One of the first things you notice when you drive into Rantoul, Illinois from the west on Highway 136 is that there are moderately sized banners hanging from the light posts.  Closer scrutiny reveals that each contains the name and service branch of local young people who are active military.  That set the tone for me as I drove on to the Chanute Air Museum, my “treat” during a long-distance drive from Minnesota to Florida.
     The museum is named after Octave Chanute, a man who was born in France in 1832 and became a civil engineer who worked in the States, particularly Illinois.  
 An extremely inventive and creative man, he developed a reputation for developing rail lines at a time when the railroad was king of transportation.  He came up with the idea to use nails with a date code on them to better gauge when railroad ties and other timberwork should be replaced. 
   He also designed and built bridges across many Midwestern and Eastern U.S. rivers as well as designing the Chicago and Kansas City stockyards. 
Kinzue railroad trestle in PA before 2003 tornado
     Chanute became an expert in wood preservation and eventually had a company that provided treated wood for railroads and general construction.
     After retiring from his engineering career in 1890, Chanute was able to focus on the challenge of heavier-than-air flight, something that had intrigued him for decades.  He approached it in a very structured manner, compiling data about flight experiments in the U.S. and abroad and opening up his findings to anyone who was interested in flight.  In fact, he believed that flight research and designs should be shared and open to all and not just benefit those who wanted to create a business around it.

     With various partners, he built and tested several glider designs.  One of his most successful designs was a bi-wing glider that required the “pilot” to drape his arms over two supports with his legs hanging below. It was not a very comfortable situation for the pilot, but it did fly.  He did a lot of flight testing in the Indiana sand dunes along Lake Michigan.

     He collaborated with the Wright brothers, who used the basic flight principles that Chanute had championed in their Flyer and later models.  Chanute and the Wrights were eventually at odds about the Wrights’ desire to patent the various components of their flying machines because Chanute continued to be a strong advocate for sharing that information freely so anyone could use Wrights’ designs.  Fortunately, before Chanute died in 1910 he and the Wright brothers had restarted their friendship and collaboration.
     In 1917, the U.S. Army Signal Corps opened a new air field in Rantoul and named it Chanute Field after Octave Chanute.  It then became known as Chanute Air Force Base and tens of thousands of military personnel trained there over the years.  The AFB was closed in 1993 and the remaining runways became part of the local airport.  One large hangar was left standing and that became the Chanute Air Museum.

     Because the Chanute Air Base/Air Force Base existed for 76 years, the exhibits in the Chanute Air Museum cover a lot of  ground. In the next two weekly blogs, I’ll be sharing what I saw and heard with you.  
     For now – here’s a free tip:  IF you are on a long-distance drive and IF you plan to stop and see something that has intrigued you since you first saw the sign for it in 2007 – and have passed said sign 12 times since then – I strongly recommend ensuring that you have actually put your little digital camera in your purse or pocket instead of leaving on the bed in the hotel you stayed at the previous night.  
     Even as an experienced writer, I’m challenged to describe the feeling I had when I realized I was finally in the Museum’s parking lot after years of anticipation and my camera was 80 miles back up the road.  Thank goodness for disposable film cameras! I was able to get 27 decent shots with the one I bought.  And also thanks to the honest housekeeping staffer who turned my camera in to the desk clerk at the Super 8 in little El Paso, IL.  It was mailed immediately and get here yesterday in perfect shape.

Where in the world are the rig and airplane this week?
The RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit and the Mustang are in Brunswick, Maine tonight through Sunday at the Great State of Maine Air Show.  Organizers have really done a great job putting this air show together so if you’re in the area, stop in and enjoy.
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit


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