Traverse City Record-Eagle

Reflections

August 15, 2010

Cute airport, tragic story: Woolsey a hero

Clinton Woolsey was a heroic Army pilot

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."

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