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The Real Aviators of Rockford

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It was the “Mad Men” era of martini lunches and Saturday night parties for the close-knit, highly skilled group of pilots who flew Rockford executives in the 1950s and ’60s. Gail Ravitts recounts her husband’s experience and the aviators he worked alongside.

Shown at right is Swan Hillman, president of Rockford Screw and Manufacturing Co., with pilot Kenny Weaver, in front of “the Screwbird,” a Twin Beech based at Machesney Airport during the 1950s.

Editor’s Note: Gail Ravitts, a Rockford freelance writer and regular NWQ contributor, experienced a golden age of corporate flying in Rockford during the 1950s and ’60s, alongside her pilot husband, Rick Ravitts, who flew for Camcar. Here, she graciously shares memories of Rockford aviators and the beautiful airplanes they flew. Her effort was aided by pilot friends George Church and Ron Rippon.

It is indeed wonderful to have a baseball team named the “Rockford Aviators.” But whenever I see that name in the newspaper, I remember another group of ambitious and high-spirited young men, whom I call “The Real Aviators of Rockford,” who also had a glamorous career that many other men envied. (What young lad hasn’t dreamed of being a major league ballplayer or a Top Gun pilot?) One big difference is that when a Real Aviator went to work, the lives of all the souls on board the plane depended on his performance.

The story of the Real Aviators begins in the early 1950s, a time when Rockford’s manufacturing might – especially in the fastener industry – was so vital to national defense that we feared we were a target for Soviet nukes. Not for nothing was Rockford called the “Screw Capital of world.” It was a time when airlines served only large cities, there was no Interstate Highway system and trains were slow and seemed very old fashioned. Still, businesspeople needed to travel.

Swan Hillman, president of Rockford Screw and Manufacturing Company, knew the answer. He had a Twin Beech, “the Screwbird,” based at Fred Machesney’s sod field north of town, and he was actively promoting a new municipal airport on the grounds of Camp Grant, formerly a training base during WWI and WWII. He dreamed of concrete runways, runway lights, radio facilities and maybe even a control tower someday.

Beech made several planes with two engines, but there is only one “Twin Beech,” the D-18, the sturdy tail-dragger with twin tails and two fat, roaring nine-cylinder, 450 horsepower R-985 radial Pratt and Whitney engines. The distinctive sound of those round engines today can give old pilots a severe case of nostalgia.

Chicago’s Midway Airport was the world’s busiest airport in the 1950s; O’Hare was just being built on the grounds of a Douglas Aircraft plant out in the boonies near a little town called “Orchard Place,” which explains the ORD on your luggage tags. When Swan’s dreams came true and Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson was due to come to town in a Twin Beech on Oct. 21, 1949, to dedicate Rockford’s new airport, Swan’s pilot, Kenny Weaver, landed the “Screwbird” on Oct. 20, in order for newspaper and television crews to take pictures of the “governor’s plane” arriving. Photo services have improved since then.

Following Swan’s example, other companies created aviation departments until, by the early 1960s, there were at least 30 corporate airplanes at the airport, some in hangars, none of them jets. The presence of those planes created the need for more services, longer runways and more hangars and thus the airport grew from a collection of leftover buildings at Camp Grant to the first-class facility we have today.

The smallest corporate plane was the single-engine, four-passenger Beech Bonanza with the saucy V-tail. A lucky Bonanza passenger might sit up front in the co-pilot’s seat, gaze into the empty sky ahead and have the exhilarating sensation of being suspended in an ocean of air, while the earth moved below; of really flying, an experience not to be found elsewhere in a plane.

Chuck Kissell flew a Bonanza for Mattison Machines, but companies with larger planes liked to have a handy Bonanza in the hangar, too. Kissell was a fixture in Rockford aviation for many years. He dated from the days of the WW I trainer, the Jenny, and the OX-5 engine. During WWII, when Fred Machesney got a contract to train military pilots at his sod field, Chuck was one of the instructors. When a student landed downwind, a major transgression, Kissell had him stand at attention and salute the tetrahedron, the big triangular, three-dimensional sign that gave wind direction, for half an hour.

The largest corporate plane was the twin-engine, 21-seat DC-3, still in use by airlines at the time, but gradually being replaced by larger planes. When a corporation bought one, it had the airline seats replaced with tables and comfortable chairs. Sandy Sandberg and Jack Bixby flew a DC-3 for Greenlee, and Frank Lindgren and Willie Kundo flew another one for Ingersoll Milling.

Bruno “Sandy” Sandberg was no less a legend than Chuck Kissell. He earned his wings in 1929 at Machesney Airport and instructed flying there until WW II, when he became a flight instructor in Ponca City, Okla., at British Flying Training School #6, where the Royal Air Force (RAF) sent young lads to learn to fly, uninterrupted by German bombers. During that time, American cadet Rick Ravitts was sent to Ponca City as part of an experiment of mixing a few Yanks in with the Brits, but neither he nor Sandberg knew of the other’s stint with the RAF until they met in Rockford years later.

After the war, Sandy rejoined Fred Machesney’s flight school. Occasionally, he flew his family in a light plane to southern Illinois to visit relatives, landing in a farm field. On one such flight, Sandy, like all good pilots, kept all his senses alert; his eyes searched for other aircraft in the vicinity, and constantly scanned the instrument panel; his ears were attuned to the music of the engine and his nose ready to detect any unusual odor. His family was surprised when he suddenly called out, “What’s that smell?” His teenage daughter, Pat, sheepishly confessed that she was polishing her nails.

Sandberg presided over Greenlee’s stable of airplanes that included the DC-3, a Twin Beech and a Bonanza. At Sandberg’s funeral, the Real Aviators formed a fly-over in tribute to the dean of corporate aviation in Rockford.

Kenny Weaver and his brother, Warren “Cy” Weaver, were local men who served in the Army Air Corps in WWII. Cy was a flight instructor for awhile, but eventually, they both ended up ferrying P-39 Airacobra fighters to Alaska, where the planes were picked up by the Russians. The P-39 had a cannon in its nose that gave quite a jolt to the pilot when fired, but the Russians were enthusiastic about it because it was a devastating ground attack weapon.

“To be able to fly like the Weaver boys” was the wish of many Rockford youngsters. After the war, the Weavers were among the many instructors at Machesney Airport during the time when flying lessons were much in demand, some paid for by the G.I. Bill. From there, Kenny went with Rockford Screw Products, and Cy became Airport Manager for some years, before flying a Queen Air for Howard Monk’s advertising firm. At Cy’s funeral a few years ago, I heard it said from the pulpit that, before hiring any pilot, Rockford industrialists always consulted Cy; no one was hired without his blessing. I wonder how many people knew that? I didn’t, and Cy and his wife Pearl were good friends of ours.

Pilot Richard Ravitts and wife Gail, author of this article, in 1981, in front of their Cessna 310 “86 Zulu.” Inset: The couple in 1945, just before they were married, on Richard’s family farm in Monezum, Iowa.

When Kenny was at home, but knew that some of his fellow pilots were due into the airport, he kept his radio tuned to flight frequencies and his eyes on a nearby radio tower, from whose lights he could judge the visibility. He had a sterling reputation as a dependable and professional pilot. He often flew through unpredictable weather of the Great Lakes region, and never failed to deliver his passengers safely.

His first co-pilot was Frank Cadwell, who was, incidentally, the best dancer among the pilots. (Well, second best, after my husband.) Both Frank and Kenny were required to work in the office on days when they weren’t flying, and perhaps pilots at other firms also were required to do so. The idea of a professional pilot had not yet entirely penetrated the Swedish mentality. Pilots who came from elsewhere scorned office work. Kenny’s next co-pilot was Gary Bender, son of Maynard Bender, Chief Pilot for Woodward Governor.

Planes that Maynard Bender flew for Woodward Governor included a Beech D-18 and two Twin Bonanzas; but my memory of Maynard Bender will always be of a Halloween masquerade party at which he and his soon-to-be-wife, Gladys, had everyone entirely mystified. He was pretty tall and angular, but dressed as a coy woman, who nevertheless was not shy about displaying her voluminous undergarments; Gladys, small as she was, wore a pencil-thin mustache and made a rather convincing little Chaplinesque man. Neither would speak. They were hilarious! Well, I guess you know who walked off with first prize for best costumes.

Yes, the pilots loved to party. But unlike members of a ball team, who see each other nearly every day, pilots’ jobs took them away from other pilots, so they managed to get together whenever possible, to recount their adventures in sessions of “hangar flying.” Sometimes it was in Florida, especially in winter, but more often at the Pink Pony, a regular pilots’ watering hole, where martinis and flying stories were plentiful. This was the “Mad Men” era, and the odds of being stopped for drunk driving were small.

The Real Aviators had an organization, the Rockford Professional Pilots Association (RPPA), whose purpose was to present a united front to airport management, when issues were in dispute. On the monthly meeting nights of the RPPA, we pilots’ wives went out to dinner together. Our purpose was to provide a memorable dinner dance in December. It was an occasion for new dresses, old stories and Christmas cheer.

One pilot who didn’t join in on the martinis was Pete Borgia. As a child, he had lived above a saloon and learned far too much about the dangers of alcohol, so as an adult he never indulged.

The Aero Commander that Borgia flew for Amerock was a high-wing twin with tricycle gear and sleek lines that I’m afraid made all those tail-dragging Twin Beeches look dowdy. In 1961, coming home from the Minneapolis area late at night, Borgia and his Commander crashed into the trees just south of the airport. Borgia was known as a meticulous pilot, and the cause was never determined. As far as I know, that was the only fatal crash of a Real Rockford Aviator at the airport, or anywhere else, for that matter.

There was another fatal crash, in another Commander, but not with one of the Real Rockford Aviators at the controls. This one belonged to Ipsenlabs. Bill Kastilahn was Ipsen’s professional pilot. One day, as his boss, Harold Ipsen, waited in the plane, Bill preflighted and fueled it.

Much to his surprise, Mr. Ipsen then taxied off without him. Ipsen had flown the plane before, but always with Bill on board. All went well, on the outbound leg, but upon returning, on a long final approach to Rockford, one engine failed, and he didn’t know how to compensate for the uneven thrust. His attempts to right the plane only made matters worse, resulting in a spectacular crash.

George Church, returning from a flight, saw the wreckage and said he couldn’t even recognize it as an airplane. Any of the Real Aviators could have landed that Commander on one engine. For its FAA type certification test, the Commander’s company pilots flew it across the entire country with one propeller stowed in the baggage compartment, to prove single engine performance – and brag a bit.

Employees celebrate the 20th anniversary of Machesney Airport in 1947. In the center of the front row is owner Fred Machesney, flanked by flight instructors (L-R) Raphael Bloomster, Kenny Weaver, Richard Day, Charles W. Kissel, Cy Weaver and Roger Lace. In the back row are employees Burdette Lindeman, Russell Hallburg, Neil Vickery, Armien Brereton, Ed Rorhbach, Alice Eaton, Robert Miller, Merlon Baker and Dean Aden.

Yet another Aero Commander was flown by Bruce Bennett for Atwood Vacuum Machine Company, and when Bennett left town in 1959, Nick Rezich took his place. That same year, the Experimental Aircraft Association brought its annual Fly-In to Rockford Airport, where Rezich performed an aerobatic routine in his 1929 Travel Air (that he also used for sky-writing) and also announced the events. He continued to do so after the Fly-In was moved to Oshkosh, and became famous as the “Voice of EAA.”

Rezich had extensive experience in all facets of aviation. He stayed at Atwood for 22 years before dying of cancer in1981; as a symbol of their esteem, the Real Aviators flew over the church as the mourners exited. Rick flew our 310 Cessna in the formation, with Ted Newton closely monitoring airspeed when Rick had to throttle back to stay with the slower aircraft; I took pictures of the event.

Sundstrand had the largest fleet. In the ’50s, it included three Twin Beeches, a Bonanza and a Twin Bonanza. Howard Riddle was chief pilot, and other fliers were Don Swearingen, John Natho, Bruce Morrall, Bill Buckingham, Bill Regal and Ron Rippon, with George Church in charge of maintenance and often filling in as co-pilot. Church was a WW II vet, having served in lighter-than-air craft.

After Pete Borgia’s accident, Rippon left Sundstrand for Amerock and flew its Twin Bonanza and then the King Air. By 1977, Amerock had entered the jet age and Rippon was privileged to fly Rockford’s first and only corporate Learjet, everybody’s favorite transportation. It was the “homesick angel” that could punch up through the cloud layer into the smooth air above, leaving lesser aircraft to struggle through the bumpy bad weather. When J. L. Clark bought the Learjet, its special hangar and its pilot both were part of the bargain, so Rippon flew it for 22 years, retiring in 1999 at age 71 (but looking not a day over 61).

Church stayed on at Sundstrand and flew co-pilot on Twin Beeches for ten years, before moving to the position of pilot-in-command of a 320 Cessna and a King Air. When he retired in 1988, after 33 years with the company, he was in charge of Sundstrand’s 17 jets. He was only 60. He then went with Aviation Methods, a San Francisco company that conducted safety audits on flight departments. He accepted the position on the condition that he could bring along his wife, Ann, and the two of them at last could travel together. They had a ball! Church suggested that I mention in this article the sacrifices made by pilots’ wives, who stayed home, raising the kids and juggling social engagements, while their husbands did what they loved – flying. Amen.

My late husband, Rick Ravitts, served in the Air Transport Command during WWII, flying four-engine C-87s and C-54s loaded with critical supplies from Miami to India. And back. He bounced around the uncertain post-war aviation game, from Kansas City to Atlanta, finally landing a good job flying a DC-3 for the Oliver Corporation out of Chicago. But soon, the market for farm machinery tanked, and reluctantly, they sold the airplane.

Rick had been unemployed for four months, when in the summer of 1953, seemingly out of the blue, he received a phone call from Bob Campbell, president of Camcar Screw and Manufacturing Company, asking if he would be willing to move to Rockford to fly for Camcar. He certainly would! (Years later, we figured out that King McCord, president of Oliver, must have recommended Rick to Bob Campbell. Both men had offices in the Palmolive Building in Chicago and Oliver bought many Camcar fasteners.) The Camcar Twin Beech was bright yellow and had been named “The Totepan” by the winner of a Name-that-Plane contest. (Totepans are metal pans used to carry fasteners from one machine to another on the factory floor.)

In February of 1954, we moved our family to Rockford, and, well aware that there were plenty of Rockford pilots who had been hoping to fly for Camcar, gave a party for all the Real Aviators and their wives. Only one fistfight marred the evening. Rick enjoyed flying for Camcar and meeting all the great people who rode with him in the Totepan.

On Dec. 23, 1954, Bill Buckingham and George Church were on their way to Midway Airport, having wisely chosen to bypass Rockford’s lousy weather, when they heard Rick over the radio, saying he had a broken crankshaft and was trying to reach Midway on the remaining engine. He had aborted a landing at Rockford and was at 300 feet when it happened. He had feathered the bad engine and was slowly climbing but could not climb high enough to reach Midway approach radio.

Bill and George relayed Rick’s radio messages and got permission from Midway for a straight-in emergency approach and landing, scattering airliners here and there. With a full load of passengers, ice accumulating on all surfaces, and the remaining engine screaming at take-off power, the faithful Totepan made it onto the runway and rolled into the Butler hangar, with the Sundstrand plane close behind.

Church climbed a ladder to inspect the damaged engine. All of the pistons were at the top of the cylinders, ready to fly out at the next turn of the prop, tear the engine apart and probably take the wing with it. The D-18 may not be very pretty, but she sure is “hell for stout!” as Rick would say. Kenny Weaver, with perfect timing, had landed in Rockford ahead of the bad weather that night and heard the whole drama play out on his radio.

In 1958, Textron bought Camcar and didn’t want the airplane. C’est le vie.

There were other pilots, such as Bob Seitz, who flew a Commander for Barber Colman. Del Shroyer flew a Twin-engine Piper Apache for Barnes Drill, and probably there are others I have forgotten. But there’s one I won’t forget: charming Len Pagano, who worked for Roper Industries, flew the most exotic bird in the flock, a Piaggio Royal Gull amphibian, built in Italy. I can’t swear this is true, but it is said that every time the Gull made a water landing, the jolt knocked out all of the plane’s electronics. Why an amphib? Maybe they wanted to fish in remote lakes in Canada.

Also memorable is Len’s adorable wife, Loraine, who loaned me all her chic maternity clothes when I had disposed of all of mine. (That baby turned 53 last March.) Len and his family left Rockford in the early ’60s, when Roper moved its operations to Athens, Ga., and thus began the exodus of manufacturing from Rockford and the disappearance of many corporate flying jobs for our Real Aviators.

Of all the Real Aviators mentioned here, l know of only three who are still living; Bruce Morrall, Ron Rippon and George Church. Morrall lives near Monroe Center, in a barn that he converted into an enormous house. The two men with probably the longest corporate aviation careers in Rockford are my indispensable collaborators, Ron Rippon, 84, a restorer of old aircraft, and winner of many prizes for them, now working on a 1931 Curtiss-Wright biplane; and George Church, 86. George, who for years drove his motor home to Arizona in winter, now is content to rough it for a week or two in the motor home with Ann and some of their family in Rock Cut State Park.

I hope the Rockford Aviators of Baseball are enjoying their careers as much as did their predecessors, the Real Aviators of Rockford.

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7 responses to “The Real Aviators of Rockford”

  1. Gail Ravitts says:

    Richard did not live on a farm; I did. He lived in Montezuma, Iowa. Don’t know why the photo of us taken in March of 1945, before our wedding in August, is not included.

  2. Nancy Payne-Olewiler says:

    I was privileged to work for Rick and Gail Ravitts at their companies, Richards of Rockford and Riga, Inc. In my 50+ years as a secretary, they were the best bosses I had. And I got to ride in 86 Zulu. They even took my family up. I’ve always enjoyed Gail’s writing and remember them both with love.

  3. Susan Weaver Dressler says:

    Gail, I was so blessed when a dear friend of mine read this article and sent it to me. It was so well-written and brings back so many memories of that era and growing up as a daughter of one of those great pilots, Kenny Weaver! I remember times we spent with you and your family very well. I remember the morning waking up to my mom sharing the tragic loss of Pete Borgia in the plane crash. So many fond memories of the EAA and the fun we had at the airport. I was able to experience so much with my dear father. I remember my dad telling me that he flew WWII missions to South America. Thank you again, Gail, for sharing this special part of Rockford history!

  4. Paul Stalter says:

    Gail, I would like to interview you for Our City, Our Story.
    Paul Stalter

  5. Kyle Norberg says:

    What a treat to read about my grandpa, Swan Hillman, and the “Screwbird”. We flew on the plane many times with Kenny, Frank and Gary. Thanks for sharing. Kyle Norberg

  6. Gail Ravitts says:

    Dear Susan, I am so glad you liked my article! While writing the article I wanted to get in touch with you to get the photo of your dad and Swan Hillman. I think I gave it to you after Kenny died. But I didn’t know your married name or where you live. I remember meeting you when you brought Ken to Tinker Cottage years ago. Anyway, just flipping through old photos, luckily I ran across a picture I had taken of that picture, and it was good enough to print!

    Please stay in touch!
    Gail Ravitts

  7. tom says:

    My dad flew for Sudstrand out of Rockford for a couple of years. We moved to Traverse City Michigan and operated Winchester Aviation for 18 years. He really enjoyed flying in Rockford and had many good stories of the people and the flying. His name was Tom(Laverne) Winchester. I would love to talk with anyo