With the Chicago Air and Water Show about to begin, I thought it a good time to tell the story of a giant of Air Racing and local boy made famous!
In the late 1920s and the entire 1930s, America was in love with the sport of air racing. No racer fired the spirit as intensely as did Rudy Kling.
Rudy was born in 1908, the sixth of eleven children of a German immigrant farm owner in DuPage Township. An otherwise quiet, ordinary child and young man, Rudy had a dream of someday owning his own airplane and flying.
In 1928 Rudy and his brother opened a garage on Rt. 66 near Joliet where they repaired cars. He made friends and took flying lessons from Art Chester of Downers Grove, a speed racer and plane designer. Under Art’s tutelage, Rudy learned the skills of speed racing and aviation mechanics.
In 1933 Rudy bought his own plane, a damaged plane that had previously won many races. He brought the plane to Lemont to rebuild and named it “Suzy.” Rudy was not able to qualify to pilot it himself initially, but Suzy went on to win with other pilots. In 1936, in his first race as a pilot, Rudy set a record for light planes of 228.07 mph.
This was just the beginning. He set his goal on the top prize in air racing, the International Air Race in California. Rudy said, “They laughed when I sat down to fly! …with all of 200 hours of solo time to my credit…”
Rudy finished fourth, earning $765, but it cost him more than he won. When another flyer crashed, Rudy crashed into a parked car trying to land Suzy, demolishing the car and his plane beyond repair. Rudy was unhurt except, in his words, he did “feel sick…after my wife got through lecturing me for the way I had scared her.”
So Rudy took his winnings and ordered a new plane from Clayton Folkerts, a self-trained designer who was inspired by a barnstorming flying circus in Iowa and began building planes between farming chores. His Speed King series airplanes were well known in racing circles. Together Rudy and Folkerts designed and built Rudy’s SK-3, Jupiter, the Pride of Lemont.
On September 5, 1937, in Cleveland Rudy won with a speed of 232.2 mph. His prize was $4,500, but the big race, the Thompson, lay ahead, the classic exciting air race of “speed plane” history.
One hundred thousand people watched as Rudy started out dead last in the field of nine. One by one, Rudy passed his competition. After seventeen laps, only one plane remained ahead. With only one lap to go, Earl Ortman eased up ever so slightly with thoughts of the 1937 Thompson dancing before his eyes. But Rudy had purposely remained in Ortman’s blind spot, and in the last few seconds took his Jupiter Pride of Lemont into a high-speed shallow dive. Rudy Kling, “Lemont’s own No. 1 Birdman” had won the 1937 Thompson trophy by a margin of 50’ and .052 mph.
Rudy came home to honors and fame. Now, he was the one to beat and various air show sponsors were clamoring for him and his SK-3 to draw the crowds.
Then in December 1937, the Argentine Trophy Race, and Rudy was pitted in a grudge match against another pilot, Frank Haines, who had been disqualified in the Cleveland race for inexperience and poor eyesight, and for some reason held Rudy accountable.
At the wave of the flag, they were off. Kling led the field with Haines close behind. Dangerously near the ground, tricky winds caught Haines’ plane, following too closely to Rudy’s. Both planes went into a snap roll and crashed within fifty feet of each other. Both pilots were killed instantly.
Rudy Kling had lived his wildest dreams.
Theresa Kling, their son Robert, and Rudy’s brother, Arnold, brought the body back to Lemont. A plain pink granite stone marks his grave. The stone tells nothing of his exploits. It reads “Rudy Kling 1908–1937”; a small airplane is carved above his name. It was seven years since he began flying. He still had less than 300 hours of solo time and it was three months since he had been proclaimed America’s number one speed pilot.
More details of this story is told in History and Anecdotes of Lemont, Illinois, available at Amazon, the Lemont Area Historical Society, and Smokey Row Antiques in Lemont. A video of the crash of Suzy is also available on You Tube.