John E. Hickey (pioneer aviator)

John E. Hickey (1890-1970), a founder of aviation’s Silver Wings Fraternity, had been a pilot for longer than anyone else in Illinois when he died in 1970.

Hickey in 1961

Hickey in 1961

Hickey’s first flight took place in a hot-air balloon in 1908. He told an Illinois State Journal reporter in 1961 that he was offered $3 to take the ride.

“When guys working at paving streets got $1.50 for 12 hours, that was pretty good for 20 minutes,” Hickey said. “I landed on top of a moving freight train, and the engineer saw me and stopped the train to let me off.”

Hickey later began taking ground-school flying lessons. He first soloed on Oct. 18, 1910, taking off in a Wright biplane from a field near Springfield.

“Those planes were just wood, wire and Irish linen,” he said in the 1961 story. “You really had to fly by the seat of his pants in those days.”

Hickey apparently was a daredevil on the ground too. In a September 1922 story about injuries Hickey suffered in an accidental fall in downtown Springfield, the Illinois State Register reported that Hickey was working for the fair’s auto race promoter and had planned to take part in that day’s “auto polo” contest at the fair.

Hickey went on to do barnstorming tours, operate his own flying service and fly mail planes in World War I. At one point, on a post-WWI mail flight between Portland, Ore., and Alaska, his float plane got lost over the Pacific Ocean. “Ice forced the plane down, and I rode it out,” he said.

Hickey was one of five founders of the Silver Wings, made up of pilots with 25 years of experience. He also was one of only 598 members of the Early Birds of Aviation, whose eligibility rules required pilots to have flown prior to Dec. 17, 1916. (The cutoff date was set because so many pilots started training in 1917 for WWI service.) The organization went out of existence with the death of its last member in 1998. Hickey’s name is included on a plaque honoring the group at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Hickey continued flying into his 70s and also was active with the Civil Air Patrol at what is now Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport, among other aviation groups.

Hickey was born and lived most of his life in Springfield, but later moved to the Ashland area. He is buried in Yatesville Cemetery, Morgan County.

Hat tips: Thanks to Lyn Holton, Mr. Hickey’s granddaughter by his first wife, for alerting us to Mr. Hickey’s pioneering career in aviation. See her further comment below. 

And thanks as well to Betty Kendall, Mr. Hickey’s granddaughter by his second wife. See her comments below for a wealth of additional information on Mr. Hickey’s life, both professional and family. schs logo (2)

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6 Responses to John E. Hickey (pioneer aviator)

  1. editor says:

    The following comment is a lightly edited version of an email sent to SangamonLink by Lyn Holton, a granddaughter of John Hickey. Ms. Holton’s original email inquiry alerted us to Mr. Hickey’s significance to the history of early aviation. — Editor

    It is amazing how a chance email has turned up our first picture of our long-lost grandfather. I cannot express how much this means to my family. Our grandmother and John E. Hickey divorced somewhere around 1920. No one spoke of this, and all we had were brief and vague stories that he was a barn-stormer and auto mechanic and on the circuit. His son, our father, was adopted after his mother remarried in 1923 and apparently that was the end of contact. Our father died young in 1962, our grandmother in 1956. Until recently and thru we only had the stories.

    Our father, who was 6 when they divorced, never expressed an interest in flying.
    My brother Chuck, the grandson of John E. Hickey, became interested in flying after our father passed and went on to become Chief Pilot for Ozark Airlines and moved to Litchfield, Ill. (not knowing the connection) from the Chicago area. So close and yet so far!

    It gets better — John E. Hickey’s 2 great grandsons are commercial pilots also. Mike is a United captain and John is a corporate captain. Recently John E. Hickey’s great-great grandson Ryan graduated, taught flight school and just started a job as a commercial pilot for an airline out of St. Louis. It must be innate and in the genes!!!!! My brother is 75 and just found out his roots and it explains a lot of his life desires. He travels a lot too! The resemblance is also there. Five generations later and the saga continues. You just made our day!!!!!!

    My brother, who lives in an air-strip community in Florida, is visiting this weekend. On the drive up, they stopped at the grave in Yatesville and made an etching. Now they have your story to put with it. Great timing.

  2. John E Hickey is my grandfather. He had 9 Children with Mildred Henderson and has 2 living children at this time. This article is about him flying air service from Oregon to Alaska from 1920-1922.

    • editor says:

      Ms. Kendall: Thanks for the information on Mr. Hickey. However, the link to the newspaper story doesn’t work, probably because normally requires a subscription. Maybe the best approach is for you to simply send a new comment containing the name of the newspaper and the date of the story. Then anyone who wants to get it can buy it from

  3. Jacksonville Journal Courier July 20, 1969
    Ashland Pilot Honorary Member of Ang Unit
    Captain John E Hickey of Ashland, one of the pioneer barnstorming pilots, became an honorary member of the Illinois Air National Guard based at Springfield in ceremonies last Sunday at the Capitol Airport. Commander Ralph A. Bush of the 183 Tactical Fighter Group, presented Mr. Hickey with the honor as part of the Group Formation during the July Unit-Training Assembly.
    The Award in the ANG Unit was in recognition of the contribution Hickey has made to aviation beginning in 1908 and including the flying of US mail to Alaska in 1922. Hickey’s first flight was in 1910 in a Wright-type biplane.

  4. The Jacksonville Daily Journal May 19, 1968
    John E Hickey (retired) AU from the US Post Office department received a public service award in observance of the 50th Anniversary of the US Air Mail Service honoring pioneers of airmail. captain Hickey flew US Mail from Portland, Oregon to Nome, Alaska from 1920-1922

  5. John E. Hickey of Ashland, Illinois, passed away August 11, 1970, three weeks after suffering a ruptured appendix. He was born January 26, 1890, at Springfield, Illinois. He was 80 years old.
    His first solo was made October 18, 1910 in a Wright biplane owned by Art Smith, his instructor. He barnstormed at fairs and other exhibitions until 1915, when he joined the Army Aviation Section.
    After World War I, Hickey gravitated to Oregon, where he flew a mail plane from Portland to Alaska. Later he started Triangle Airlines, flying out of St. Louis to cities in surrounding states.
    Hickey is survived by his wife, Mrs. Mabel E. Hickey of Ashland, Illinois.
    From The Early Birds of Aviation CHIRP, January, 1971, Number 77

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