The summer of 1919 was filled with uncertainty for the people of Champaign County, who in just two years had become big fans of Chanute Field and the pioneer aviators who flew there.
Chanute had been hastily built outside of Rantoul in 1917, just months after the United States entered World War I. It not only generated construction jobs and jolted the local economy but also created a minor tourism boon as people drove their carriages or automobiles to the army base to watch daring airmen fly the primitive and often unreliable airplanes.
But when the war ended in November 1918, Chanute’s future was unsettled. Many of the young pilots returned to civilian life, such as Lt. D.L. Behncke who continued flying, but in less exciting style. In June 1919, he took part in a promotion dubbed the “aeroplane express service,” delivering men’s clothes from Chicago to the Jos. Kuhn & Co. store in Champaign. He landed his Curtiss biplane, the Society Brand I, in a field south of the Champaign Country Club.
Chanute’s post-war future at first seemed safe. A March 1919 story in the Champaign Daily News quoted Rantoul banker William Wheat — who later would become a congressman representing Rantoul and Chanute — saying that he was confident the base would become permanent.
“Mr. Wheat writes that the plans have been formulated for making the air services a separate branch of the United States army and that the bill in regard to this has been passed (in) the Senate, being one of the riders of the appropriation bill,” the News reported. “It is now in the hands of the committee before going to the President and there is little doubt that it will be passed.”
But by August 1919, Chanute’s future had dimmed. On Aug. 11, the News reported that “orders which practically closed Chanute aviation field” had been received, transferring 339 men to a California base. That left fewer than 400 men at Chanute “and it is understood here that other transfers will cut the force to four men, one non-commissioned officer and three privates.”
A week later there was more bad news.
“What would seem to be further evidence that Chanute field was to be shuffled into the discard came on Monday when the government ordered that all civilian employees be discharged here by November 1,” said the News.
By November, those early predictions had come true.
“Changing the status of Chanute field from a flying school to a temporary storage department sending 205 officers and men to Kelly Field, San Antonio, Texas,” was announced by the Army on Nov. 18, 1919. That left just eight men stationed at Chanute through the winter.
“Whether the order was permanent officers could not say,” the News said. “The force at the field has never been below 100 men.”
But a month later, Congress approved legislation appropriating millions of dollars for land purchases and operations, including more than $200,000 for Chanute.
In the meantime, the base became known nationally for all sorts of stunt flying and parachuting, as well as for frequent fatal air crashes.
In March 1921, Lt. Arthur Hamilton set a new world’s record for parachute jumping when he leaped from the cockpit of an airplane 24,400 feet above the Champaign County soil.
“He said after landing that he had just enough strength to pull the cord releasing the chute,” The New York Times reported. “There was little wind when he jumped and indications were he would light in the center of Chanute Field.
“About 1,300 feet up he stuck a strong air current which carried him beyond the field and eight miles north of Rantoul.”
Later that year, a dog reportedly dropped by parachute about 1,500 feet above Chanute.
“When ‘Bing’ landed he worked himself free from his harness, overcame another dog set to prevent his onward journey and ran to headquarters with a message carried in a pouch suspended from his neck. The performance was to show the practicability of using dogs to carry messages when an airplane is unable to land.”
In 1928, Chanute set another world’s record when 10 parachute jumpers leapt from a 16-passenger Ford airplane.
“Perfect flying conditions greeted the rookies and all of them floated to safe landings on Chanute Field after their jumps from the giant plane as it roared across the airport at nearly 100 miles an hour,” said an Associated Press story. “The multiple jump, in addition to making a new record, was planned to indicate how quickly passengers could clear a plane in safety in case of an accident in the air.”
After dodging a bullet in 1919, the 1920s turned out to be a good decade for Chanute. More hangars were built, courses were added and the loss of personnel was reversed.
The 1930s would bring more threats to Chanute’s existence, although the one-time tourist attraction would survive until 1993.