The famous Golden Flyer with Charles F. Willard at the controls.
Plaque Commemorates Willard's Decatur Flight
     On October 20, 1956 at the Municipal Airport, Decatur, Illinois, a plaque was dedicated to Early Birds and particularly to Charles F. Willard who was the first man to fly in Southern Illinois. That historic flight was made at Decatur on July 14, 1910 in Willard's early and extensive barnstorming days. The plaque in his honor was unveiled on the north wall of the waiting room at the airport administration building. Photographs on either side of it picture the old Curtiss pusher plane he used in that early flight.
       This photo taken at the Decatur commemoration shows (left to right) the master of ceremonies, Dr. R. Zink Sanders fo the Park Board; Ralphie E. Connard, grandson of Loren Hodge's, who unveiled the plaque; and the honored one, Charles F. Willard; as they gazed at the plaque  
       Decatur's plaque dedication was the occasion for Early Birds to gather in that city for the ceremonies, many of them coming from a considerable distance. Willard flew in all the way from California, thanks to arrangements made by Vernon Jarvis. George Scragg flew alone from Cleveland as did Sinnie Sinclair from Muskegon. Approximately ten Early Birds were on hand for the vent, manyh of them with their wives. The program included a luncheon at noon, the dedication ceremonies in the afternoon, and a banquet dinner in the evening. Extensive coverage was given the vent by local radion and TV stations and newspapers. On hand was Loren Hodge who served as a crewman for Willard and whose efforts made the plaque presentation and day's arramgements possible, and spectators of that first flight in Decatur, including Edgar Allen, president of the Decatur Association of Commerce, as well as Decatur Park Board and airport officials. Mr. Hodge's grandson unveiled the plaque.
     Introduced at the afternoon dedication ceremonies by Dr. R. Zink Sanders of the Park Board, Early Birds President David H. Young described the EB organization and its membership and paid special tribute to Charles F. Willard, recalling Willard's early day pioneering accomplishments and experiences. In those days, he pointed out, very few persons had any knowledge of flying, and those who risked their lives in the air were impelled by a spitit of adventure as well as a vision of the possibilities of flight.
     Young likewise paid high tribute to the city fathers of Decatur for their foresight in building a fine, modern airport which comes under the management of City Parks with Lacy Chandler as the airport manager.
Charles F. Willard in his flying clothes back in the early days of his flying career.
       Charles Willard, the honored Early Bird, replied to the tributes by reminiscent on that first flight to be witnessed by Decatur citizens and the difficulties he encountered including a crackup of his plane against a tree in his final flight there. He also indicated that he wished some of his early colleagues could see Decatur's fine facilities today in marked contrast to the rough conditions of that early era.
     Willard's early barnstorming days are well remembered, and a story often told is that of his first exhibition flight in Toronto when on three successive occasions his Wright plane, "The Golden Flier," was landed in the lake due to lack of an airfield.
     Willard's contributions to the development of aviation also include extensive work in the designing and building of ships. He designed and built many trainers and flying boats for the U. S. Navy and did considerable experimental work.
     The dinner in the evening was attended by Early Birds members, members of the Decatur Park Board, other aviation-minded people, and friends. Originally, General Frank Lahm was scheduled to address the gathering, but in his absence due to an automobiel accident, the duty fell to Early Bird Treasurer George H. Scragg who, furtunately, aws able to obtain the General's notes which he incorporated with his own.
     Mr. Scragg contratulated the sponsors of the dedication and the many civic-minded citizens of Decatur who had contributed to the air-minded status of that city. Briefly he indicated how far aviation had advanced since those early days starting with the Wright Brothers first flight. In particular, he complimented Charles F. Willard for his great contributions to the develpmant of aviaton. Charlie, he said, had given thousands of Americans their first glimpse of a flying machine in flight. Many were the barnstorming exnibitions he put on at fairs and other special events in this country and abroad, and his later work in designing and building planes added greatly to our progress in the field of aviation. The bronze plaque at Decatur stands as a testimonial to his early exploits.
       The ten Early Birds that gathered for the plaque dedication at Decatur were (left to right) Dave Young, Sinnie Sinclair, George Page, Charles F. Willard, Roderick Wright (rear), William Hetlick, George Scragg (rear), William Denehie, Joseph Pallissard, and Art Hartman.  
       Early birds on hand for the banquet dinner were as follows: Early Bird President and Mrs. David H. Young, Treasurer George H. Scragg, Charles F. Willard, Bill Denehie and son, C. R. "Sinnie" Sinclair, Mr. and Mrs. A. G. Hartman, Joseph Pallissard, W. A. Hetlich, Roderick M. Wright, and George Page.
     Credit for photos used with this story should go to Bill Denehie, Evan Parker, Sinnie Sinclair and others, and if any member wants copies of the photos, he should contact the CHIRP.
Text and photos from the Early Birds of Aviation CHIRP, November, 1956, Number 55
BackNext Home