Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Originally Published: Tuesday, May 20, 2014 || By Joseph Ruzich, Special to the Tribune
Lindbergh helped make Maywood a key site in aviation’s early days
A year before his famous solo flight across the Atlantic in May 1927, Charles Lindbergh made regular trips to west suburban Maywood Field, including one that almost cost him his life.
Flying a mail plane and running out of fuel, Lindbergh was forced to bail out in thick fog. A motorist later found him on the side of the road and helped him retrieve mail bags from the wreckage of his plane.
Hair-raising experiences like that weren’t all that unusual when Maywood Field was one of the dramatic centers of the nation’s burgeoning aviation boom shortly after World War I, historians say.
Lindbergh flew five round-trips each week between Chicago and St. Louis. He took off and landed at Maywood Field, which was near Roosevelt Road and First Avenue in the western suburb.
Christopher Lynch, an aviation historian who wrote a book on Chicago’s Midway Airport, said airplane engines at the time were unreliable and airports were primitive.
“In those days, engines … would sometimes just stop working,” Lynch said.
Airports like Maywood Field also posed dangers due to having inadequate lighting for night flights as well as turf and cinder runways, according to documents.
The crash near Maywood wasn’t the only one that Lindbergh walked away from. A 17-year-old boy picked him up near Ottawa, Ill., after another bailout during an airmail flight, Lynch said. The boy, Julio Corsini, worked at a local airfield and was alerted that a plane would try to land because of bad weather.
Corsini “told me that Lindbergh was very upset because it wasn’t the first time he crashed a plane,” Lynch said. “He knew he was going to get into trouble for it.”
Paul Casey, 55, of Bolingbrook, said his grandfather John Casey was an airmail pilot in the early years of aviation. John Casey later became the director of operations for the Chicago airports, which included O’Hare, Midway and Meigs Field.
But in the early 1920s, he flew airmail planes out of Checkerboard Field, an airport that preceded Maywood Field and was located across the street from it. He also worked as a mechanic at the field, his son said.
“Flying back then was an outdoor experience because they were exposed to the elements,” Paul Casey said, adding that he thought his grandfather’s airmail route was from Chicago to Cleveland. “Can you imagine what it must have been like flying back and forth between those cities on a winter’s evening?”
The post office began flying airmail out of Chicago in 1918 and chose Grant Park as the location, according to an introduction to Lynch’s book written by David Young.
City officials decided they didn’t want aircraft flying so close to the downtown area and moved the flights to Checkerboard Field in 1920. A year earlier, a blimp had killed 13 people after it slammed through the skylight of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank at LaSalle Street and Jackson Boulevard.
In 1921, Jack Knight helped prove to Congress that night airmail flying was feasible. He flew from North Platte, Neb., to Chicago and landed at Checkerboard Field in Maywood. It was the first airmail to be flown at night in the United States, according to newspaper accounts.
President Calvin Coolidge signed a law in 1925 transferring airmail responsibilities from the post office to private airline carriers. Lindbergh took the job the following year with Robertson Aircraft Corp., which eventually merged with other airlines and became American Airlines.
Lynch said the Chicago area has a rich aviation history for several reasons: its central location, wealthy investors and a Chicago resident by the name of Octave Chanute.
Chanute, an aviation pioneer and aeronautical scientist, gave advice and encouragement to Wilbur and Orville Wright that eventually led to the first airplane flight in 1903 in North Carolina, Lynch said.
“Chanute was the rock star of aeronautical studies,” Lynch said. “He was the clearinghouse of flying experiments.”
After flying became more mainstream, the Chicago region had scores of small airports, many of which are gone now.
“A lot of airports were simply gobbled up to make way for homes, malls and other businesses,” Lynch said. “But Chicago is still an aviation hub and has a rich aviation history that many people don’t know about.” VFP