Chicago area's former airfields that provided vital WWII training are subjects of planned book
Nick Selig, 76, is researching a planned book about dozens of the Chicago area's old airports.
(Keri Wiginton, Chicago Tribune / March 2, 2012)
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Veteran pilot Nick Selig is flying solo on a mission to salute Chicagoland's ghost airports, the grass airfields carved out of farmland that helped sow the seeds of victory in World War II.
Almost all of the approximately 45 airports are long gone. Some are abandoned while others are buried under the highways, shopping malls and residential subdivisions of suburban Chicago.
They include Elmhurst Airport near Lake Street and state Route 83, which opened in 1927 and thrived until a utility line was erected through the airfield in 1956, followed by Interstate Highway 290; Maywood Field, an airmail field where Charles Lindbergh once landed that is now the home of Hines VA Hospital; and Ravenswood Airport, along Touhy Avenue near Rosemont, which opened in the late 1920s and was among about six muddy airfields close to Orchard Field Airport, which became O'Hare International Airport.
"There was a creek running through the middle of Ravenswood," Selig said. "Two runways went across a bridge over the creek. Pilots had to negotiate that when taking off and landing.
"Unfortunately, it's also where the American Airlines DC-10 crashed in 1979 after taking off from O'Hare."
All 271 people aboard the plane and two on the ground were killed, making it the deadliest air disaster in the U.S. until the9/11terror attacks.
Selig fondly remembers visiting Chicagoland Airport near the village of Half Day, which today is part of Vernon Hills. It was one of 15 airports the Navy built to train pilots during WWII. An old farmhouse on the site served as the airport office.
"I always thought it was unique because it was the only airport I ever saw with a swing for kids to play on," said Selig, adding that the airport operated until the 1970s.
"These little airports, only 20 to 40 acres on average, came to be at any open field around the suburbs," Selig said.
Selig, 76, is a retired O'Hare airplane mechanic who is a part-time flight instructor. He spends time at libraries and historical societies researching the old airfields and the pilots who trained for WWII or who scratched out a living selling rides, lessons and airplanes.
"I hope to record it all in a book for posterity before the participants of the era expire, including me," said Selig, who lives with his wife, Suzette, also a pilot, at Naper Aero, a residential airpark community in Naperville.
He has written 25 of the 45 "ghost airport" stories and is working with a publisher, he said. Some of the tales have come from fellow old pilots he meets when he presents a slide show on the topic to aviation clubs and other groups.
The airfields that the Navy built in the Chicago area during WWII were used to train up to 90 percent of Navy pilots, Selig estimated.
"Very few people know about these suburban airports. What I am trying to put across in my book is that at the beginning of World War II, if it hadn't been for these little dirt and sod airfields to train all the pilots we needed for the war, it might have been a significantly different outcome," he said.
The personalities Selig has come across are a big part of the story he wants to tell.
There was Dick Lloyd, for instance, who in the mid-1940s bought Sky Haven Airport near Bensenville and operated it on land he leased from a railroad until the field closed in 1955.
"Dick Lloyd had a wooden leg. Before we had these sticky Post-it Notes, he used to thumbtack notes to himself on his wooden leg," Selig said.
Another larger-than-life character was Willie Howell, who ran Howell Airport at Cicero Avenue and Route 83 near Crestwood in southern Cook County. The airport closed in 1990, replaced by the Rivercrest Shopping Center.
"If you landed your airplane at this airport, you'd better pay Howell's landing fee because he would run out in his Cadillac car and park in front of your airplane so you couldn't move it," Selig said, quoting Howell's former flight students.
Selig is eager to talk to survivors of this bygone era of aviation. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.