Craig Isbell, who once told Charles Lindbergh he’d never make it across the Atlantic, helped bring Springfield into the age of air.
Isbell and a partner, Gelder Lockwood, founded the Springfield Aviation Co., which operated Southwest Airport, on Chatham Road south of Wabash Avenue, from 1927 into the 1960s. (The 160-acre facility also was known at times as the Springfield Municipal Airport and Commercial Airport.)
Isbell and Lockwood became pilots as young men, attracted by the romance of aviation. In contrast to the devil-may-care attitude common to many early fliers, however, Isbell and Lockwood were also businessmen, entrepreneurs and educators.
Isbell (1904-2004), who grew up in Iowa, learned to fly in Peoria – where he first met Lindbergh – and came to Springfield in 1926 as an employee of Robertson Airlines, which had the contract for airmail service between Chicago and St. Louis. Lockwood (1904-72), a native of Virden, got his first flying lessons on Springfield’s earliest landing strip — the infield of the Illinois State Fairgrounds Grandstand.
Isbell was still at Peoria when he met Lindbergh. Once during the winter of 1926, the two stayed up all night to start Lindbergh’s plane periodically, ensuring it would be ready to go in the morning. Isbell told the story to State Journal-Register writer Elizabeth Bettendorf in 1995.
By 3 a.m., Isbell’s head was nodding, but Lindbergh started talking about Raymond Orteig’s $25,000 offer to any pilot who could fly nonstop and solo across the Atlantic.
“He said, ‘Craig, I believe a fellow could do that,’” recalls Isbell. …
The young Isbell, beginning to doze off, muttered, “Oh, Slim, you couldn’t.”
To this day, that moment still gives the long-retired pilot pause: “To think,” he says softly, “that I was one of the people who told Lindbergh he couldn’t do it.”
In Springfield, Isbell and Lockwood first partnered in the L&I Aerial Service. The two “barnstormed from church picnics to plowing matches, ferrying awestruck farmers and children high over Illinois’ patchwork of farm fields for $2.50 a ride,” Bettendorf wrote.
When Lindbergh flew mail on the Chicago-St. Louis route, he stopped in Springfield at Bosa Field, a farm field west of the city off Hazlett Lane. Bosa Field, however, was too small for the growing aviation industry even in the 1920s. So Isbell and Lockwood incorporated as the Springfield Aviation Co. and – along with a third, inactive partner, Leslie Van Meter (1892-1956) – opened Southwest Airport in the fall of 1927.
Southwest began on a 35-acre site with a hangar that held two planes, but it quickly expanded, even accommodating daily commercial flights. The Illinois State Journal described the field and its operations in 1932.
The commercial airport has become a veritable beehive of industry. Local “cloud hoppers” are brushing the dust from their “old crates” and overhauling them in preparation for an active season. …
The local airport, which is licensed by the aeronautical branch, United States Department of Commerce, with a commercial rating, has improved rapidly since it was first opened in the fall of 1927. It comprises 123 acres and is equipped with border lights, landing flood lights and a revolving 24-inch beacon. Located on the airport are a steel hangar, 80 by 80 feet, two smaller wooden hangars, a U.S. weather bureau office, Springfield Aviation company office and a restaurant. …
The eight American Airways ships which daily thunder away from the local field with their cargoes of passengers and mail on the route between St. Louis and Chicago never have lost the interest of large groups of spectators, many of whom go to the field especially to see them land and take off.
These large ships, which will accommodate nine passengers, have many of the facilities of passenger coaches running on the larger railroads. …
Passenger planes got too big to use Southwest and its shale runways, so Springfield lost commercial air service in 1939. Southwest continued to serve private and hobby aircraft, however, and it became an active training site for prospective new pilots.
Adelaide O’Brien Rentschler, the first woman pilot in downstate Illinois, was one of those who caught the flying bug at Southwest. She was about 12 years old when she attended opening day ceremonies at the new airport. Rentschler’s grandfather bought tickets on a demonstration flight for the two of them. “That was my first airplane ride, and it was love at first flight,” she remembered later.
Springfield native Corwin “Corky” Meyer, aviation executive and member of the Test Pilots Hall of Honor, also got his first flying lessons at Southwest. In another 1995 interview with Bettendorf, Meyer explained why Isbell impressed him.
In those days, a lot of flight instructors were bombastic or they drank. But Isbell wasn’t like that.He always wore a suit and tie and he spoke softly. He was really persnickety about flying safety.
A 1946 article in Aviation Dealer magazine noted that all of Southwest Airport’s planes had flight recorders – early versions of today’s “black boxes” – that kept track of every maneuver a plane made in flight. The devices were used to discourage “buzzing and other prohibited maneuvers,” the story said.
Celebrity aviators who flew into Southwest over the years included Amelia Earhart and Wiley Post, a record-setting flier who died in a crash with Will Rogers in 1935. Brothers Hunter and Humphrey Moody beat the world record for endurance flying in a light aircraft — nearly 344 hours — from Southwest in 1939.
Southwest remained a private-aviation center after the opening of Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in 1949. Isbell sold out to Lockwood in 1955, and Lockwood closed Southwest as an airport in 1962. The milestone was noted by Illinois State Journal reporter Richard Emery:
The airfield that once was a key link in the toddling air-mail service has slowly and painfully watched time pass her by – but not with regret. For she can proudly look back on a famous aviation history second to none.
Most of Southwest’s acreage was sold off for residential development. Remote-control aircraft enthusiasts used the field for a while thereafter, while Lockwood operated a boat company from some of the former airport buildings. Nothing remained of Southwest Airport in 2021 except an unused grass strip and a few increasingly dilapidated buildings off Chatham Road east of the Westchester subdivision.
John Gelder Lockwood is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery. George Craig Isbell is buried in Arizona.
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Some of those, supposedly, dilapidated buildings are still in use.
Another picture of the airport – c.1935
forgot the link
Memories of Southwest Field
I purchased an airplane, an Aeronca 7AC Champ, in 1961, thinking it was a good buy and would be nice to fly. I had been up a couple of times, once in a DC-3 about 1948 and once in a Piper Colt about 1960; more than enough background for beginners. I also had a friend who had an instructor’s license and said it was easy to learn to fly. I didn’t know I had to have a medical certificate. I also didn’t know my friend’s license was not current and his last student had totaled a plane on a bad landing.
For 3½ years the Champ was stationed at Springfield’s Southwest Field. I learned to fly in that plane and spent many hours “poking holes in the sky” over Springfield. But before I could do that, I had to be cleared for “solo”. The procedure was to (1) obtain medical certificate, that was, in effect, a student pilot license, (2) engage instructor and (3) accumulate hours, and trust of the instructor to safely take off and land in one piece. We began in October of 1961 but due to work schedules, bad weather and an overly cautious instructor, it took until April of 1963 before being cleared for solo. It helped that I changed instructors in March 1963. I had logged time for “cross-country”, night time, simulated emergencies and under the hood, or instrument flying, all before soloing.
It was a clear day in April, not a cloud in the sky, and the instructor and I took off for the practice area. After only a few minutes he said to return to the field and land. I did so, wondering what might be wrong. He was unusually quiet all the way back. Most of our time in the air he was telling me how to do things better. He was the new instructor and I had developed a few bad habits that he had been helping me to correct. But this time I followed his request and landed the plane. As I rolled to a stop on the runway, he got out and said, “go up there and get some more practice.” That was my first solo flight. I was nervous and excited, but not so much as to not forget to have him sign my log book before he changed his mind.
There are many memories and stories about those days. I even ran the airport restaurant for a few months and contrary to tradition, they did not cut off my shirt-tail the day I soloed. At one time, before my time, there had been a few shirt-tails tacked to the wall in the restaurant. But that’s another story for another time.
But for me that was a beginning of a new (and fairly expensive) hobby.
Sharing the sky with the birds.
Les Eastep, commercial pilot # 2169005
Those are great stories, Les. Thanks.