A journey on the Lincolnway West out of downtown South Bend brings one to the South Bend International Airport. The airport has become so important to the area that it required the movement of that very same road…one that had been in place since the 1830’s as the Michigan Road.
But what is currently called South Bend International Airport didn’t actually start life as South Bend Airport. The current airport was originally Bendix Field, also called the St. Joseph County Airport. The original South Bend Airport was actually northeast of the city, north of SR 23 and west of Fir Road. In the late 1920’s, the difference between the two were massive. According to the South Bend Tribune of 01 April 1973, South Bend Airport consisted of “four hangars, fairly good runways for that era, and was the principal air terminal for South Bend.” Bendix Field, in contrast, was just being built, and hence only consisted of a horseshoe shaped driveway to a grass runway “and little else.”
St. Joseph County bought the airport from Bendix in 1937, while the name was retained for some time afterwards. This made Bendix Field the first publicly owned airport in the area. But getting to that point was a struggle. There were reports of fraud and political gamemanship in trying to get the purchase not to happen. Bendix Corporation actually owned the field. Part of the reason for starting the airfield was that Bendix manufactured systems for both automobiles and airplanes. The company had been started in 1924 in South Bend, and became a very important local business. The Vice President of the company mentioned the offer from the county for the airport, also making mention of how South Bend was important to the company. The county voted for the purchase of Bendix Field in July 1936, making a bond issue of $210,000.
The South Bend Tribune of 27 October 1940 published an aviation related article, under the title “Airfax,” about what South Bend, a few weeks earlier, felt was a slight to the city. Both South Bend and Fort Wayne had been lobbying for an Army Air Corps base at their municipal airports. South Bend lost. People for aviation in the city were “feeling sorry for ourselves” because the Army passed up South Bend. But those in South Bend felt better when they found out that when the Army took over, “private operators have been ordered to cease their activities there.” Using the hangars was fine, “but must conduct student instruction and other activities at least six miles from the army air base.”
The writer, John H. Magill, makes the point that without the private pilot, the very thing that keeps South Bend’s airport the busiest airport in the region. “Its private operators are still making fliers. The federal government, through the civil aeronautics administration, relies on our private operators to carry out the private pilot training program which is destined to play a large part in the national defense scheme.”
The original South Bend Airport would change its name to Cadet Field. This is where research gets a little interesting. According to the South Bend Tribune of 09 August 1942, “Today will mark the official opening of Cadet field, formerly known as the old St. Joseph county airport, located six miles northeast of the city near the Edwardsburg road.” This is in direct contrast to the mention of the South Bend Municipal Airport quoted two paragraphs before. The new purpose of the airfield was to train pilots. It had been used for that purpose before, and was outfitted for such. Now, with the change of the name, and management, it would be more so.
The name Cadet Field becomes somewhat telling with the reports in the South Bend Tribune of 23 March 1942. “The possible location here of a huge naval air training base in the near future was revealed today after a conference involving Mayor Jesse I. Pavey and members of the county board of commissioners.” The plan was to temporarily use South Bend Airport pending the construction of a naval flying field near South Bend. The plan was to create 30 such bases. One had already been awarded to Peru, Indiana.
The problem is that the South Bend Tribune seems to get a bit confused about which airport is which. The St. Joseph County Airport, aka Bendix Field, after the name change at Cadet Field, seems to be called South Bend Airport interchangeably with the other two, official, names in that newspaper.
Labor Day 1934 marked the beginning of another airport in St. Joseph County. At Dragoon Trail and Elm Road, the opening ceremonies of Mishawaka Airport included an air parade and parachute jumps. In January 1935, the airport was listed in he federal bulletin, and described as follows: “Mishawaka – Mishawaka airport, commercial rating. Three and seven-tenths miles southeast of town on Elm road. Altitude, 700 feet. Rectangular, 3,960 by 1,320 feet, sod, level, natural drainage, entire field available. Houses and trees to southwest; wood to north; hangar in southeast courner. Facilities for servicing aircraft, day only.” (Source: South Bend Tribune, 29 January 1935) The last references I have seen to this Mishawaka Airport is in May 1948, when part of the hangar was destroyed in a storm.
The next reference to a Mishawaka Airport is in September 1949, when Sportsmen’s Park, an air facility on Day Road, was dedicated as the “new Mishawaka airport.” (Source: South Bend Tribune, 25 September 1949) It is safe to assume that the old facility that served that purpose, and was named accordingly, didn’t last long after the personal problems of one of the owners of the airport. That person was part owner of a flying service based at Cadet Field and part owner of the Mishawaka Airport. The company’s assets were listed in the South Bend Tribune classifieds as a “business opportunity” shortly after the personal problem was resolved.
Sportsman’s Airport, one of several referenced names for the field, is listed in the South Bend Tribune until at least 01 October 1968, when it is listed a business property for sale. “50 acres, with 2-2,000 ft. runways. 2 large hangars, plus large brick office building and 3 bedroom home. Aircraft dealership could be available with purchase.” In 1974, St. Joseph County Commissioners voted to rezone a tract of land from residential to manufacturing. That tract of land, at 12801 Day Road, had been part of the old Sportsman’s Airport. Plans included using some of the old airport buildings for spaces to manufacture pickup truck enclosures and boat trailers.
Another airport in the area between Crumstown Highway and Grant Road on Pine Road is the Chain O Lakes. The earliest reference I have found to this airport is in 1946, although officially it was activated in November 1945. Today, it is a private airport with grass runways. It is officially listed as a private use airport, requiring landing permission to use. It is listed as only having attendants on site between March and November, and even then only from dawn to dusk. It is still shown on Google Maps as an airport.
According to the South Bend Tribune of 20 Jun 1947, requests were made to bring a sixth airport to St. Joseph County. This one was to be located .25 south of Edison Road on the west side of Snowberry Road. This location was already listed in a Civil Aeronautics Authority airport list “with a ‘civil commerce airfield.’ which identifies it as an emergency landing field.” This was called Gordon Airport, after the owners of the land.
The major airport in the area went from being Bendix Field to St. Joseph County Airport, then it became Michiana Regional Airport. Now, it is South Bend International, with the runways on Bendix Field. A recent expansion caused the historic Michigan Road/Lincoln Highway to be removed. That road is now rerouted around the expansion.