Some Local History

These days most people tend to take flying for granted. Millions of passengers and tons of freight are so routinely transported at high speed across such vast distances from large airports that it has become just another conveyance. By the time we hurriedly plunk down the credit card so that we may be transported from point “A” to point “B” the raw fascination of flight is all but lost. The further we progress in aviation the more we need a place like a little grass strip in order to maintain some perspective.

Aviators, airplanes and grass strips like this one share a closeness that started in the earliest days of flight. Back in the dawn of modern aviation, many small fields served as the venue for the returning World War I flier or the inspired home-taught barnstormer who plied his passions to the fascination of the local townspeople. One of the first of these fields, officially called The DeKalb County Airport, was located just less than two miles west of where The Hinckley Airport is today. This historic location was just such a place.

Pilots at the airport

Pilots at the airport

First established in 1924 in an area noted by the Chief of Airmail Service as “Excellent flying country”, this very first dedicated commercial airfield between Chicago and the Mississippi River was better known to the locals as the “Waterman” airport. It was established by a corporation of business and professional men from the towns of Hinckley, Waterman and DeKalb in order to provide a U.S. Airmail Service auxiliary landing field midway between Moline and Checkerboard Field in Maywood, IL (Chicago’s airport before Midway). This airmail service pre-dated the construction of the coast to coast Lincoln Highway (US 30) so soon a relocation of the original field to a site near the a railway was essential: If the weather grounded an airmail flight, a train (which ran on the tracks that still exist just south of the field) could be flagged down and the mail would continue by rail.

The Eakle family managed the airport, served as Airmail Service Weather Bureau observers and also operated a very successful restaurant in the terminal building which was also their home. A veritable who’s who of early aviators regularly frequented the airport mostly because of Mrs Eakle’s famous cooking and Mr. Eakle’s great hospitality. While serving its essential purpose supporting the early Omaha – Chicago airmail service well, local citizens remember the airfield more as a fun and exciting place to spend time. The patrons of the airport kept and maintained their airplanes there. Flight instruction was offered; informal air shows were held on weekends and yes, there were even gliders and parachutists!

Like its predecessor, The Hinckley Airport is also a grass strip but today this is by choice, not necessity. Old airplanes, like many of those that still frequent our airport today, just don’t behave well on the pavement of modern airports. With squealing tires, a concrete runway expresses its contempt with every landing. Our grass runway receives an airplane with care and provides a smooth, forgiving surface from which to operate.

Flying from a grass landing strip like ours however does present a whole chain of circumstances that would be familiar to those early aviators but are nearly forgotten today. It all begins with the fact that flight operations here can sometimes be very impractical. Our turf runway is much like the fairway of a golf course or for that matter, your front lawn and, while it handles much more traffic, it requires equally more care. Once abused, only inordinate amounts of time and effort will put it right.

Just as it was in the early days, there are times at this airport when field conditions make coffee drinking and hangar flying about the only really practical activities. The people drawn to this place are here not to pursue flying as a modern, practical business but to preserve a special corner of the world, a community populated by old and fun airplanes; biplanes and Cubs, sailplanes and homebuilts–all of them wonderfully impractical.

Take away profit and practicality and what is left? Only the love of flight; unadorned and unencumbered by the nonessential.