Interview with John Sullivan, 2010

Dublin Core


Interview with John Sullivan, 2010


When John Sullivan was still a young boy in grade school, he walked down to what was then an airfield in Kenosha, Wisconsin. That piece of land not far from Lake Michigan belonged to Hart Smith, one of Kenosha's first aviators. Smith was working on his airplane inside of his barn – a former cavalry horse barn – when he spied Sullivan and asked the boy to hand him a can of paint. Sullivan helped him work on his plane, a Curtiss Jenny, for the rest of the afternoon. That fall, Smith took the young boy for a ride in the aircraft. During an interview, Mr. Sullivan recalled, "It was my introduction to airplanes and I never got over it." In this interview, John Sullivan discusses how he got interested in flying, learning to fly and buying his first aircraft, women in aviation, and his time managing the Horlick Racine Airport. In 2009, Mr. Sullivan donated his collection of over 400 photographs, newspaper clippings, and aviator biographies to UW-Parkside. To view the digital collection see:






Oral history



Oral History Item Type Metadata


Melissa Olson


John Sullivan

OHMS Object Text

5.4 UWPMC011_SullivanSlideShow Interview with John Sullivan, 2010 22:01 UWP Manuscript Collection 011 John Sullivan Collection UWPMC011 John Sullivan Collection University of Wisconsin - Parkside Archives &amp ; Area Research Center Aviation Pilots Airports John Sullivan Melissa Olson mp4 UWPMC011_SullivanSlideShow.mp4 1:|7(13)|14(3)|26(14)|34(2)|41(9)|48(16)|56(11)|64(17)|72(14)|79(13)|85(11)|92(6)|107(2)|122(15)|132(6)|139(4)|145(1)|156(12)|166(7)|173(3)|176(45) 0 Other video English 18 Interest in flying I wanted to know how you got interested in flying. John Sullivan talks about his experiences with aviators and hanging out at the Kenosha airport as a child, and how they influenced him to want to become a pilot. 151 Teachers and learning to fly Where did you learn? Who were your teachers? Sullivan tells the story of meeting Ruth Harman and learning to fly. 235 Ruth Harman Can you tell me more about Ruth Harman? John Sullivan describes Ruth Harman’s background and her career as an instructor and stunt pilot. 336 Female pilots Were there a lot of women pilots or was that difficult for-- John Sullivan recalls how there were only a few female pilots at the time compared to the time of the interview, especially prior to World War II. 379 John Sullivan's first airplane Can you tell me about the first airplane that you ever bought? John Sullivan talks about the first plane he owned, his experiences and memories of flying it, and what happened to it. 771 Loop de Loops Did you do a lot of loop de loops? Sullivan describes some of the stunts he performed. 794 Safety regulations Were the safety regulations--were there a lot of? Sullivan compares the safety regulations from when he was flying to those today, describing them and giving his opinion on them. 873 Horlick Racine Airport Can you tell me about Horlick Racine Airport? Sullivan gives a brief history of the Horlick Racine Airport, describing the changes that took place over the years during his time running the airport. He talks about the runways and hangars that were constructed during his time there. 1028 Main income source of the Horlick Racine Airport What was the main source of income when you were managing the airport? Where did the airport make its money? Sullivan talks about how the sale of gasoline and jet fuel was the primary income source for the Horlick Racine Airport, especially during the 1970s. 1107 The Breakfast Club Can you tell me about the Breakfast Club? Sullivan describes the origins and purpose of the Breakfast Club, as well as the individuals that were a part of it. 1268 Favorite part of flying What do you love the most about flying? Sullivan briefly shares both his least favorite and most favorite part of flying. Oral History John Sullivan talks about how he got involved with aviation, the pilots he worked with, and shares stories about flying in Kenosha and Racine. Melissa Olson: This is Melissa Olson. I&#039 ; m at University of Wisconsin Parkside and I&#039 ; m interviewing John Sullivan. Today is Wednesday, April 28th, 2010. Thank you so much for coming here today. I wanted to know how you got interested in flying. John Sullivan: Well, to start with I-- when I was still in grade school, I walked out to the airport one day and-- the airport was -- at that time in the cavalry building on Sheridan Road, and that building still stands today, and it was the cavalry building horse barn. And I just happened to look in the open door and Hart Smith, the first aviator that was permanently--resident of Kenosha was sitting down and working on the tail-surface of an airplane. He said to me, &quot ; Hey kid!&quot ; he said, &quot ; Would you hand me that can of paint?&quot ; I crossed the room and took the can of paint and gave it to Hart Smith. Then I sat around with him all day and that summer I hung around the airport. I was probably a pest of a kid. And at the fall of the year he gave me a ride in an airplane and -- and that was the thing that sold me on looking at airplanes -- and loving airplanes. It was my introduction to airplanes and I never got over it. Olson: Nice. Where did you learn? Who were your teachers? Sullivan: When did I learn? Olson: Yeah. Sullivan: I learned to fly in May of 1937. A friend of mine named Christensen I gave him--We went out for a ride one day and we went past the airport and I said &quot ; Oh, let&#039 ; s stop in the airport and see Ruth and Herb.&quot ; because Herb Walraven and Ruth Harman were running the airplane-- or the airport rather. And they were friends of mine-- or actually, Herb was a good friend of my brother&#039 ; s. And I just stopped in because I knew them and Ruth said &quot ; Well, come for a ride&quot ; and I went for a ride in that airplane and that was the beginning of my instruction. And, about a month later, Ruth soloed me. I soloed after about seven hours of instructions. I soloed the airplane and that began my career. Olson: Can you tell me more about Ruth Harman? Sullivan: Ruth was a-- her father was a very prominent man in town at the time. And she learned to fly and she became-- she bought a Taylorcraft. And she started--she got up to as far as-- she got her instructor&#039 ; s rating and she got her commercial license. And Ruth was very active later-- a little later in life, she became--she was-- pretty famous for being a stunt pilot. Ruth had a lot of aviation experience. She taught-- Oh I estimate it at probably 50 guys. She taught about 50 people how to fly. And she was good at it. She flew with me until I had about 200 hours and-- total time in her airplanes. And when I went into the service, I got away from the airport. Olson: Were there a lot of women pilots or was that difficult for-- Sullivan: Very, very few women pilots. And they-- there&#039 ; s quite a few now. There&#039 ; s a lot of women who are airline pilots. But at that time there was very few-- I don&#039 ; t imagine it was over a dozen licensed, women pilots in the 30s and 40s before the war. Olson: Can you tell me about the first airplane that you ever bought? Sullivan: The first airplane that I ever bought, I paid $360 dollars for it, and I had to borrow the money. But anyway, it was a three-place open biplane and it was a very, very good flying airplane. And I flew it along a lot and-- the only thing that I didn&#039 ; t like about the airplane that-- at night-- the first time that I flew the airplane at night, it scared the hell out of me because we&#039 ; d be [unintelligible] the cinders--or not cinders, but little pieces of carbon were coming out of the exhaust pipe and they were red hot, and they were landing on the wing and I thought, &quot ; well they might catch on fire&quot ; , but they never did. And in the daytime I never saw them. I had the airplane until I went in the service, and while I was gone Howie Posselt, a good friend of mine, sold the airplane and I lost track of it-- for 30 years. And around 1980 or 81, I called a government registration and they found the-- they had a listing on the airplane. And I called the fellow up that owned it and after-- I asked him if he wanted to sell the airplane and he said &quot ; Well&quot ; , he says, &quot ; I&#039 ; m restoring it, another antique right now&quot ; and he says &quot ; I could use the money&quot ; . He says &quot ; Well, I&#039 ; ll sell it to you&quot ; . I said, &quot ; Well, what do you want for it?&quot ; and he said, &quot ; Well, I&#039 ; ll sell it to you for $45,000&quot ; . That was $45,000 dollars and that was a lot more dough than I paid for it. And when I had the old biplane in 1937, I had the--my $362 dollar airplane-- 65 dollar airplane I--Howie Posselt, he and I were together almost all the time. We were very, very close friends. And we were coming back from Racine, I believe it was Racine. And we were about-- over the county line and-- or the state line, rather. And I poked the nose down and Howie was up in the front and I was in-- I was flying that airplane. And I poked the nose down and started to pick up speed because Howie was--he climbed out of the cockpit and he was out on the wing. And I was going to put the airplane into a loop. And fortunately for Howard, the airplane had a flying wire that was out of rig, and it began to hum because we were picking up speed, and it was humming and vibrating and humming. And Howie quick jumped in the cockpit and put the safety belt on. And then I thought, well, the joke was over because it was nothing that--make a loop for. And we came in and landed at the airport in Kenosha. And I had a little leak in the radiator. And the radiator was--to cool-- the engine coolant, it was situated underneath the landing gear--or underneath the fuselage between the landing gear and it had a small leak in it. And after every flight or every day we&#039 ; d--I&#039 ; d have to put water in the radiator to-- for coolant. And we landed at Waukegan--Kenosha, rather and Howie was--I told Howie to get some water, &quot ; we gotta fill the radiator&quot ; . And he went and got a five-gallon can of water. And the filler cap for the radiator was up through the top of the cabin and you had to fill it from the top side of the cabin-- or the fuselage. And when Howie was gonna pick--he was gonna pull himself up with the safety belt that was just thrown out from the front cockpit. And when he pulled it-- when he pulled on the safety belt, the safety belt broke and he had it in his hand. And he thought right away, he thought about flying--we were coming from Waukegan. And if he would&#039 ; ve been in the--in the cockpit and I would&#039 ; ve looped, he&#039 ; d have fallen out of that airplane for-- because that belt it was just, it was rotten. The water had gotten down in the sides of the seats and rotted away the safety belt. And if it would&#039 ; ve been-- it would&#039 ; ve been curtains for Howard if I would&#039 ; ve continued and made a loop, he&#039 ; d have fallen out for sure. Olson: Wow. Did you do a lot of loop-de-loops? Sullivan: Huh? Olson: Did you do a lot of loop-de-loops? Sullivan: Oh, I did--later in the years I did that, yes, lots of them. Olson: Yeah? Sullivan: Spins and loops and--It was a big thing then. Olson: Yeah? Were the safety regulations, were there a lot of-- Sullivan: Oh, it was a good amount of regulations and-- flying, but nothing like it is today. Olson: Right. Sullivan: You&#039 ; re-- like today you&#039 ; re told at what altitude you have to fly at and what-- and every direction. Say for instance, you&#039 ; re flying north and you-- you gotta fly at an altitude plus-- an even altitude and if you&#039 ; re flying south you gotta fly at an odd altitude and if you&#039 ; re flying east you gotta fly at an odd altitude less 500 feet and there&#039 ; s so much-- there&#039 ; s so many more regulations that there&#039 ; s no fun in flying anymore. It&#039 ; s all business and the pleasures are-- the individual pleasures are gone. Olson: Yeah? Can you tell me about the Horlick-Racine Airport? Sullivan: Horlick-Racine Airport, it was built on four farms. They were rented by--they were owned by the Horlick Malted Milk Company and-- but they rented out these four-- these two farms. And they eventually were turned from farmers into the airport. And Carlyle Godske was the original manager at the airport. When I took the airport over, the airport didn&#039 ; t have any paved runways or any runway marked-- any marked runways at all. It was just an open field that we--that they used as an airport they-- from 1940 to 1950, for 10 years they just used as a field-- as an open field. The airport-- we built-- the first runway we built was 2600 feet long it was an east runway-- east-west runway. And it was--the airport used that runway quite a bit. And--but we finally at the end, we finally closed that runway and used it just for a taxiway for the two constructions. And our northwest runway was the longest runway, it was almost--it was around 8000 feet long. And it was used for bigger airplanes. And because Johnson Wax was buying bigger airplanes and heavier airplanes, that we had to have that long runway. And the hangars that were originally built by Godske, they were torn down and they were all replaced for bigger airplanes. Olson: What was the main source of income for -- Sullivan: What? Olson: What was the main source of income when you were managing the airport? What-- Where did the airport make its money? Sullivan: Oh, I had a real good business in selling gasoline and jet fuel because at one time, Racine was the third airport in the state of Wisconsin to-- business wise. And that was around 78-79--1977, 1978, 1979 I sold over a million gallons of jet--of airplane fuel that&#039 ; s a combined jet fuel and gasoline and I was the third busiest airport in the state of Wisconsin. Milwaukee was the number one airport and Madison was the second and I was the third. Olson: Wow. Can you tell me about the Breakfast Club? Sullivan: Well, the Breakfast Club--when I retired in 1983, there was six other men besides myself that were going to retire or had retired. And I told-- I was talking to two of them and I said, &quot ; We ought to get together once a month and have breakfast&quot ; . I said, &quot ; We&#039 ; re all going to go in different directions from now on, and we&#039 ; ll probably never see each other again&quot ; . And so they were all in agreement with it and we had our first breakfast at the Holiday Inn and the seven of us are-- were together. There was two pilots from Twin Disc, one of the Twin Disc chief pilots, the chief pilot from Johnson Wax, and the chief pilot from Kearney Trucker in Milwaukee, and a controller--one of the controllers from Milwaukee, and an airline pilot from United from Waukegan was--these seven men. And this coming May, May of 19--2010, rather, will be our 274th breakfast. And never--we never have missed a Monday. And we generally have, recently, our group has grown to average from 30 to 50 men a meeting. We-- they never-- we never missed a Monday and we&#039 ; ve never-- we only had two days that we didn&#039 ; t have a breakfast. One was because the restaurant was closed for remodeling and we got snowed out one Monday too, and that was the only two missed. But, as I say the-- our 274th one is this year. Olson: Wow. What do you love the most about flying? Sullivan: What do I like about-- Olson: What the most? What&#039 ; s the best part of flying? Sullivan: What I least like about flying was--I don&#039 ; t know, for some reason or other, at night in the evening, I&#039 ; d always have a real-- a melancholy feeling when-- at night. And that I didn&#039 ; t care for. But flying, if the weather&#039 ; s nice and if it&#039 ; s a beautiful day, there&#039 ; s nothing more pleasurable than flying, I think. The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System video Interviews may only be reproduced with permission from the University of Wisconsin - Parkside Archives &amp ; Area Research Center. 0 UWPMC011_01.xml UWPMC011_01.xml


UWPMC011_B1_F4_051 Sunscreen.jpg


“Interview with John Sullivan, 2010,” University of Wisconsin-Parkside Digital Collections, accessed September 23, 2023,