Stinson Airport tragedy:  Socialite goofs, her rescuer dies on Route 66

We’ve just had another piece of U.S. Route 66 history that we’ve researched hit print.  Well, so to speak:  our co-author Keith Yearman just got a story about the Stinson Airport tragedy of July 1930 published on the website of The 66 News and its sponsor, the Route 66 Association of Illinois.  It was posted by 66 News editor Gina Blitstein (thank you, Gina!).

We also have a podcast about the Stinson Airport tragedy on Podbean, courtesy of the Illinois Geographical Society.  Thanks, guys!

Aerial view of Stinson Airport in 1938; Route 66 is the diagonal separating the south side of the McCook Quarry from the airfield on the north.  (1938 USDA Aerial Photography Project)

Stinson, of course, is the airport that used to be in McCook on the north side of Joliet Road between where it intersects 55th Street and where it hits East Avenue.  Yes, that’s right – where that big hole in the ground is on the north side of Joliet Road.  It’s part of the huge McCook Quarry that closed that section of Route 66 and forced the detour onto 55th and East Avenue after digging on both sides of the road severely weakened the ground under the roadbed.  In fact, it was the digging on the eastern end of that triangle of land where the airport was that forced the closure of the airport in 1958.  The quarry is notable for more than the airport and the road closure:  it’s also half in McCook and half in Hodgkins (the part south of Joliet Road) and was supposed to be a rainwater overflow reservoir for the sanitary district’s Deep Tunnel sewer project, until the residents of tiny McCook they didn’t want to live next to “the biggest toilet” in Illinois.  That particular issue is at a standstill, seeing as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago still needs a reservoir that big to serve as a temporary catchment after a storm and has no other suitable alternative.

So what was the tragedy, you ask?  Back in July 1930, there was a scandalous aerial accident along Route 66 at what was then Stinson Airport in what is now McCook, IL (it was considered part of La Grange back then).  Stinson was a small civilian municipal airport that operated between the early 1920s and 1958, one of several that surrounded the Chicago area and were used primarily by civilian pilots, at least until World War II approached.

You have to understand that aviation was the Next Big Thing during the 1920s, and everyone was crazy about it.  That doesn’t mean everyone was crazy enough to fly.  Flight safety wasn’t an established fact yet, and every flight in a new aircraft design was an experiment.  Yet some folks insisted on treating it like a new fad or fashion.  One such ditzy dame was Merry Fahrney.  She was heiress to her grandfather’s patent medicine fortune (he made cough syrups, cough drops and other, stranger patent ‘medicines,’ not all of which were necessarily effective and some of which were downright dubious … but the public didn’t have an FDA to look out for it back then).

Anyway, Merry Fahrney was a 20-year-old gal with money to burn, and burn through it she did.  She’d already learned to fly and now wanted to try skydiving.  One wonders exactly what parachuting instruction for civilians consisted of in July 1930, because on the day of her first dive, she apparently went up with only a pilot in the plane and no other instructor or guide – so of course something went wrong:  her chute got caught on the wing.  Two other pilots down below at the airport saw her hanging there and decided to throw together a rescue attempt (for that matter, anyone driving down Route 66 at the time would have seen her plane circling the airport 600 feet up with Fahrney dangling there).  And if you want to know what happened at that point, you’ll just have to listen to the podcast – or check out Keith’s story – at the links above.

Stinson attracted a few more female fliers – of the sort who were far more serious than ditzy Merry.  The late Virginia Rabung, who died earlier this year, was a Chicago aviatrix who was a member of the famous Ninety-Nines, the all-woman aviation club formed by Amelia Earhart.  She first took flying lessons at McCook’s Stinson Airport in 1944, right after graduating high school, and was piloting in flying races during the 1950s.  Rabung received the FAA’s Wright Brothers “Master Pilot” Award in 2004 and was inducted into the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame in 1998.  And we mustn’t forget that famous aviator and aircraft designer Eddie Stinson, after whom the airport was named, had three siblings who were also fliers, the most famous of them (after Eddie) being his older sister Katherine Stinson.

See?  Ditzy Merry notwithstanding, women belong in the skies.

Until next time,


One thought on “Stinson Airport tragedy:  Socialite goofs, her rescuer dies on Route 66

  1. Pingback: Route 66 update:  more on Rich & Creamy; we make the news (well, in Elmhurst, anyway) | The Curious Traveler's Guide to Route 66 in Metro Chicago

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