200 Years of Illinois: The Other Airship Disaster

Yesterday marked an unusual 97th anniversary. On July 21, 1919, an airship owned by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber cruised over Chicago, a pair of training runs that interested and delighted the people on the ground and in the city’s always-growing number of skyscrapers. The pilots picked up three passengers for a third go-round, including a newspaper shutterbug hoping to get some extremely high angle shots of downtown. The so-called Wingfoot Express reached an altitude of 1,200 feet as it passed overhead just before rush hour.

Then it burst into flame.

The hydrogen-powered blimp went up in seconds. Four of the five passengers aboard, each wearing a parachute, managed to scramble from the gondola. The unfortunate fifth was trapped on the airship as it plunged toward the ground. The burning Wingfoot (also Wing Foot) Express instead shattered the skylight at the Illinois Trust & Savings Bank. The entire blimp crashed among the 150 or so employees–fuselage, engines, and gasoline tanks. The last exploded on impact and sent flaming gas spraying throughout the bank. Bank tellers and clerks fought to escape the caged work area through a pair of doors. In the end, eleven died and twenty-six were injured inside the bank, with two more fatalities among the blimp passengers.

Mayor Anton Cermak demanded a ban on flying over the city. The Council instead passed regulations. An investigation, opened the next day, came to nothing. Also opened the next day: the bank. The Illinois Trust & Savings assured customers the tellers’ cages and vaults remained intact to transact business. Meanwhile, the incredible event scotched plans for passenger blimp service and began a notably disastrous two-week period in Chicago history.