Pilots

Oliver Boyd Clow

March 1, 2003

As we approach the 100-year commemoration of the Wright brothers' epic flight at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, it is only appropriate that we honor individuals who have contributed to keeping the dream of aviation alive. One such person is Oliver Boyd Clow, known as "Boyd," whose passion for and contribution to aviation has spanned five decades. He has fulfilled his dreams of flying, owning and operating his beloved Navion and his own airport — which has grown from a grass strip into an international airport. Boyd's philosophy? "Always help the average guy keep his plane safely flying within his budget."

In 1952, Boyd, then a 35-year-old farmer in northern Illinois, took his first flying lesson in a Taylorcraft BC-12D. Boyd descended from a long line of immigrants whose patriarch, Robert Clow, came to the United States in 1844 from Ekelfeken, Scotland. The family later settled in Plainfield, Illinois, about 40 miles west of Chicago, where they prospered. Boyd inherited a portion of the homestead and another farm three and a half miles to the east where he moved and followed the family traditions of growing grain, feeding cattle, livestock trucking, and dairying — that is, until he got his feet off the ground.

It was while learning to fly that Boyd first saw a Navion at an airfield in nearby Joliet. It was a big yellow bird with obvious military lines, black stripes, and racy-looking tip tanks. Standing on the grass at Joliet, Boyd fell in love. In 1958 a friend showed Boyd a copy of Trade-A-Plane advertising a 1948 Model A Navion with an E-185 engine for sale in Cassville, Wisconsin. The owner had used it to fly from rodeo to rodeo earning his living. Boyd purchased the airplane with a friend's help for the grand sum of $3,500. He built an east-west airstrip and earned his certificate in the Navion. The strip soon switched to a north-south layout when a neighboring farmer complained that the low-flying planes scared her chickens and caused them not to lay eggs.

It wasn't long after Boyd put in his airstrip that people began approaching him about tying down their airplanes — the beginning of the field's transition from a grass strip into one of the most widely used general aviation airports in Illinois. The field's popularity grew rapidly in the 1960s, in part because of its location near Chicago. When the Chicago Glider Club made the airport its home, it built a 3,500-square-foot round hangar. But the biggest reason for the popularity of Clow airport was Boyd's colorful personality, sense of humor, and aviation knowledge.

In the 1970s the airport continued to grow. The grass strip was replaced with a 50-by-3,400-foot asphalt, lighted runway. The number of tiedowns grew to about 65, with 35 more planes hangared. In 1973, the farm field became a commercial airport with the dubious name of Clow International Airport. Boyd created the name, choosing the word international to reflect Chicago's mixed ethnicity, rather than the airport's size: Boyd's many friends and fellow pilots were of German, Polish, and other ethnic backgrounds now making their homes in Chicago. "It was named on a lark and borders on the ridiculous, but people remember it. Sometimes the absurd is easier to remember," says Boyd.

Today's full-service restaurant, Charlie's, grew out of a hot-dog stand started by Lou and Elmer Hess. The stand was an instant hit, and air traffic controllers from DuPage Airport, nearly 10 miles away, would drive over for lunch. In 1975, a full-service FBO, was established and still exists on the field.

By the 1980s, Clow was one of the busiest airports in Illinois, running in third to fifth place, behind such well-known airports as Chicago O'Hare International and Chicago Midway. In 1989, Clow was named the best privately owned, public-use airport in Illinois.

Clow went Hollywood in the 1980s, appearing in the movie Friends, starring Tom Selleck. Boyd made a cameo appearance sitting on the glider club's trailer porch, which today is known as the Clubhouse. Anyone is welcome at the Clubhouse: Cookouts, fly-ins, and meetings are held there. Becoming a member is a little difficult — you must make a $25 contribution, but Boyd jokes that if you're a decorated war hero, Rhodes scholar, or senator, the fee is waived.

The early 1990s saw a decline in the number of planes based at Clow and rumors of airport closure. Urban sprawl closed the Windy City glider operation (legacy of the original Chicago Glider Club). But Boyd fought to ensure the airport would remain open. Through his efforts the airport thrived and, in 1998, was sold to Joe Depaulo. The tradition of camaraderie at the field continues.

Boyd Clow: a pioneer and a pathfinder carrying out his passion for aviation.