Chicago Commuters Once Had an Easy, Affordable Way To Beat Traffic: Helicopters

For mostly the cost of cab fare, well-to-do businessmen could take a helicopter into the city or to the airport in Chicago. The view was probably unbeatable too.

byPeter Nelson| PUBLISHED Oct 14, 2022 9:01 AM
Chicago Commuters Once Had an Easy, Affordable Way To Beat Traffic: Helicopters
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Avoiding traffic during one's commute isn't new, despite what Elon, Uber, and other players in the tech industry have said. Musk has offered a way to drive underneath it, Uber’s thrown in the idea of self-flying air taxis, and semi-autonomous driving is a driving force in at least easing the pain. But the idea of using new technology to solve traffic woes has been around for a long time and, 60 years ago, the nation tested its then-latest and most fascinating form of transportation as a viable solution: helicopters. 

This wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan moment, either. A company called Chicago Helicopter Airways provided commuter service between the area’s airports, suburbs, and Gary, Indiana, for 14 years. With funding partly provided by the federal government to find ways to curb growing traffic, the company offered what sounded like an incredible service, even by today's standards.

In the 1960s, you could drive to a small heliport in the Chicagoland area’s North Shore and be at O’Hare International Airport in eight minutes. Or, be on Chicago’s lakefront at Meigs Field (RIP) significantly faster than if you were to drive, hop on commuter rail service, or utilize one of Chicago’s various public transportation routes. For those keen on local public transportation history, the Chicago Transit Authority's Purple Line service had been in service not too far away since 1913, though previously under different companies' ownership and known by different names.

Chicago Helicopter Airways - Winnetka Historical Society

CHA didn’t last very long, and its history wasn’t without tragedy, but the idea that you could completely avoid any inkling of traffic for possibly less than a cab fare in today’s dollars was very much a reality, and fascinating to think about today.

Combing through Google doesn’t reveal a lot of comprehensive history on CHA. There’s no dedicated website that goes over every minute detail in one place, but you can piece together a solid picture of how it operated and how convenient it was by looking at a few sources.

According to AirlineHistory.Co.Uk, CHA actually started out as a mail delivery service between Chicagoland post offices in 1948 and didn’t carry passengers until 1956. The hardware that it flew mainly consisted of Sikorsky S-58C and H-34A Choctaw helicopters, the latter known prominently as being similar to aircraft put into service early in the Vietnam War. Later in the company’s running, it looks like the Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm Bo 105 was also utilized, which has far lower passenger capacity than the former Sikorskies and could’ve possibly cost a lot more money to travel in. Assuming that was its purpose in the fleet, it’s hard to tell.

As far as how the CHA was funded, what its passenger service mainly consisted of, and where it flew to, the Winnetka Historical Society has some neat background. In this post that originally appeared in the town’s Gazette newspaper, author Jack Coladarci covers where Winnetka's heliport was located, what CHA’s timetables looked like, as well as how many customers it served, and how much its services cost. For instance, for $75 in today’s money, you could travel from your cozy suburban neighborhood to Chicago’s lakefront at Meigs Field, a small airport demolished back in 2003. 

That’s not cheap, but for the speed and convenience, it’s not much for the well-to-do business professional who might’ve hired a car service to take them from Winnetka (a historically well-to-do suburb) to Meigs Field where they might’ve flown out of on chartered business travel. Especially with two inbound and two outbound flights per day.

Chicago Helicopter Airways - Winnetka Historical Society

Sadly, CHA’s history isn’t without tragedy. On July 27, 1960, while underway in Flight 698, one of CHA’s Sikorsky S-58Cs crashed in Forest Park, Illinois, killing all three crew members and 11 passengers on board. The Civil Aeronautics Board’s Aircraft Accident Report is available online, and details the conditions in which the aircraft was flying in, as well as determining the cause of mechanical failure. 

Winnetka Historical Society’s Facebook page states that the company’s image never fully recovered after that, which brought on declining ridership and funding cuts. According to the aforementioned Winnetka Historical Society website, a few years later in 1966, the service was halted for three years during a federal funding dry spell. When it restarted in 1969, service was spotty with limited routes until CHA’s complete demise in 1975.

Chicagoland helicopter travel is a cool look back on the era and a fun jump-off point for local history in general. To anyone who’s familiar with the landscape, it’s wild to think about a heliport seeing several flights per day of noisy, piston-driven helicopters, especially in sleepy suburban Winnetka. Then, the fact that this very rapid service extended to Gary, Indiana—which claimed a massive chunk of America’s steel industry in the ‘50s and ‘60s—indicates that it was most likely a service geared toward higher-end, corporate clientele.

The history of CHA is a neat gaze back at what was and what could have been. It’s impressive that this service lasted as long as it did, especially considering how new helicopters’ mass use was when they first started taking to America's skies. It’s also fun to imagine what it could have developed into, especially considering that in its heyday it saw as many as 6,000 passengers per year. Imagine if helicopters caught on more, too, making it a viable, relatively inexpensive, and fast alternative to commuter rail services in our modern era. Ultimately, rail, bus, bicycle, walking, and the car have endured, but imagine having a sixth option that's just as normal and every day.

Check out this video produced by Sikorsky themselves about adapting helicopters for wider use, including a brief bit about CHA’s then success.