In the skies over Kankakee, birds of many types are a common sight. But on Thursday, Sept. 29, 1910, a new species, the “mechanical bird” (as one newspaper called it) was observed soaring over the downtown area.
The “bird” was, of course, an airplane. That aerial vehicle was, almost certainly, the first plane ever seen by people in this community. The first successful powered airplane flight had been achieved by the Wright brothers only seven years earlier, in 1903. That flight lasted 12 seconds and covered a distance of 120 feet.
The plane observed over Kankakee, piloted by Wright protégé Walter Brookins, was attempting a 188-mile flight from Chicago to Springfield. In a story three days before Brookins’ flight, the Kankakee Daily Republican reported that the community was “agog with interest and excitement” over the event, which would attempt to “shatter into smithereens all records for sustained journeys in the upper atmosphere by a mechanical bird.”
Brookins, only 22 years old, had been taught to fly by Wilbur and Orville Wright; he made his first solo flight after just two and one-half hours of instruction. In the summer of 1910, the aviator set a new world’s altitude record, taking his plane 4,380 feet above the earth. One month later, he broke that record, becoming the first person to pilot an airplane to an altitude of more than one mile (Brookins actually exceeded the mile altitude by 895 feet, reaching a height of 6,175 feet).
An important motivation for the Sept. 29 Chicago-to-Springfield flight was a $10,000 prize being offered by a newspaper, the Chicago Record-Herald. To qualify for the prize, Brookins would have to complete the distance in a flight interrupted only by short stops for refueling.
The aircraft piloted by Brookins was a flimsy-appearing biplane, very similar to the “Wright Flyer” that Wilbur and Orville had used to make their first successful flight in 1903. It was constructed with a frame of metal tubing and tension wires, upper and lower wings of fabric stretched over wood supports, and bicycle wheels for takeoff and landing. Motive power for the vehicle was a four-cylinder gasoline engine, located immediately behind the pilot, that rotated two wooden “pusher” propellers.
An added feature of the flight was a competition billed as a “race” between Brookins’ aircraft and an Illinois Central passenger train making its regularly scheduled run from Chicago to Springfield, A special car attached to the train, flying a large American flag from its rear platform, “will be Brookins’ guide from Chicago to Springfield,” noted the Kankakee Daily Republican.
Brookins took off from Washington Park on Chicago’s south side at 9:15 a.m., flew east until he found the Illinois Central tracks, then turned south. By 10:22 a.m., he had flown 34 miles, and was reported over Peotone, 19 miles north of Kankakee.
“The biplane passed over the city at exactly 10:55 o’clock,” reported the Kankakee Daily Republican. “It appeared to be directly over the Illinois Central Railroad and was first seen miles up the tracks by the thousands of people gathered in the business districts and along the railroad right-of-way.
“The police station was notified and various factories and other places possessing steam whistles were informed, with the result that shortly afterward the schools were dismissed and people from every part of the city sought a vantage point from which to get a good view of the aviator.”
One of the spectators was C. Jansen, a foreman at Kankakee’s Foley-Williams sewing machine factory, who was standing near the intersection of Court Street and West Avenue. “With his eyes fixed on the ship of the air,” noted the newspaper, “Mr. Jansen noticed a small piece of paper sailing downward from the biplane, and followed it.” Picking up the folded slip, Jansen found a note from the pilot of the airplane. Written on a page torn from a memo book, the message read, “Machinery running fine, will make the trip O.K. Brookins.”
Forty-eight minutes later (at 11:43 a.m.) and some 25 miles to the south, Brookins landed at Gilman to refuel. His takeoff was delayed by almost an hour because he had outrun the train, which carried his fuel supply.
At 3:20 p.m., he landed again, this time at Mount Pulaski, to refuel and solve a problem with the plane’s fuel pump. The uninterrupted 88-mile flight from Gilman to Mount Pulaski set a new distance record for sustained flight.
The repair was quickly completed, and Brookins was in the air again in 23 minutes. Less than one hour later, he was circling the state fairgrounds at Springfield, waiting for authorities to clear an estimated forty thousand spectators from the landing field. Elapsed time for the 188-mile flight was seven hours and ten minutes; actual flying time was five hours and forty-nine minutes.
Walter Brookins’ record-breaking flight allowed him to claim the $10,000 prize. He also won the “race” with the IC passenger train, landing 10 minutes before it pulled into the Springfield depot.