RANTOUL, Ill. — The Rantoul National Aviation Center, the village-owned airport that has hosted the Half Century of Progress biennially since 2005, was the site of a historic air base that served the nation during war and peace.
Chanute Field was established May 21, 1917, being one of 32 Air Service training camps established after the U.S. entry into World War I. It was named in honor of Octave Chanute, a pioneer aeronautical engineer and experimenter, and friend and adviser to the Wright brothers.
The War Department selected Rantoul because it was one of the few level sites in Illinois in close proximity to the Illinois Central Railroad and the ground school at the University of Illinois. The village of Rantoul also would be a source for electricity and water.
Construction of the airfield began on May 22, 1917, and after two months of hard work by 2,000 men and 200 teams of horses, it was completed on July 22, 1917.
Chanute Field was an Air Service primary flying school, offering an eight-week course to new aviation cadets. It had a maximum student capacity of 300. As World War I ended in November 1918, Chanute Field had trained several thousand pilots.
In 1922, funds were appropriated to construct nine steel hangars on the south edge of the original 1917 airfield. The completion of Hangar 10 in 1923 represented the last major construction at Chanute until 1938. From 1922 to 1938, Chanute Field provided all technical training for the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Chanute Field’s “Great Renaissance,” as the period came to be known, brought the construction of many new buildings. Since most of the base was of wooden construction, the threat of fire became Chanute’s greatest enemy during the early 1930s. After several fires, the Army Air Corps named Chanute as one of four bases to be rebuilt.
In late summer 1938 work began on two massive hangars. By the following year the headquarters building, hospital, warehouses, barracks, officers’ quarters, test cells, a fire station and a 300,000 gallon water tower were all finished. The total expenditure amounted to $13.8 million with most of it being funded by President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration.
Two additional hangars, theaters, numerous barracks and family housing units, a gymnasium, and a network of concrete runways were also added. These projects were completed in 1941, just months before Pearl Harbor.
With Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, citizens flocked to Chanute Field in large numbers to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Forces. Chanute’s transition from peace to war became apparent immediately following Japan’s surprise attack.
The technical training mission remained, however, a massive influx of new recruits and volunteers led to a critical housing shortage. The new 15,000-man quarters built during Chanute’s “Great Renaissance” proved insufficient to accommodate the large influx of new personnel.
Many soldiers were housed temporarily in large tents. Chanute’s student load continued to grow until it reached a peak of 25,000 in January 1943.
The Women’s Army Corps School was established in early 1944.
Army Air Forces Training Command moved helicopter training to Chanute Field at the end of 1944 so it could consolidate the flying training operation with helicopter mechanic training. Helicopter pilot training remained at Chanute until June 1, 1945, when it transferred to Sheppard Field, Texas.
At the end of World War II, Chanute Field became a primary separation center for the armed forces, processing about 100 men per day from the armed forces back to civilian life.
On March 22, 1941, the first all-black fighter squadron was activated at Chanute Field. Formed without pilots with the purpose of training the officer corps and ground support personnel, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was the first unit of what popularly became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Over 250 enlisted men were trained at Chanute in aircraft ground support trades such as airplane mechanics, supply clerks, armorers and weather forecasters.
This small number of enlisted men was to become the core of other black squadrons forming at Tuskegee Field and Maxwell Field in Alabama — the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
Chanute Field became Chanute Air Force Base on Jan. 14, 1948, with the establishment of the U.S. Air Force as a separate military service.
At this time, Chanute also was undergoing a major technological shift with the introduction and adoption of jet engines and the required technical curricula to support them.
One of the first generalized courses was airplane and engine mechanic, jet propulsion. By mid-1948, this course made up almost 50% of Chanute’s student body.
The North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, soon affected the training workload at Chanute Field. In October 1949, the student load had been 5,235, but by 1953 almost 12,000 students were at Chanute for critical training. Air Training Command also had to in-process thousands of volunteer reservists.
Between late July and the end of October 1950, the command brought on active duty about 20,000 reservists. Most of this work was done at Chanute.
In the 1960s Chanute became the prime training center for one of the most important missile programs in history, the LGM-30 Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile. The Minuteman ICBM became a key missile deterrent against the Soviet Union for America and her western allies.
In September 1970, ATC transferred Chanute’s Minuteman missile launch officer course to Vandenberg AFB, California. Beginning in the late 1960s Chanute also trained thousands of allied airmen from Asia and the Middle East.
During the 1970s Chanute provided training for thousands of USAF airmen for service in Vietnam. The base invested heavily in quality-of-life programs, building new student dormitories and other support facilities.
Due to the cessation of aircraft support requirements for Chanute’s training mission, the Air Force closed the base’s remaining active runway in 1971.
In 1977, Chanute became the prime training center for the Air-Launched Cruise Missile. The base was also involved in the Ground-Launched Cruise Missile and MX missile programs.
Chanute AFB eventually served as a major training facility for Air Force aircraft maintenance officers; officer and enlisted Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps meteorology personnel; and enlisted technical training for Air Force fire fighters, aircraft maintenance, flight simulator maintenance, fuel system maintenance and ICBM missile maintenance.
Chanute AFB also was the site for training USAF firefighters, life support specialists (ejection seat, aircrew survival equipment and aerospace ground equipment), welders, non-destructive inspection (of materials), airframe repair and most of vehicle maintenance (general purpose, special purpose, fire truck maintenance and material handling equipment maintenance) technical schools.
On Dec. 29, 1988, the Department of Defense recommended Chanute’s closure as part of the 1988 Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
The subject of base closure had been considered numerous times during Chanute’s 75-year history. The end of the Cold War and the reduced threat of future conflicts prompted the government to downsize the armed forces.
Chanute was closed on Sept. 30, 1993, ending its reign as USAF’s third oldest active base and oldest Technical Training Center.
With the help of Major Gen. Frank W. Elliott, Jr., former Chanute commander, and others, the federal government gave approval for the former air base to become Rantoul National Aviation Center for public use owned by Rantoul that same year the base closed.