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Lost Airports of Chicago

Lost Airports of Chicago

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Lost Airports of Chicago

3.5/5 (2 peringkat)
180 pages
2 hours
Feb 12, 2013


To book a ride on the "World's Shortest Airline" or learn aerial stunts from the redheaded widow of Lawrence Avenue, you've got to go through the airports buried beneath the housing developments and shopping malls of Chicagoland. Many of these airports sprang up after World War I, when training killed more pilots than combat, and the aviation pioneers who developed Chicago's flying fields played a critical role in getting the nation ready to dare the skies in World War II. Author Nick Selig has rolled wheels on his fair share of Chicago's landing strips but faces an entirely new challenge in touching down in places being swallowed by a city and forgotten by history.
Feb 12, 2013

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Nick Selig has been in the aviation industry for more than two decades. His huge range of jobs has included teenage Civil Air Patrol Cadet, Army Aviation Mechanic, civilian general aviation mechanic, Piper Cub flight instructor, and instrument flight instructor. Selig also worked as a charter, freight and corporate pilot.

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Lost Airports of Chicago - Nicholas C. Selig



Some wise person once said, The past is history, the future is a mystery and the present is a gift. I couldn’t agree more, but I would add, if the past is not recorded, then the past becomes a mystery also. This is what I’ve encountered during my research of the four dozen or so small airports that lay under the interstate highways, industrial sites, shopping malls and housing developments that at one time were the prairie suburbs of Chicago. In fact, I’m partly to fault. It wasn’t until I approached retirement age that I decided that someone had better chronicle this aviation history before it faded entirely into the mists of time.

My fascination with these ghost airports began with a list and a map made up by a couple of older flying buddies. They came up with a list of forty-five flying fields, some I had never heard of, some I had run my wheels on long ago for the last time. About the same time, I came across a couple of old Chicago and vicinity road maps at the Kane County flea market, Shell Oil and Phillips 66. Maps had always fascinated me. They are a way of traveling vicariously, I suppose. When I discovered that the airports of the day (1935 and 1939) were shown, I was elated and surprised. Were they really gravel roads in those days? They sure were, and not too far outside the city limits, too.

So I began collecting data and visiting various historical societies. I also had a pretty extensive collection of old aviation magazines, which I began rereading in earnest rather than merely admiring the pictures. I discovered two organizations that had quite a lot to do with the growth of civil aviation just prior to the start of World War II: the Civil Air Patrol and the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Actually, there was a third group, not really an organization, but known as Sportsman pilots. These were affluent sportsmen and businessmen still able to afford the few aircraft being produced during the economic recession. There were also light plane pilots and ex-barnstormer pilots, usually former World War I flyers who had settled down and became known as fixed-base operators. Light planes, such as the Taylorcraft, Piper Cub and Aeronca, came along in the early 1930s, when the bigger open-cockpit biplanes with Great War OX-5 engines became too expensive to operate.

After I had been researching for quite some time, I discovered that these small airfields, not only around Chicago but all over the country, had played an important part in the winning of World War II. Not every pilot was suited for combat, however. For every one that was, 40 more were needed. First as instructors and then, when the factories began pouring out thousands of planes, ferry pilots and, later, transport pilots to carry the men and supplies around the world. When the rumblings of war began in Asia and Europe in the mid-1930s, our army and navy were turning out only 250 pilots each year. President Roosevelt ordered a huge increase in the production of aircraft, both military and commercial, but where would the pilots to fly them come from? Fortunately, in 1939, a bill was being formulated in Congress by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) intended to stimulate the aircraft industry, which, like many, was still trying to recover from the economic devastation of the 1929 stock market crash. This bill, called the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), had a dual purpose: to increase aircraft production of training and small private aircraft by increasing the number of pilots in the country able to buy these products, and to supply a pool of primary trained pilots for the army and navy while these services built up their training facilities. Keep in mind, aviation at that time was like the electronics industry today. Every man and boy, and many girls, wanted to fly, but only the dedicated or affluent could afford to. Newspapers, comic strips, movies and newsreels, radio and books covered the exploits of Jimmy Doolittle, Howard Hughes, Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post and many other famous flyers since Charles Lindbergh had soloed the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. When it was announced that the CPTP would provide ground schooling and primary flight training at a nominal cost, the small grass flying fields around the country began providing a decent living for those operators who had survived the Great Depression thus far.

This surge in flight training uncovered and later corrected one of the biggest problems in aviation up to that time: inadequate training. In the Great War of 1917–18, more pilots were killed in training than in combat. This might have been understandable at the time because the industry was so new. But during the next two decades, little improvement occurred. During the barnstorming era of the 1920s, a person could purchase a surplus Curtiss Jenny for $200 or $300 and teach himself to fly. He would then begin hopping passengers at county fairs and giving lessons to others—those who survived, that is. Some large schools such as the Curtiss Company and various aircraft manufacturers organized training facilities, but curricula were spotty and left up to the instructors. And each instructor had his own idea as to how to fly and, worse yet, how to instruct.

It wasn’t until 1926 that a section of the Department of Commerce was formed to begin regulating the aviation industry. Pilots, mechanics and aircraft were required to be licensed, but there still was no instructors rating. A pilot with 250 hours was eligible for a limited commercial license, which allowed instructing, passenger and freight carrying within ten miles of an airport of operation. A transport license allowed such operations anywhere. But the level of flight instruction and the lack of a standard curriculum remained.

The CPTP, like any government idea, required the flight schools to sign a contract and fill out much paperwork and record keeping, which pained the school operators no little. But they found they could run their schools much more efficiently by keeping track of fuel, oil and maintenance costs as required by the government forms. The biggest benefit, however, was found to be in the safety record. This was directly attributed to the re-certification of civil instructors and automatically to the standardization of instruction. In the past, a poorly trained pilot resulted in a poor instructor. Many a veteran instructor was amazed to discover how little he knew about flying and instructing when he completed the re-certification course with a CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) inspector.

So what has all this got to do with the ghost airports of the Chicago suburbs and all the other small airports across the country in the late 1930s? Initially, the CPTP training was offered only to college students. The colleges contracted with local flight schools to conduct the actual ground and flight training. Elmhurst and Wheaton Colleges in Chicago’s west suburbs were among the earliest to do so and utilized the Elmhurst airport on Lake Street and Highway 83. The Armore Institute, which became the University of Chicago, bused its students out to the Ford Lansing airport for their flight training. Eventually, every small airport and even plain remote open prairie fields were utilized in some way for flight training, as the reader shall see. Some of these ghost airports came into being after World War II by the returning veterans and lasted into the 1970s. Others, such as those clustered around the Douglas plant, which became O’Hare, disappeared into the mists of time and tracts of houses.

As an indication of the value of the CPTP prior to the war, a few examples are cited. Of the seventy-nine men who bombed Tokyo with Jimmy Doolittle on April 18, 1942, nineteen had some CPTP training before being accepted as aviation cadets by the air force. Six pilots of the navy’s famous Fighting Squadron Six on the Solomon Islands, who downed twenty-seven enemy planes early in the Pacific war, started in the CPTP. Two of the Japanese planes shot down at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, were credited to Lieutenant George Welch, a CPTP beginner. My biggest baseball hero, Ted Williams, learned to fly in a Piper Cub in the WTS (War Training Service), the later extension of the CPTP. He became a marine fighter pilot and flew in two wars. A journalist, Don Downie, who wrote for many of the best aviation magazines for fifty years, began his flying career as a CPTP instructor and later flew many perilous missions over The Hump, the Himalayan mountain range. Downie, along with many others, maintained an aerial supply line from India to China after the Burma Road through the mountains was captured by the Japanese. And there were many more.

Another group that utilized these prairie airfields was the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). This group of light plane flyers officially came into being just days before the Pearl Harbor attack. However, for sometime prior to that, private and sportsmen pilots were afraid that when (not if) a national emergency arrived, they would be grounded in the name of national security. (Sound familiar?) Many of them grouped together to form flying minutemen militia and home guard units. One such leader, the head of the New Jersey Division of Aeronautics, Gill Robb Wilson, an ex–World War I flyer, sold the idea to the chief of the National Civil Defense Department, New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, also an ex–World War I flyer. He sold it to President Roosevelt. When German U-boats began sinking merchant ships in plain sight of civilians off the East and Gulf Coasts, our navy and air force were still woefully understaffed and underequipped. The admirals and generals had no option but to allow the Putt-Putt light planes to start patrolling the shores. Within months of Pearl Harbor, forty thousand volunteers had responded, and eventually, twenty-one bases were set up from Maine to Mexico. It has been estimated that CAP personnel spent $1 million of their own money fighting World War II on the homefront. The government paid $8 a day to pilots when they flew. Mechanics and observers made even less. But paychecks sometimes took months to appear. Early in the war, the CAP pilots based at Atlantic City were evicted from their boardinghouse for nonpayment of rent. The Sun Oil Company emptied the cash registers of all its local filling stations to pay the landlords.

These are just a few of the facts that can be found in many history books on the subject. When a German submarine was found stranded on a sandbar, CAP aircraft circled it for forty-five minutes before a bomber could be dispatched. But by the time it arrived, the sub had freed itself and escaped. Thereafter, the CAP planes were allowed to be armed. They flew twenty-four million over-water miles, spotted 173 subs, damaged 17 and sank 1 (possibly 2). They also located survivors of sunken ships, reported positions of vessels in distress and found many floating mines.

Inland, the CAP performed less heroic but necessary jobs. It patrolled oil pipelines and power lines, watched for forest fires, towed targets for aerial gunnery practice and searched for lost military flights. The commander of the Illinois Wing, Jack Vilas, became known as the nation’s first aerial fire warden. (Vilas was the first man to fly across Lake Michigan in 1915.) After Pearl Harbor, most small airports were closed unless twenty-four-hour security was provided. CAP was able to provide the needed personnel for over five hundred airports.

So what began as a nostalgic look at the lost airfields of the Chicago suburbs turned out to be a lesson in the old saying, All things have a deeper meaning.

When I’m asked, What good were all these little grass airports? my response is this: without them, America might not have acquired the biggest and mightiest air force the world has ever seen. Keep ’em flying. And happy landings.


This is not a story about a small furry animal that digs holes in the ground. In the era in which this story takes place, 1938 to 1941, a gofer was usually a young boy afflicted with a disease called aviation who hung around small airfields and ran errands. Sometimes he would even be hired and promoted to the exalted position of line boy. In exchange for washing, degreasing, gassing, oiling and hand propping planes, he might even be given some flying lessons and a few dollars a week.

The Elmhurst Historical Society has in its files a letter from one such gofer, so this really is his story and is a look back at an era that is fast receding into the hazy past. This gofer’s name is E.E. Buck Hilbert, a prominent member of almost every antique and classic aircraft organization in the Chicago area. One of the Es stands for Elroy, and the Buck came about, he told me, because as a boy, he had buck teeth and he could eat a cob of corn through a chain-link fence.

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