Virginia Rabung at Campbell Airport in Grayslake.
(Jim Robinson, Chicago Tribune file photo / February 8, 2012)
By Joan Giangrasse Kates, Special to the Tribune
February 8, 2012
Virginia Rabung was standing near one of the airstrips at Campbell Airport in Grayslake during a meeting a few years ago of the Ninety-nines, an all-women's flying club founded by Amelia Earhart, when an open-cockpit two-seater landed nearby.
Then 91, she turned to fellow club member Shelley Ventura and said, "I want a ride on that!"
"The next thing I know, Virginia was climbing into the plane," Ventura said. "She had a look of total bliss before the plane took off."
Ms. Rabung's passion for flight continued even after she sold her trusty blue and white 1946 Cessna 140 in 1995 after more than four decades of high-flying exploits.
A 1998 inductee in the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame, Ms. Rabung, 94, died of natural causes Friday, Jan. 27, at Alden Courts assisted living facility in Aurora. She formerly lived in Chicago and Mundelein.
Ms. Rabung was a 2004 recipient of the Wright Brothers "Master Pilot" Award given by the Federal Aviation Administration.
In the 1950s, she twice participated in flying races from Chicago to Havana and back. She participated in the 1953 All Women Transcontinental Air Race. She flew over the Bermuda Triangle and circled the Statue of Liberty, just for kicks.
"She was such an adventurous spirit — always quick to try something new," said her niece Sheila Rodiek. "She had a zest for life like nobody's business."
"Virginia was a true pioneer in aviation," Ventura said. "She flew in the face of every convention back then and never looked back."
Born and raised on Chicago's North Side, Ms. Rabung was first transfixed by flight when she was 8 and watched single-engine planes overhead while she played in her backyard, Rodiek said.
After graduating from Waller High School, she began working as a secretary in Chicago. In the early 1940s, she took some money she had saved and went to Stinson Airport in McCook to inquire about flying lessons.
The men there initially laughed at her, Ventura said, but she insisted, and they acquiesced, taking her up in a Piper Cub. A few minutes into the flight, they handed off the controls to her, testing her mettle.
"She was frightened and elated at the same time, but she held her own," Ventura said. "She told me, more than anything, she was in sheer awe."
Ms. Rabung soloed for the first time at Stinson Airport in 1944 and then received her private pilot certificate in 1950 at Sky Harbor Airport in Northbrook, the same year she obtained her instrument rating. She received her commercial license in 1961 in Kentucky.
"I needed an outlet," Ms. Rabung told the Tribune in a 1991 article. "Because I was always in the office, I never felt free. Flying gave me a sense of freedom."
In 1952, she bought a Cessna 140 and took a friend up shortly afterward. When the friend saw storm clouds on the horizon, he nervously inquired as to where she kept the parachutes, Rabung's niece said. Ms. Rabung chuckled — there were no parachutes because they would be useless at such a low altitude.
"Virginia, Where Do You Keep The Parachute?" became the title of her 2009 self-published, 200-page memoir, in which she recounted her many adventures and included a "Fly It Yourself Safari in South Africa" guide, which touched on her experience flying around the southern tip of Africa.
"To read her stories inspired me so much," Ventura said. "She told them with such humor and insight and never in a boastful way. It made me realize just how much aviation had enriched her life."
Ms. Rabung retired as the secretary to the general counsel at International Minerals & Chemical Corp. in 1982 after more than 30 years with the firm. In retirement she devoted even more time to flying, taking frequent trips around the country.
"She thought nothing of flying to Milwaukee for breakfast and then down to St. Louis for dinner," Rodiek said.
Ms. Rabung leaves no immediate survivors.
Services were held.