HARRIS TOWNSHIP – Each day, hundreds of cars pass through the intersection of Brick and Fir roads in Granger. Most of those drivers and the people in the nearby Knollwood “Waterford Green” neighborhood probably don’t know that land plays an important role in local aviation history.
But there is one man who knows all about it. Because he lived it.
“I was just a kid then,” said local aviation expert Bernie Rice. “It was all grass. Just a sod runway, you know.”
The year was 1928. Airplanes were new and exciting machines and everyone wanted to watch them fly. A group of men from northeast St. Joseph County formed the St. Joseph Valley Aviation Club.
“They bought a hay field. [And] one of the first rules that they passed – the group, you know – you couldn't be a member unless you showed you had financial background to pay for the airplane if you wrecked it!” Rice laughed.
The city of South Bend leased the airport, called Cadet Field, and it became the first commercial airport in the area.
It was very little, maybe 500 passengers a year,” said current South Bend Regional Airport Director John Schalliol. “But that was a big deal.”
Rice was seven years old when the first commercial airliner landed there. It was a Stinson Tri-Motor.
But back then, Harris Township was a long way from the thriving manufacturing hub of downtown South Bend. So Vincent Bendix, the founder of Bendix Aviation Corporation, bought 610 acres of land northwest of South Bend to build a new airport.
“In 1933, that’s when it re-located to the present site,” Schalliol said. “If city fathers at the time hadn’t made the decision to promote aviation by buying the Bendix Field and developing it, we would have lost out and lost the economic engine the airport is today.”
Although commercial planes were no longer landing at Cadet Field, Rice’s love for aviation continued to grow.
“I solo’d on 10-10-41,” he reminisced. “I’d go out and rent the airplane and just take off.”
He served as a combat medic in World War Two then worked at Bendix Aerospace where he says he was part of the team that helped build the Talos missile – an anti-aircraft missile used in the Vietnam War. There's still part of the missile modeled at South Bend Regional today.
“I built that, out there in my little shed,” Rice said.
Those days are long gone and airplanes stopped landing on that sod runway in the 1960s. Today, it’s a neighborhood. But Rice is doing his part to make sure the history isn’t lost.
“I’m the only one doing this kind of work. So I think I better put it into a book form,” he said.
Rice already has much of his book written and hopes to have it published by mid-summer, just in time for his 90th birthday.
“People got excited and they still do,” said Schalliol. “They still come out to the airport and there’s still something magical about aviation.”
And thanks to Rice and his legacy, the history of the area's first commercial airport will live on.