Region leads the way in flight

Municipal Airport laid the groundwork for air transportation

Sunday, July 18, 1999

By Michelle Mullins

Chicago has always been a leader in aviation.

In 1931, Walter Wright wrote for Chicago Visitor magazine, "In the not-too-distant future Chicago will have clenched forever her title of 'The Transportation Center of America,'" and since 1932 the city has maintained such glory.

O'Hare International Airport, which is the current leader in aviation, has been the world's largest airport since 1962.

But Chicago held the title long before O'Hare even existed.

Chicago's Municipal Airport, "Muni" as it was known to early pilots, Midway as it is known today, was not only the world's busiest airport, but also the first airport in Chicago, said Monique Bond, Chicago Department of Aviation spokeswoman.

In 1927, Mayor William Hale Thompson declared the week starting on Dec. 11 Aviation Week at the National Airport Conference held in Chicago.

"The city of Chicago has established at 63rd Street and Cicero Avenue a new municipal airport which, when completed, will be second to none in the country," stated a document from the event: Chicago Airport Conference, Dec. 12-15, 1927.

Chicago Municipal Airport was dedicated on Dec. 12, 1927, as part of the conference activities, six months after Charles Lindbergh made his historic trans-Atlantic flight on the Spirit of St. Louis. Capt. Ira O. Biffle, who taught Lindbergh to fly, piloted the first airmail flight from Omaha, Neb.

Before it was an airport, though, the square-mile site, bounded by 55th Street on the north, 63rd Street on the south, Cicero Avenue on the east and Central Avenue on the west, was an air park with Col. Philip Kemp operating a small hangar offering passenger rides and flying lessons. In 1923, one cinder runway existed and pioneer pilots flying World War I planes were a familiar sight.

The city of Chicago began leasing about 300 acres from the Chicago Board of Education in 1925, and during the first 20 years the land-hungry airport consumed 12 farms, a golf course and a business corner lot at 63rd and Cicero, according to a 1948 thesis, "Atlas of Chicago Municipal Airport" by James Roland Wray.

The land, which was valued at $1.74 million, was the most expensive property in the country, according to Chicago Airport Conference.

In 1928, the airport had 100 planes, 12 hangars and four runways, complete with lights for nighttime flying. In this first year after dedication, 41,660 passengers and 14,498 flights arrived and departed.

"With the opening of 'Chicago's new front door,' the Chicago Municipal Airport, the world became smaller," wrote Wright in 1931. "St. Louis, Minneapolis, Detroit and Cleveland became suburbs."

And Wright was awed by the ambiance of the airport.

"To one viewing the scene for the first time there is a thrill to see the nonchalance, the matter-of-fact way, in which men, women and children step out of the taxis, buy their tickets in the depot and enter one of the five or six beautiful planes, already warmed up, waiting in line virtually to whisk their passengers to distant points."

Four oiled cinder runways, one concrete taxi runway 1-mile long, 100 planes, 19 hangars, 40 daily routes and more than 44,000 daily miles traveled weren't the only things that impressed him.

"The new, white monolithic concrete depot, with its modern lines and marble floors, the busy air ticket office, the clicking instruments of the Western Union and Postal Telegraph offices, the rushing, but ever attendant red caps, the calling of the departures over the loudspeakers ... lend a glamour to the whole scene, and make one realize how fast we are traveling what a remarkable age we are living in," Wright wrote.

By 1932, Chicago Municipal Airport earned the title as world's busiest airport, serving 100,847 passengers on 60,947 flights.

While Chicago was boasting more than 100,000 passengers, the entire United States was handling about 417,000, according to a 1941 study, "Airport Program for Chicago and the Region of Chicago."

The planes of 1932 the Tri-Motored Ford were the first of large transports, 50.3 feet in length. They could hold 16 passengers and travel at speeds of 120 mph, according to "Chicago Midway Airport, First in Passenger Traffic," a 1951 Chicago Sun-Times article.

And Chicago Municipal Airport continued to grow until 1962 when United Airlines, the first airline to serve the airport, was the last to move its operations to O'Hare.

During the World's Fair of 1933-34, the planes could accommodate 21 passengers on the Douglas DC-3, which could travel at speeds up to 185 mph.

In January 1935, the first scheduled non-stop flight between Chicago and New York took place four hours and five minutes. The next month, American Airlines inaugurated a flight from Los Angeles to New York via Chicago. A record travel time was set, even with the stop 11 hours and 42 minutes.

In 1935, almost 200,000 passengers traveled through the airport, whereas the United States had about 861,000, according to "Airport Program for Chicago and the Region of Chicago."

Until 1940, the Chicago & Western Indiana Railroad bisected the airport into north and south sections. But the railroad was rerouted, and in 1941 the tracks were removed and the two sections united.

The Civil Aeronautics Board certified American Airlines, TWA and Pan American for international flights in 1945. In this year, the DC-4 could handle 50 passengers and travel at 245 mph.

On its 22nd anniversary Dec. 12, 1949 Chicago Municipal Airport changed names.

In a unanimous vote by the city council, Chicago Municipal Airport became Chicago Midway Airport, commemorating the 1942 Battle of Midway one of the most decisive battles of World War II where the Navy won its first major victory against Japan.

Despite a new name, the reputation did not change.

Midway was still a leader in aviation in 1950 with more than 3.5 million passengers arriving and departing about 20 times the amount of 1935.

In the first nine months of 1950, Midway had almost as many departing passengers as the total of New York's three airports, and it also handled almost 75,000 planes, according to "Chicago Midway Airport, First in Passenger Traffic."

Despite Midway's early glory, recession, high fuel costs and oil and fuel shortages grounded the airport, but nothing could keep Midway down permanently. Although now it may have relinquished its title of world's busiest airport, Midway, with its record-setting glory of the first half of the century, will remain the founder of "The Transportation Center of America."