Review: A History of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport


A History of Chicago’s O’Hare AirportMichael Branigan, foreword by Christopher Lynch. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011.

Summary: A history of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport from its earliest days through to the post-9/11 environment for air travel.

I probably have flown to or through O’Hare at least a couple times a year over the last forty years. I never thought much of the history of the place until a recent trip when I walked past a series of aerial photographs showing the development of the airport over time. I realized then that the place I traveled through had gone through many changes over those past forty years–many I had not noticed.

Michael Branigan, who worked in aircraft maintenance at both Midway and O’Hare Airports shares his love and inside knowledge of these places in this book, which includes many photographs from different eras at O’Hare. He takes us back before the beginnings, when it was a battlefield for the U.S. military’s fight with the Sauk Indians in 1832. Later it became the home of a German settlement known as Orchard Place (from which the airport code ORD comes).

The beginnings of the use of this site as an airport trace back to World War II when McDonnell Douglas sited it’s C-54 Skymaster plant here. Midway Airport was too small, and this prairie site offered the land needed for the plant and runways. The Douglas plant became the first of the air-oriented cities here until its closure following the war. Branigan recounts how Chicago Mayor Ralph H. Burke had the vision for converting this to a major airport facility exceeding what was possible at Midway. The first terminal was developed and opened to commercial operations in the mid- 1950’s. At this time the airport, which up until then was know as Orchard Place Airport, was named after “Butch” O’Hare, a decorated Naval flier who died in action.

Branigan follows the development and rapid growth of O’Hare, the efficiency of its operations (except when the weather did not co-operate, as many of us who have been delayed in O’Hare can attest), transitioning into the jet age, expanding its terminals and facilities to accommodate the jumbo L-1011’s, 747’s, and DC-10’s. As I write, O’Hare handles more aircraft movements than any other airport in the world (Atlanta’s Hartsfield currently handles more passengers), and this book helps one understand how air traffic control, runway layouts and gate services all contribute to O’Hare’s success.

Branigan also traces air travel from the novelty and luxury of those early years to de-regulation and post 9/11 airport security that so many of us tolerate for the hope of secure travel. He recounts the terrible crash of flight 191 in 1979, when the engine of a DC-10 fell off just as the pilots “rotated” the plane into the air and the earlier collision of two planes on the ground in 1972. What is striking to me is that these were the two worst crashes at an airport that achieved over 900,000 aircraft movements in 2018. While one may remember the rare disasters, and the more common delays, what Branigan’s book impressed upon me was what an incredible place O’Hare is, moving so many passengers and flights safely through every day. I wonder if I’ll look at it with different eyes when I fly there in a few weeks for meetings in Chicago…