Metropolis

One Hundred Years Ago, This Blimp Crashed Through the Roof of a Bank in Chicago. Here’s What It Was Like to Fly In It.

The open gondola of a 1910s blimp, flanked by two giant engines. Five smiling passengers sit in the gondola.
The Wingfoot Air Express, before the disaster.
Chicago Tribune

On July 21, 1919, the Wingfoot Air Express, a blimp owned and operated by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, burst into flames on a test flight over Chicago. As the blimp’s gasbag ignited, its five passengers attempted to parachute to safety, although only two survived the jump: one parachute caught fire, one man was caught in the rigging and dragged down with the doomed blimp, and a third man broke both legs on landing and died in the hospital. The blimp crashed into the roof of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank, at the corner of Jackson Blvd. and La Salle street. Built in 1897, the bank featured a beautiful open lobby, topped by an enormous skylight that was, unfortunately, not blimp-proof:

A newspaper illustration of the bank's interior, showing an enormous lobby.
Chicago Tribune

The fuselage of the Wingfoot Air Express plunged straight through the skylight and crashed into the lobby floor, at which point the gasoline tanks attached to its twin engines exploded.
Fortunately, business hours were over, but bank employees were cleaning up at the end of the workday; ten were killed, including two teenage bank messengers. In the aftermath, Goodyear paid settlements to the families of the dead and the city updated its aviation safety rules. But what was it like to soar high above Chicago in a wildly unsafe blimp? The question was answered a few days after the tragedy by George Putnam Stone, a Chicago journalist who was on board during the penultimate flight of the Wingfoot Air Express. His account, as published in the Lincoln Journal Star of Lincoln, Nebraska, on July 24, 1919, is printed in full below. –Matthew Dessem

The roof of the bank after the crash, showing a blimp-sized hole in the skylight.
Chicago Tribune

This will introduce Chicago’s newest and most exclusive fraternity, the Never Again club.

There are four of us in it. The others are the city editor of the Chicago Post, Eddie Mahoney of the Chicago American, and Col. Morroy, chief of aviation in the central department.

We are inseparably bound, chiefly by mutual congratulations, for we went blimping with Pilot Jack Boettner and Mechanician Carl Weaver in the “wingfoot air express.” [Ed.: Boettner survived the crash; Weaver’s parachute caught fire.] The two airmen landed us safely in Grant Park just a few minutes before they started on the flight which ended with the Illinois Trust and Savings bank.

A Foolish Invitation

The only reason why we aren’t four of the dead is that we got back on the ground five minutes too soon.

“Let’s go down and take a ride in the blimp,” the boss said when we’d worked out our day.

I dived into my coat. (Hereafter, if anyone makes such a suggestion, I’ll dive into the river.) That was but a few hours ago and I knew a great deal less than I do now.

We went to Grant park and found the dirigible waiting, surrounded by a crowd that kept swarming like flies up to the sides of the gondola, which hung beneath the big, silver bag.

Earl H. Davenport, publicity man for the White City and formerly sporting writer for the Post, met us. [Ed.: Davenport was tangled in the rigging and dragged down by the blimp.]

“Certainly, you can go up,” he said. “Just wait a few minutes and we’ll be ready to start.”

Engines Heavily Oiled

We waited a few minutes, and then some more, while mechanics fooled with the two big engines placed just behind the stern of the gondola. The engines seemed to have been too heavily oiled. They shot thick streams of oil over the aluminum engine hoods and up toward the bag, and refused to give any signs of life.

Then the south park commissioners sent word that the blimp would have to be taken out of the park, and W. C. Young, head of the Goodyear company’s aeronautics department, told us we couldn’t go up.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “But we don’t want to take any risks, and it is not easy to land in White City. We’d rather not take any passengers if we’re going there. We are anxious to give you a ride, too, for altho the Goodyear company doesn’t want any freak publicity, this dirigible has been brought here to encourage aeronautics and on that score we are anxious to interest the newspapers.”

We were almost ready to give up the trip, but a final effort to placate the south park commissioners was successful. Permission was granted for one ascent and landing before the flight back to White City. We climbed aboard the ship.

“Nose right,” a man bellowed through a megaphone.

The nose of the big bag swung slowly to the right.

“Let your tail swing.”

The tail drifted easily in the light breeze.

“All hands off. Weight it.”

Blimp Soars Aloft.

The scores of volunteer assistants loosed ropes and gondola. The big bag lifted gently from the ground.

“All right, bring her down.”

We were pulled back to earth again. Each of the passengers was given a big canvas rigging like an abbreviated pair of trousers. This was strapped around the waist and attached to a parachute, folded in a bag inside the fuselage. There weren’t parachutes enough for all and I was left out.

“That’s all right,” I said. “I’ll go up without one. Who ever heard of one of these things falling?”

Boettner, the pilot, turned around and grinned. “Safer than walking,” his expression indicated.

Each of us was given careful instructions as to behavior in event of the impossible—an accident which would force us to abandon ship. Then the ballast was carefully adjusted, the rigging was inspected, the engines were tuned up and set going.

A Comfortable Ride.

We relaxed easily into the comfortable wicker and leather seats of the gondola. Boettner glanced back at Weaver, who was handling the engines. Weaver signaled that everything was all right. Boettner stepped on a siren. As the blast sounded all ropes were loosed. We rose as if in an elevator. The engines roared. The propellers caught the air and away we soared.

It was all infinitely more easy than an airplane takeoff. The blimp left the ground as soon as released and sailed upward without a quiver. The crowd on the field sank farther and farther from us, while we shot forward and upward.

The big dirigible, looking as cumbersome as a floating house, responded more easily than a plane to the pilot’s guidance. It rose, sank, or wheeled at a touch.

Sitting in the big, comfortable gondola on easy chairs, with the huge, solid-looking bag over our heads, we felt as safe as if on the ground. There were none of these swoops and turns which keep one mindful in the air—elevated trains far below looked more dangerous.

We sped north along the lake shore. Only the stiff breeze in our faces and the rapidity with which the outspread city rolled under us indicated that the dirigible was approaching its maximum speed of sixty miles an hour. Apparently we were floating while the earth slipped past. Automobiles and trains seemed to crawl, dropping swiftly behind. Sailboats, no bigger than folded cigaret papers, seemed as stationary as the pumping stations, which looked like those castles devised for the diversion of goldfish.

Over Lincoln Park.

We had hardly settled ourselves when we were over the northern bathing beach at Lincoln Park. Then we whirled back over the loop, circled it a couple of times and sailed back as far as the Wilson Avenue club.

Another wide circle over the city and south as far as the new museum, and we started down. Two bags of ballast were dropped to make the ship more easily handled.
The ponderous nose of the big ship dipped and we slid gently downward. Dozens of hands clutched the trailing ropes, more grasped the sides of the car. We settled easily to the ground, and the trip was over.

“Safest, most pleasant thing in the world,” we agreed as we got out. “There’s nothing like it.”

As we walked across the park, Davenport, Norton, and Wacker prepared to take our places for the flight to White City. Before we had been gone fifteen minutes the dirigible was in the air again. In five minutes more it was aflame and dropping.

Never-again!