Doug Kimmel has served as Airport Director the Veterans Airport of Southern Illinois (formerly Williamson County Airport) located at Marion, Illinois since 1998. He has worked tirelessly to improve airline and air cargo service in southern Illinois and has guided the airport though a major runway extension, and the development of the airport’s new modern terminal building. The airport’s Essential Air Service provider Cape Air now provides service to both Nashville and St. Louis.
Under Kimmel’s direction, the airport has become a place to honor our veterans. Founded in 2016, Veterans Honor Flight of Southern Illinois regularly organizes Honor Flights for veterans, taking groups of veterans to Washington D.C. Kimmel has served on the board of Veterans Honor Flight of Southern Illinois since its inception. He helps organize the flights and the fund-raising events. This is a volunteer activity on Kimmel’s part.
In addition to Honor Flights, Kimmel worked with others to bring airshows to the airport. The airshows occurred from 2000-2004 and then again in 2006. This activity brought thousands of people out to the airport. Kimmel has also worked diligently to attract warbird tours to the airport. Since 2012, the Commemorative Air Force, EAA and others have displayed a variety of aircraft at KMWA, making the aircraft available to the public for tours and rides. Often, these events also had Young Eagles rides as well. For a lot of these events, Kimmel also worked closely with EAA Chapter 277. Much of this activity was as a volunteer, in addition to his “official” duties as airport director.
The Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame honors Doug Kimmel for his contributions to aviation and air transportation in southern Illinois and for his service to our nation’s veterans.
Donald Kirlin is the founder and owner of Air USA, a United States government contractor that provides an impressive array of tactical aircraft services to the U. S. defense agencies, defense contractors, and foreign governments. He is said to own the “world’s most advanced private air force”. He is an ATP rated pilot and flight instructor, rated in the Boeing 737, Cessna Citation, L-39, L-59, British Hawk, MiG 21, MiG 29 and also an Authorized Instructor for the Experimental L-39, L-59, British Hawk and MiG 21 and MiG 29. He is also an A&P mechanic and an avid sport parachutist. Kirlin was the organizer and promoter of the World Free Fall Convention. The World Free Fall Convention was, at the time, the largest gathering of skydivers from around the world and was held annually for 17 years, 1990 to 2001 in Quincy, IL and 2002 to 2006 in Rantoul, IL.
In 2000 the World Free Fall Convention drew 5,700+ registrations, people from all 50 states and 55 different foreign countries were included. During a 10-day period there were over 63,000 jumps made. Also, there were 450+ tandem jumps made, 15 Accelerated Free Fall students passed and $7400 was raised for various local charities.
While the World Free Fall Convention was held in Quincy, a Twin Otter load of 20 active or ex-military jumpers would make a Demonstration Jump into the Quincy Illinois Veterans Home. After landing they would mingle with the retired Veterans that were living at this facility and trade stories about military life. This annual event was very much appreciated and was gratefully anticipated every year by the Veterans Home residents. All these activities were supported and promoted by Don Kirlin who actively participated in many of them along with the World Free Fall Convention Staff Members.
The Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame honors Donald Kirlin for his contributions to Illinois aviation and especially for his efforts related to the World Free Fall Convention.
John Charles Robinson
John C. Robinson (1903-1954) was an African American aviator who led the way for generations to follow. In 1931, Robinson and his colleague Cornelius Coffey became the first black Americans to receive their Aircraft and Engine Certification from Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical College (CWAU).
Concerned with sharing the joys of aviation with his peers, Robinson recruited and trained pilots and mechanics first at CWAU, and then formed the Challenger Air Pilots Association. To conduct flight training, Robinson and the Challengers built the first African American owned and operated airport in the Chicago suburb of Robbins. Unfortunately, the hangar which housed the club’s aircraft collapsed in the winter of 1933, damaging their airplanes and resulting in the closure of the airport.
Fred and William Schumacher were brothers who owned and operated Harlem Airport at 87th St. and Harlem Ave. After Robbins Airport became inoperable, the Schumacher brothers invited Robinson and Coffey to Harlem. Now that Challenger had a place to go, they still didn't have a hangar or any facilities. Throughout the main flying season, the sponsored many airshows and demonstrations, sightseeing rides, dances, dinners, and any other fund raisers they could. It took perseverance, but Challenger eventually had their own hangar and several used aircraft restored to flying condition.
Wanting to expand aviation training beyond Chicago, in 1934 Robinson visited his alma mater, Tuskegee Institute, urging them to establish an aviation program. Although they turned down his request, he planted the seeds that later blossomed into the Tuskegee Airmen.
The Challenger Association continued to be a major factor for African American aviation in Chicago until 1939 when it was reorganized with a much wider scope as the National Airmen’s Association of America (NAAA).
In August 1935, Robinson left Chicago for Ethiopia to support their fledgling air force against the Italian fascists seeking to colonize the country. His skills impressed Emperor Haile Selassie and became head of their air force. Sadly, the country was unable to stand the Italian onslaught. When the country fell the following year, Robinson returned to Chicago.
He returned to Chicago and in 1939, he started the John C. Robinson National Air College and School of Automotive Engineering. Colleagues from Challenger assisted with the instruction of students. Flight training was conducted at Harlem Airport. Aviation ground school and automotive classes were held at Poro College. Mrs. Anne Malone was the Poro College President and had a successful cosmetics company. She met Robinson at one of the banquets after his return from Ethiopia. Impressed with Robinson’s vision and plans for the school, Malone became a major backer of his new venture. In September of 1939, the Illinois Department of Commerce issued a charter to National Air College. This appears to be the first African American aviation school officially chartered in the U.S.
Following the war, Selassie invited Robinson to return. After rebuilding the Ethiopian Air Force, he formed Ethiopian Airlines. Robinson died in an air crash in 1954.
The Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame honors John Charles Robinson for his contributions to Illinois and American aviation as an aviation pioneer, and for his ground-breaking efforts in providing flight training for African American pilots.
Lt. Col Stephen (Steve) Willis, USAF Ret
Steve Willis is a flight instructor at the Mt. Vernon Outland Airport. He served in the United States Air Force from 1969 thru 1997, flying F-4 Phantoms and F-16 Falcons and then serving as an instructor pilot. Following his tours of duty, he returned home to the Mt. Vernon area and became deeply involved with airport activities and flight instruction.
Willis is current president of EAA Chapter 1155 at Mt. Vernon, where he currently leads the chapter in the restoration of a Pietenpol aircraft. He also directs the local Chapter Build & Fly Program for young aspiring pilots to gain building knowledge. Additionally, he served as Explorer Post 1155 Leader for youth, again working to encourage young people in acquiring aviation knowledge and experience.
Steve has also participated in Rend Lake RC Club activities and Angel Flights. He participates in EAA Young Eagles activities as both a pilot and event coordinator and works with the EAA Chapter to assist with coordination at the Air Venture Cup Races and Midwest LSA Expo.
Mr. Willis is also active in community programs, including the local Lions Club, Gideons, Meals on Wheels, and Central Christian Church. He also is very active in the local Honor Guard, providing military recognition to those who served in the Armed Forces and have passed on.
The Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame honors Lt. Col Willis for his contributions to Illinois aviation as a flight instructor and mentor, and for his contributions to EAA Chapter 1155 and other Mt. Vernon civic organizations.