One hundred years ago, when military aviation was in its infancy, Champaign County was among its centers in the United States.
Not only was Chanute Field one of the first of 29 “flying fields” belonging to the U.S. Signal Corps, but the University of Illinois was one of only eight to operate an Army School of Military Aeronautics, a ground school for young aviators.
In fact, the commandant of the aviation school at Illinois, Major George W. Krapf, then just 29 years old, said he intended to make the UI school a second West Point in discipline.
Unfortunately, Krapf was gone by the end of September 1917, promoted to commander of an actual military flying field on Long Island. A year later, he was back in Illinois as a commander at Chanute Field, but the world war soon ended, and military aviation wasn’t the priority it had been for the government.
Many of the flying fields — although not Chanute — closed with the end of the war. Among them was Payne Field in Mississippi, which was named for Capt. Dewitt Payne of South Bend, Ind., one of the first graduates of the UI’s School of Military Aeronautics. Payne was killed in 1918 when his plane crashed in Texas.
During the heyday of World War I military aviation training in Champaign County — a period that lasted about 18 months — the public couldn’t get enough of the bravery and daring of the young aviators, even those who were only in training.
One day in August 1917, a notice appeared in the local newspaper urging people to leave the ground school students alone: “Students learning aviation at the university ground school are there for work and not to be entertained, according to Major Krapf, who is in charge. Major Krapf says the public must understand this and cease bothering the students. Young women have invited the students to automobile trips and others serenade the students afternoon and evening. Additional guards will be stationed about the grounds with orders to prevent further annoyance of the students, the major stated.”
It’s possible this was romantic promotion, designed to interest more young men into what was a dangerous profession, where new pilots would always be needed. But there also were regular stories of families driving to Rantoul, bringing picnic lunches to watch planes take off and land at Chanute Field.
During his brief time at the UI, Krapf did his best to cooperate with reporters and get plenty of ink for his training school, such as a big Sept. 9 story in the Champaign Daily News (complete with a photo of Krapf in a cockpit) with the headline. “U.I. Gives Aviators First Instruction In Training To Fight Kaiser.”
The story detailed the life of the student aviators, including what time they awoke, the courses they studied, the food they ate and their living arrangements at the University YMCA on Wright Street, which had been turned over for use by the military school.
The inference was clear that these were no ordinary college students, that they were the elite on campus.
“While many people think they are seeing exhibition work in a machine when the pilot loops the loop, does the head dive and numerous other stunts, they are not,” the Daily News story said. “These are practiced high over the battlefields by French machines fighting German planes.”
The maneuvers, according to the story, are essential in bombing military targets.
“Great stress has been put upon the radio work, for it is of the most importance. Every aviator must be an expert operator,” the News reported. “Several instructors have lately been added to the radio staff, and special care has been exercised in order to obtain men who are well qualified.”
In early 1917, there were as many as 300 men in the eight-week aeronautics school at one time, a number that grew to 500 by the end of the year.
After their training, the newspaper story said, “the men are ordered to flying fields where they take up the actual flying before they go to France.”
Within about a year, the UI military aeronautics school was closed, much of Chanute Field was mothballed, and George Krapf moved on to a more pedestrian profession: engineering. He returned to military service for World War II, organizing and training a military police battalion headed to Europe. He died in 1953.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette reporter and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.