Captain Herman Wilhelmi

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My first (and essentially only) exposure to the legend of Herman Wilhelmi during my career was around the time of my very short tenure at ORD, and I’ve long regarded what I heard as local and apocryphyl. However, recently I’ve had an email exchange with a friend who brought up the name and forced me to do some searching on the internet, and I find I was wrong on the veracity of the legend and woefully uninformed on the facts of it.

Here’s the original story as related to me by my friend, Chuck Richardson (known throughout ATC asSeaweed): in the late ’60s, before TCAs, the local controllers in the tower sequenced traffic other than actual IFR arrivals with the IFR arrivals. In other words, while the TRACON lined up the IFR arrivals on the localizer (or other approach course), other aircraft could call in like any normal airport, and get a sequence from the tower to get in the pattern to land. e.g. “enter left downwind for Runway xx, report midfield,” and when there, the controller would issue instructions at the appropriate time to turn base that would fit the aircraft into the IFR lineup—e.g. “follow the United tri-jet on two mile final.”

Such sequencing is routine and a no-brainer at airports smaller than ORD but could be a real challenge when the TRACON had the localizer full. That’s part of the reason for the development of the TCA (now called Class D airspace) in the first place. Nevertheless, before TCAs, that’s how it was done. Seaweed was a trainee on the local position controlling the runway which handled the traffic from the southeast when a voice came on the frequency gruffly announcing, “this is Herman the German—I’m coming in.”

Seaweed, understandably non-plussed at this utterly unconforming call, employed the old controller standby to buy time, “say again.”

“This is Herman the German, and I’m coming in.”

Seaweed turned and gave his instructor a puzzled look and the instructor said, “clear him to land.”

There probably was enough else to do to cause Seaweed not to question the instruction, so he cleared the unknown aircraft to land. Moments later a big old Eastern DC-8 appeared entering downwind about midfield, turned to parallel the runway, turned base just behind another airliner, and then turned final a perfect three miles in front of another. Eastern touched down, rolled out, and took the second high speed to clear the runway.

As you can imagine, Seaweed wondered, “what was that?”

The explanations began and Seaweed was introduced to the legend of Herman Wilhelmi. The immediate story is that in those days of looser FAR Part 121 regulations (the section governing scheduled air carrier operations) and no TCA, any airline flight could cancel IFR and proceed to their destination VFR. Herman, in order to avoid some of the mad sequencing gymnastics in the CGT area common in those days, would cancel, drop out of the dance and head on past the Loop and out to ORD. He’d call in, as above, about six or seven miles out, and that’s where we pick up the story. All the controllers knew who he was (his voice was very distinctive, as noted below), what he was doing, and that he could do it just as well as them, so played along.

In addition to that personal experience, Seaweed also told me of the legend of Herman, anticipating a lengthy delay, pulling out of the hold at Big Run (an inbound fix for MDW southwest of it). He then landed at the airstrip on his farm near JOT, just a few miles from Big Run, where he had his wife feed the passengers. That story is corroborated below.

At this point let me quote the words of one of Captain Wilhelmi’s contemporaries as printed in The rEAL Word, the newsletter of The Silver Falcons, an Eastern Airlines survivors group:

A few years ago, my wife and I were in the Joliet, IL, area. While looking over my map system for roads to leave, the icon for Wilhelmi Field (0C3) appeared not far from our location south of the city. Could this be the famous location of where Captain Wilhelmi landed his Eastern DC-3 when weather prevented his landing at MDW? Having flown with Herman in MIA in my early years with Eastern, I just had to see and took a trip to locate the site. The story was, due to weather at MDW, Herman landed on his field and taxied up to the back door of the farmhouse, filed the passengers into the kitchen, where his wife made breakfast for them, while Herman called dispatch to let them know what was happening. Can you imagine a Captain doing this stunt today?

After the weather lifted, dispatch called Herman and got re-cleared to MDW. All the passengers wrote glowing letters to Eastern and that was that. Today, you would be hung twice to make sure.

It became evident that flying with Herman got us special treatment with ATC. If I was on the radio, clearances were normal and we proceeded as usual. When Herman spoke to any ATC facility, there was an immediate exchange of hellos and without any request, the facility would start issuing vectors to all the other flights and with “Eastern—you’re cleared direct,” the skies were parted for Herman. Why the other flights never objected was a mystery until the story of Herman’s contacts with controllers became known to me. It seems that he spent his spare time visiting all the facilities and introducing himself to everyone. It also helped that there were parties for three days at Wilhelmi Field. The first day was for the first shift, the second day was for the second shift, and the third day for the third shift controllers. Is it any wonder there was also a designated parking spot at ORD tower for Captain Wilhelmi.

One more item to add…it has been told that in the Book of Records, the first collision between an aircraft and automobile occurred when a plane skidded off the runway and out onto Cicero Avenue (MDW). The pilot was recorded as Herman Wilhelmi.

Ron Shoop

Here are a couple of responses to the above article in the following newsletter:

Your article on Capt. Wilhelmi brought back some Eastern memories. I was a DC-9 F/O based at ORD and in need of an annual recurrent check. In those days we still did some recurrent checks in the airplane. You remember, pillow in the windshield, a few late night bounces, and back to the barn.

The Check Captain and Herman were old friends, and he brought Herman along for the Check. We did our usual late night approaches in RFD, and then headed back to ORD. On the way back to ORD, I got out of the right seat to let Herman “get some stick time.”

Herman, at this time, had been retired for a couple years, and had not flown the -9. He flew a visual night time base to final—in the slot. At the flare, the mains just started gently rolling. I thought, “dude, if that’s how the old breed flies, I’m impressed.”

I don’t recall seeing him again. Somehow, I don’t think Captain Wilhelmi would be happy today flying with autoland, autothrottle, VNAV and all the new whatever.


Your The rEAL Word column about Herman brought back old times. I was fortunate enough to follow him out for his last DC-8 departure from ORD. If memory serves me right we departed 32L and were on the tower freq when he was “cleared into position and hold.” Then there was a voice change, “Eastern xxx I have a revision in your clearance—!”

“Go ahead…”

“Herman, you are clared for a Joliet Farm Departure, direct Lafayette, flight plan route!”

Herman himself acknowledged the change in his rather distinctive voice and I will always swear there was a little shake in it! What a fantastic tribute from ATC, both ORD tower and Chicago Center to a great pilot on his last trip!

Possibly a year later, I was taxiing out at IND when a Bonanza taxiing asked if there were any ’old timers’ in the tower. My F/O was not a light airplane fan and made a derogatory comment, but looked at me when I grabbed the mic and said, “hello, Herman!!” He had just held short for me and knew it was an Eastern DC-9, said hello, but by then it was time to go to the Tower [frequency].

After things got settled down airborne I told my smartass F/O that light plane pilot had flown bigger airplanes more places than he had ever thought of, was a living legend, and if it weren’t for guys like Herman, the F/O would probably be a janitor somewhere!

Thanks for the Memories!

Although it’s possible I might have worked Herman when I was at ZJX, he had to retire in 1970—just as I got certified in High Altitude and three years before I got to ORD—and passed away in ’74. In any event, I don’t think he was as well known in the Southern Region as he was in the Chicago area. What a contrast between the legacy of Herman Wilhelmi and that ofSlim Cox Cockes.

Well, my website seems to have propagated some. I recently received an email from a former ORD controller (and who was there when I was, so I must at least have met him during my short tenure) who had some more Herman stuff to add. Here’s his list:

I had completely forgotten about Herman being the Outer Marker for 4R at MDW, but the instant I saw that the memory rushed back in, including the later change to Erman. Then I started thinking about some of the marker names for ORD—long purged from lack of use. Cool.

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Last updated: 30 March 2013