In June 1927, Mr. Fred E. Machesney came to the Rockford area and initially acquired rights to a 55-acre tract of land which eventually expanded to 160-acres. The area of land was along North Second Street and later to be known as the Machesney Airport. This is where it all began; the runway and tarmac were flat but made of dirt and grass.
The airfield officially became the Machesney “Rockford” Airport on July 8, 1927. The airport was once reported to be one of the oldest, privately owned aviation facilities operated continuously by one individual in the entire United States.
Acquisition to Closing: 1927-1974
In 1927, Mr. Machesney began the operation with two planes: his Waco 9 open cockpit bi-plane and a Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny” Army trainer. With two planes, a heart full of inspiration, and one employee named Al St. John, Machesney transported more than 3,000 passengers that were carried safely on sightseeing trips near Rockford and various other parts of the country. Fred became a distributor for Travel All Planes in northern Illinois and he also sponsored a “flying club” with approximately 12 members initially. All of the members purchased their own planes and were trained by Mr. Machesney and fellow pilot, Ralph Swaby. Swaby was the first pilot Fred hired, and at the time both were transport pilots. Machesney and Swaby collectively flew 800 hours, covered 60,000 miles, carried 3,600 passengers, and successfully took off and landed over 4,000 times.
When Fred Machesney flew his first airplane here it was simply tied to a fence in the field along North Second Street. Within the year the field was too small to accommodate the airships of the time, so he obtained a ground lease for the property just to the north and named it the “Rockford Airport,” which became official on July 8, 1927. The new, larger field was a high, well-drained plot of land, and was comprised of nearly 160 acres. The airfield now abutted North Second Street to the East, and extended to the Rock River to the West. Being that the airfield now extended to the Rock River, this added an exciting new element to Machesney’s operation: the airfield became accessible to seaplanes for a landing.
On the airfield there now stood three hangers. The largest of the hangers was 60 feet by 60 feet with a 14 foot clearance, capable of housing 12 standard airplanes. There was a workshop for maintenance services and training, a classroom for the ongoing aviation school, and a waiting room to provide comfort to the growing customer base. The two additional, smaller hangers provided space for three more airships each. When students graduated from the Machesney “Rockford” Airport flight school the average of their grades was an impressive 93 percent.
In 1928, Mr. Machesney’s thoroughness and unusual precautions on the part of each and every pilot that he employed, enabled him to point with pride to a “No Accident” record during the 1928 flying season.
Almost midway through that year, in May of 1928, Mr. Machesney took delivery of a five seat Fairchild cabin plane. Mr. Machesney purchased this plane to increase his passenger carrying capacity, and subsequently his income, as more and more people made use of airships for transportation purposes. Whether the travel was for pleasure, business, or shopping trips to destinations like Milwaukee or Chicago, it was now possible for Rockford area residents by means of the Fairchild Cabin Plane. The new airship was able to travel at a speed of 90 miles per hour under favorable conditions. At this speed, travelers, shoppers, and businessmen were able to reach the Wisconsin metropolis, Chicago, or other regional cities in a remarkably short amount of time. This moved the Rockford area manufacturers and businessmen into a position to compete with those of other cities who already knew the value of the airships in exceeding the competition.
Also that same year, more new equipment was arriving on Machesney’s airfield; this time from the newly formed Forest City Airways which operated out of the Blackhawk Airfield. Forest City Airways purchased an Air King Biplane, thus increasing the Rockford area’s passenger carrying air fleet to four.
Notably, on August 16 of 1928 a second flight attempt from the Machesney “Rockford” Airport to Sweden took off under Machesney’s instruction. Unfortunately, the pilots became lost sometime between August 18th & September 2nd, eventually landing in Greenland. Thankfully, they were safely returned to the area and received a warm reception on October 18th.
In 1930, Captain Joe Kimm (a member of the Quiet Birdmen), confirms, that Northwest Airlines expanded its passenger services to Elgin and Rockford. The Rockford bound passengers were routed to Machesney’s airfield, which they had already approved as a route for airmail delivery. Northwest Airways, Inc. (changed to Northwest Airlines, and now Delta), who used the Machesney “Rockford” Airport to fly mail in and out of the area put their stamp of approval on Machesney’s airport in just one visit.
When the air mail service was proposed for Rockford, a revolving beacon was removed from atop the Rockford National Bank building and donated to the airfield. The donated beacon light was used in connection with flood lighting system installed with the assistance of the aviation committee of the Rockford Chamber of Commerce. Obstruction lighting was also installed to mark hazards for pilots flying at night and to mark the property boundaries. Fred Machesney was instrumental in getting airmail delivered to the area, which lasted some 33 months between 1930 and 1933.
In 1934, it is said that Fred went back to operating “three or four planes” and was doing most of the flying again. Around that time, any extra passenger work was being handled by B.W. “Sandy” Sandberg and Pat Bailey.
In 1935, Famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart visited Rockford, where she addressed the area’s Woman’s Club.
From 1939 to 1943, 1,139 students in military service were trained at the Machesney “Rockford” Airport, and an estimated 2,000 civilian students completed the training during the same time period. Machesney and his staff trained over 50 students to fly, 14 of which made solo flights at the airport, and 3 went on to receive their commercial pilots licenses.
The airport had some 203 visiting airships and it became a favorite stopping place for flyers of the Army and Navy air squadrons who made hops from Chanute Field in Rantoul, and Great Lakes Naval Training Station in North Chicago. Additionally, the airport became a layover point for United States military planes heading over to the Soviet Union during World War II.
In 1943, voters approved the formation of the Greater Rockford Airport Authority. Law later found this authority to be unconstitutional, but the authority was eventually approved and officially created two years later.
In 1946, the Rockford area City-County Planning Commission named Lloyd T. Keefe City-County Planner; his first task was to direct the conversion of the 18,000 acre Camp Grant grounds into an airport. Camp Grant was a U.S. Army training facility located on the South end of Rockford, named in honor of General Ulysses S. Grant. Later, in the Fall of 1947, Camp Grant buildings were torn down and more than 1,200 acres of camp property were turned over to the Greater Rockford Airport Authority for development into an official airport.
In 1951, 237 charter passengers were carried on 143 trips for a total of 55,155 passenger miles, as told by Fred Machesney. There were 35 airplanes based at the Machesney airfield at this time, whereby Fred was operating 11 of them. Using the Machesney airfield, freight handling aircraft flew some 12,380 miles, transporting 10,828 pounds of cargo during 1951. Instead of Machesney’s business depending chiefly on a sightseeing passenger trade, as it was in the beginning, he began to focus around sales and service to the industrial aircraft. Around 1951-52, total hours flown were nearly 76,330, air miles estimated at 7,633,000, and more than 75,000 passengers were carried by the planes that utilized the airport.
In 1954, on October 31st Governor William G. Stratton attended a dedication ceremony for the “Greater Rockford Airport.”
In 1956, on October 26th Vice-President Richard M. Nixon, campaigning with President Dwight D. Eisenhower for re-election, landed at “Greater Rockford Airport” and gave a campaign rally speech at the National Guard Armory. The Machesney Airport remained open during this time and continued its operations.
In 1974, with the continued decline of the Machesney Airport’s operations, the administrators closed its doors some 20 years after the opening of the Greater Rockford Airport, now known as the Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD). Not long after its closing, the property was redeveloped in 1978 into the Machesney Park Mall. The now former Machesney Park has once again been redeveloped into the Machesney Park Town Center.
During his career Fred Machesney flew more than 100,000 miles and carried over 12,000 passengers; quite a record for any pilot.
Employees at the Airport
Some of the individuals who were said to have worked at the airport are:
- Al St. John – Mechanic – 1927
- Ralph Swaby, Pilot – 1927
- Howard Adams, Mechanic – 1935, Pilot – 1942
- R.S. Day, Chief Pilot and Operations Officer – 1940 to 1949
- B.W. “Sandy” Sandberg, Pilot and Operations Manager – 1934
- Chuck Kissel, Chief Pilot and Flight Examiner – 1942 to 1952
- Ray Bloomster, Flight Instructor and Pilot – 1947 to 1952
- Robert Miller, Shop Superintendent, Civil Aeronautics Authority, and Aircraft Inspector – 1943 to 1952.
References: The information contained herein has been obtained from the following websites: