NORTHPORT — It's hard to miss Clinton F. Woolsey Memorial Airport the first time you lay eyes on it.
The tiny fieldstone "terminal" edges the pavement of County Road 629. Striped black-and-yellow roofs cap its viewing "turrets" and main building like giant bumble bees.
Woolsey "international airport," as some local residents call it, is a roadside surprise. It tugs imaginations, raises eyebrows and begs questions. Why here? Who uses its two grass runways? Who runs it? Who was Woolsey?
Tourists often stop to take pictures, look around and even use the charcoal grill and picnic tables, said Jim Neve, supervisor of Leelanau Township, which owns the airfield. Travel and magazine writers sometimes describe it as "quaint," or "cute," but the story behind Woolsey airport is neither.
Who is Woolsey?
Clinton F. Woolsey, a Northport native son born in 1894, was considered one of the nation's best pilots in the Army Air Corps in the 1920s. He died a hero when he and his co-pilot, John W. Benton, were killed in a 1927 mid-air collision near Buenos Aires during the first-ever U.S. international goodwill flight to 23 Central and South American countries. The 22,000-mile tour took two months. Buenos Aires was the halfway mark.
Woolsey probably could have parachuted to safety but apparently chose to ride his amphibian biplane down in an attempt to land because Benton was on the wing, without his chute, attempting to lower the landing gear by hand.
"I have never witnessed a more courageous sacrifice," said Capt. Ira Eaker, who witnessed the crash from his plane.
Aviation was still in its infancy, and some rugged young pilots dreamed of being the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean. Woolsey was one of them. His future looked promising. Three of his fellow pilots would retire decades later as three- and four-star generals. He had already designed a plane and wanted to have it built when he returned from the tour, according to family stories. He called it the Woolsey Bomber and hoped to fly it solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
Ironically, one of his 1925 flight students, a young fellow named Charles A. Lindbergh, would be the first to do that on May 20-21, 1927, in "The Spirit of St. Louis."
Clinton was born Aug. 29, 1894, in Northport, the youngest of Byron and Sarah Woolsey's eight children and the only boy. He attended school in Northport, studied engineering at Valparaiso University in Indiana for three years and enlisted in the Indiana National Guard in 1916 as a private. He served on the Mexican border and worked in steel mills at Gary, Ind., during the winter, returning to the National Guard the next summer and transferred to the Air Service in 1917
He took further training in the artillery, became a second lieutenant and then an instructor at Fort Taylor, Ky., where he became obsessed with flying. He was sent to Kelly Field at San Antonio, Texas, for flight training and then for overseas duty at the end of World War I, where he met his Belgian wife, Mariette DuJardin, a Red Cross volunteer.
In 1925, he became chief test pilot at Brooks Field near San Antonio and was assigned the following year to the Pan-American Goodwill Flight of 1926- 1927. He also oversaw the construction and testing of the five Loening OA-1 amphibian observation planes to be used on the tour. Each plane was to be named for an American city — Detroit, New York, San Antonio, San Francisco and St. Louis. Woolsey, now a captain, was assigned to pilot the Detroit with Benton.
The Pan-American flight, which started on Dec. 21, 1926, was conceived by the Calvin Coolidge Administration to improve U.S. relations with Latin America, but not all countries south of the border were enamored. Newspapers along the way often devoted more space to charges of imperialism and criticism of the U.S. foreign policy in Latin America than to the goodwill mission.
It was a grueling tour, especially in bad weather. The planes had two open cockpits, no radios, or gyroscopic flight instruments or flight maps for much of the uncharted territory. Maintenance was done between the many diplomatic receptions and state dinners.
Heavy clouds hung over the Andes on Saturday, Feb. 26, 1927, when the planes left Chile and flew, sometimes blind, over their high peaks to Mar del Plata, an Argentinian city on the Atlantic Coast about 250 miles south of Buenos Aires. The Detroit broke a cable that raised and lowered the plane's left wheel during the water landing. To save time, Woolsey and Benton decided to fly on to Buenos Aires with the wheel retracted. The plan was that Benton would climb out of the cockpit onto the wing and lower the wheel by hand just before the landing at Palomar Field where a large crowd and dignitaries
According to affidavits and military reports, the planes were traveling about 100 mph in a diamond formation about 1,400 to 1,600 feet up as they approached the airfield. Benton climbed out on the wing as all the pilots had been trained to do.
Major Gen. Herbert Dargue, the pilot of the New York, signaled for the formation to break up for landing. He saw Woolsey veer away as planned, but then inexplicably turn back. The wings of the New York and Detroit touched and interlocked for a short time. The two planes hurtled downward before the horrified crowd until the New York spun away. Dargue and his flight engineer, Lt. Ennis Whitehead, were able to parachute out before the New York hit the ground. The Detroit smashed into the earth and burst into flames, killing both Woolsey in the cockpit and Benton, who flew off the wing before the crash.
"Woolsey was sitting on his chute and could have saved himself," Eaker wrote. "Instead, he elected to stay with the plane, since Benton was on the wing without his chute."
Final trip home
Thousands of Argentinians paid tribute to Woolsey and Benton as they lay in state in the capital city and funeral services were held Sunday. On Monday, the aviators' coffins were placed on board a steamer for a 20-day voyage to New York. There, an honor guard met them and mounted police escorted the bodies to the railroad station, where a train transported Woolsey's body to Detroit and Benton's to California.
Mrs. Woolsey met the train in Detroit on March 24 and accompanied it back home with the honor guard for the funeral at the high school gymnasium and the cemetery services three days later.
More than 2,000 people braved a snowstorm to attend the funeral, said to be the largest ever in Leelanau County. The storm forced two air service lieutenants flying from McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio to land in a field 15 miles south of Northport. They were picked up and quickly driven to the village.
At the cemetery, a bugle sounded. About 150 former soldiers and sailors in uniform formed the honor guard. They included the American Legion, Civil War and Spanish-American war veterans. The American flag used in the ceremony came from the Woolsey G.A.R. Post, named for the dead pilot's grandfather. Chauncey Woolsey, a retired Great Lakes captain, was an early Leelanau County pioneer killed in the Civil War.
In May 1927, the War Department awarded Distinguished Flying Cross medals to all the eight surviving aviators of the Pan-American flight and posthumously to Woolsey's and Benton's families.
In 1934, during the Great Depression, 85-year-old Byron Woolsey wanted to ensure that Clinton would always be remembered. He donated 80 acres of his land to Leelanau Township on the condition it be used as an airport in honor of his son. The township added another 120 acres.
A Works Progress Administration crew converted the farm, as part of a "New Deal" public works project, into a long grassy runway and expanded Woolsey's creamery/milk transfer station into a terminal.
The new airport was dedicated on July 14, 1935. Woolsey's widow came from Belgium with daughters Rosalie, then 14 and Mary, 9. About 1,000 people — state and Army Corps officers among them — attended the ceremony.
It was a beautiful day "with airplanes in sight everywhere," according to newspapers reports. The Northport Woman's Club donated a bronze plaque honoring Capt. Woolsey, which was placed on a large boulder near the terminal. It is still there.
On summer weekends, you can often see a few private airplanes parked there.
The whole place hops with planes, old cars, pilots, picnickers and people from all over in late August, when the annual "fly-in" and pancake breakfast are held.
About 1,500 usually attend. This year's event is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 21, with an Aug. 22 rain date.