Though he was just a toddler in the early 70s, Christopher Lynch swears he can still remember sitting in the backseat of his grandmother's Cadillac as she cruised the tarmac at Midway Airport. "She had automatic windows, and I remember playing with those windows and hearing the scream of the jets as we drove around," he says. "Midway was dead then, but still there was an occasional flight. I remember how cool it was to hear the whine of jet engines and smell the fuel."
In 1931 Lynch's grandfather, a sightseeing pilot named Pierce "Scotty" O'Carroll, founded Monarch Air Service at the five-year-old field--then called Municipal Airport and serving primarily as an airmail hub. Lynch's mother spent much of her youth at the airfield, and as a teenager Lynch worked at the Monarch hangar, where he drank in the stories of the pilots who flew the corporate jets stored there. He took his first flying lesson at 15--the same year he decided to sit down and interview a couple of old-timers, including longtime Monarch employee Fred Farbin.
"He'd worked there 40 years and knew everything about the early days of commercial aviation," says Lynch, who now works in public affairs for the city's Department of Buildings. "He would tell me about all the famous people that would fly through the hangar and stop there. He also told me about how in the 1930s the engines in airplanes weren't that reliable, and that if you were flying over the city you might be forced to land on the lakefront. That happened to my grandfather, who landed in a Soldier Field parking lot. Fred, who was a teenager, came to the lot and slept in the plane overnight so no one would steal it. The next day my grandfather came and fixed it and flew it back."
Lynch eventually lost track of the Farbin tape, and didn't get interested in Midway history again until the mid-90s. "I went to the library to research the topic and I found nothing," he says. "It occurred to me that the story still resided in the men and women who flew airplanes and worked at the airport and lived in the neighborhoods. I realized that a lot of these old-timers were dying or gone and that the story was fading."
He found the former pilots back at the hangar's lounge, where they still hung out to gab and drink free coffee. Their stories and photographs make up the bulk of Lynch's new book, Chicago's Midway Airport: The First Seventy-Five Years, which follows the rise of Midway from a former onion field to the world's busiest commercial air hub. At the height of the airport's importance, in the 40s and 50s, spectators gathered to watch planes take off and land and celebrities dined at Marshall Field's elegant Cloud Room in the control tower. "It was like the center of a wheel," says Lynch. "In the early days planes were slow and only went a couple of hundred miles, so you hopped around the country."
By the mid-50s, however, advances in engine technology allowed planes to fly faster and further. A decade after the 1955 opening of O'Hare Airport, whose longer runways could accommodate ever larger aircraft, Midway was, writes Lynch, "deadly quiet." His book includes the airport's near demise and recent rebirth, as well as the story of his family's business, which was sold in 1997. The interview with Farbin, who died shortly after the recording was made, didn't turn up until two days before Lynch's manuscript was due to Lake Claremont Press. "A family friend said he just came across the tape. My father or someone must have given him a copy. I worked frantically over the weekend and was able to get Fred's stories into the manuscript. "It filled in details that no one would have known but him," he says. "It enriched the book tremendously."
Lynch will celebrate the publication of Chicago's Midway Airport on Friday, March 28, from 7 to midnight at the Baby Doll Polka Club, 6102 S. Central (across the street from Midway). He'll screen the Midway Airport episode of WTTW's Chicago Stories, for which he was a consultant, and the Polkaholics will play at 8. It's free; call 773-583-7800. For more on the book see www.midwayhistory.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/David Kamba, courtesy City of Chicago Department of Aviation, courtesy Robert F. Soraparu.