Friday, November 21, 2008

Early Bird, Part 5

Chicago's Cicero Flying Field had become the center of American aviation, and in 1911, DeLloyd Thompson was pulled into its vortex. This was where most of the flight instruction and experimentation with aeronautics was taking place, and where a fraternity of fliers was forming. Thompson became close friends with Andrew Drew and Max Lillie, the gregarious Swedish immigrant who began the Lillie Flying Station and School at Cicero, later to become the Lillie-Thompson School.

Dutch Thompson, the long-legged six-footer with an engaging personality, typified the daring and dashing young men attracted to the sport. But the flying fraternity was not restricted to men; the romance and danger drew women like Katherine Stinson and Julia Clark as well.

Thompson was still learning tricks and had yet to compete in an air show when he returned home to Washington in November 1911 to visit his mother and brother, then living on South Lincoln Street. But the visit of the aviator was notable enough to be mentioned in the society columns of the Washington Observer.

The first big Chicago-area aviation meet opened on May 30, 1912, when Thompson flew before a large crowd for the first time. That was the same day that Wilbur Wright died in Dayton, Ohio, of typhoid fever at age 45.

A few days later, Thompson received his Aero Club of America instructor's certificate, and in early July, he was hired as the assistant instructor of the Lillie school. At the September meet, marred by the death of fellow pilot Howard Gill, Thompson was one of the top prize-winners ($995) in events before a throng of more than 100,000 in Chicago's Grant Park. And on Oct. 5, he received his Expert Aviator rating, only the third at Cicero and eighth flier in the country to receive it.

The young auto mechanic from Washington had risen to the top ranks in aviation and did so under the tutelage of Walter Brookins and Max Lillie, who both favored a style that stressed safety first and precision maneuvers. But Dutch Thompson's fame would come from testing the limits of his machines and tempting death, which would claim so many more of his friends and colleagues.

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