years.


The Little Airport That Could


O’Hare and Midway were never Chicagoland’s only airports in the modern era. Meigs Field opened in 1948 on Northerly Island off Chicago’s Loop lake front, on the site of the 1930s Century of Progress Exposition. Its small size limited its use to so-called general aviation. Flying in and out of the lakefront became a treasured perk for conventioneers, corporate execs, wealthy commuters, and shuttling state officials who relished its proximity to the Loop and McCormick Place. By 1955, Meigs had become the busiest single-runway airport in the U.S. The Microsoft Corp. paid Meigs the compliment of making it the default airport for the Microsoft Flight Simulator series of game software.


Traffic at Meigs declined beginning in the 1980s, partly because of a general business slowdown, more permanently because of the exodus from the Loop of corporate headquarters. Realizing that there were many more tourists than flying commuters, City Hall in 1994 announced its intention to close the airport and convert it into a nature park but objections by then-Gov. Jim Edgar forced Daley in 1997 to agree to a deal that would keep Meigs open until 2002. Negotiations about its future after that date led to a complex deal was eventually brokered between the city and the State of Illinois—in fact between Daley and former Gov. George Ryan—in which the city agreed to continue operation of Meigs Field until at least 2006 in return for the state’s withdrawal of objections to expanding runways at O’Hare.


Then, in March 2003, Mayor Richard M Daley shut down Meigs as if he was Eliot Ness busting up a bootleg still. Explaining (without evidence) that the field posed temptations to terrorists, he ordered city street crews with backhoes  to invade Meigs and wreck it in the dead of night by digging trenches into the runways. No advance warning of the closure was given to the FAA or to the owners of sixteen planes that were thus stranded at the airport. The move earned him abuse—"Reich Marshall Daley” was among the more printable descriptions—not only from Meigs users but many who did not care about the airport but were appalled by the mayor's high-handedness.


Meigs was only the best known of Chicagoland’s little airports In 1940 there were 60 airports operating within a fifty-mile radius of Chicago’s Loop. For years it was assumed that the rise of the big commercial aircraft had rendered these small fields as outmoded as the old I&M Canal after the advent of the railroads. Transportation historian David Young reported that of the region’s 60 airports in operation in 1940, 32 did not survive until the end of 1950, and while ten new ones were built in that time, they were, as new airports must be, built in the ever-more remote hinterland where there was lots of land. By 1980, only thirty-one airports remained in all of northeastern Illinois, and their average distance from the Loop was nearly 40 miles.


The problem was that as the number of airports in Chicagoland was going down, the number of airplanes was going up. Commercial passenger service is only one aspect of aviation. Demand was booming for facilities for corporate and charter planes, flight schools, flying clubs, and private aircraft who owners had been forced off the runways at O’Hare and Midway.


By the 1980s the State of Illinois felt obliged to preserve Chicagoland’s remaining general aviation air­ports by subsidizing their acquisition by local governments. Thus have ten Chicagoland park districts, port agencies, airport districts, counties, and municipalities found themselves in the aviation business. Seven of the larger fields such as Palwau­kee and Du Page were to be upgraded to serve as “reliever’ airports able to handle corporate jets—the latter meeting a need for business travelers in the suburbs that also provided revenue stream for the airports.


Unclear skies


The future of aviation in Chicago at the turn the millennium was hard to predict. In the 1980s, growth in passenger numbers portended a crisis of capacity, and boosters in the city’s far southern suburbs began arguing that Chicago needed a new O’Hare, to be built near the Will County village of Peotone. Twenty years later attention was focused on building a new O’Hare within O’Hare, by adding new runways, new access roads, and new terminals to the now-aging facility, but design and financing controversies promised delays.


As for Chicago aviation’s past, some 150 airplanes crashed into Lake Michigan during training of Glenview pilots in the 1940s. (Big city fish have seen it all.) Among the dozens that have been salvaged is an SBD Dauntless dive bomber that went down in 1944. Pulled from the lake in 1991, the machine has been repainted in Navy colors and now hangs in Concourse A of Chicago’s Midway Airport—a fitting home, for the plane is identical to the Dauntlesses that proved crucial in the U.S. victory at Midway in 1942, a turning point in the Pacific campaign for which the airport was named.


Another wayward Glenview machine is a Grumman F4F-3 Hellcat of the sort flown by Lt. Commander Edward "Butch" O'Hare when he earned his Congressional Medal of Honor defending the USS Lexington in 1942. The plane was rescued and today sits at the West end of the ticketing lobby in Terminal Two of the airport that bears O’Hare’s name.


The Boeing 727 passenger jet was for decades as familiar a sight around Midway and O’Hare as a city bus in the Loop. One of the first group of 727s purchased by United Airlines can be seen, in perpetual flight, suspended above East Court of the Museum of Science and Industry, a permanent part of the Museum of Science and Industry’s Transportation Zone exhibit. The aircraft—three stories tall and 137 feet long, with a wingspan of 110 feet—hangs from a balcony where it landed after a very tricky approach. Having been flown into Meigs Field off the Loop, it was placed in a barge and floated down the lake shore to the museum site, and was flown to its final landing by a crane, entering the building through the roof. ●




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