Almost two decades before the disaster of the LZ 189 Hindenburg Zeppelin (1937), Chicago witnessed the horrific destruction of the Wingfoot Air Express, which killed 13 people and wounded another 27.
On July 21, 1919, the Wingfoot Air Express dirigible launched from Grant Park headed towards the White City Amusement Park, located in the Woodlawn neighborhood on the South Side. There were five on board, including a newspaper photographer. The photographer, E.H. Horton, reportedly asked the ship’s pilot, Jack Boettner, to divert from the original flight plan so that he could get some aerial shots of the Chicago Loop. Boettner complied, even though the airship’s navigation had never been tested over the city. The blimp flew at around the standard altitude of 1,200 feet.
At 4:55pm, the airship caught fire and exploded over the densely packed buildings of the Loop. Boettner and the chief mechanic, Harry Wacker, parachuted to safety, but another mechanic, Henry Weaver, died when his parachute caught fire. The publicity agent for the amusement park, Earl W. Davenport, was not able to exit the airship and was killed upon impact. E.H. Horton jumped from the airship, breaking both legs. He later died at the hospital.
The Wingfoot then collapsed into sheets of fire, falling on to the glass roof of the Illinois Trust & Savings Bank at the North East corner of LaSalle and Jackson (across the street from the Federal Reserve). The women who worked on the top floor were just packing up to leave for the day. Ten employees of the bank were killed. According to a New York Times report filed the day of the disaster, The Wingfoot airship was said to have been filled with hydrogen gas, which, according to the article, was apparently not thought at the time to be flammable, but is highly flammable. In the NYT report, some of the Wingfoot crew speculated that perhaps a small quantity of oxygen entered the gas mix when the airship was being “charged,” and oxygen was considered flammable. The cause of the Wingfoot disaster cannot be accurately determined; theories have ranged from a spark from a rotor to the airship material overheating in the sun.
In an architectural coda, the Medinah Athletic Club building at 505 N. Michigan Avenue (now the Hotel Inter-Continental) had a small mooring tower constructed to receive blimps in 1933. It can be seen just next to the gold, open-air observatory at the top of the building. After the stock market crashed, the Medinah Athletic Club was shuttered in 1934. The airship dock was never used.