Vincennes Sun Commercial August 22, 1999 Remembering Pioneer Aviator Frank O’Neal
The poem “High Flight” might describe the life of Frank J O’Neal, one of the early pioneer aviators of the state of Indiana. O’Neal was born 100 years ago this month at Oatesville, Gibson County, Indiana. Following graduation from public school he taught school at Francisco, Indiana. In 1918, he enlisted in the Army and was assigned to a special training unit at Oakland City College.
Following his service in the Army he bought his first airplane A J –1 standard surplus training plane. Mostly self-taught, he became a proficient aviator and mechanic. He flew in and promoted air shows throughout southern Indiana and Illinois. O’Neal was featured as a wing walker and a parachutist-skydiver. In the 1920s and 1930s airshows were well attended by the general public and many local residents received their first airplane ride as a passenger in Frank O’Neal’s plane.
The Vincennes Chamber of Commerce invited O’Neal to open a flight service in the city. In 1923 he leased 100 acres of land and built a hanger on S. 6th St. road about 1 ¼ miles south of Willow Street.The field was located near the Wabash River and during the rainy season the airfield would become unusable due to the poor drainage. When his lease expired in 1926, O’Neal moved his operation across the river into Illinois just south of US 50.
This field was level with an ideal grass surface and excellent drainage. He built a large hanger, an office building and repair shop. To pay for the structures he flew for Continental Airways on a route from Louisville to Cleveland. As soon as his airport operation began to flourish, he quit the airline and then devoted all of his time to the administration and flight operations of his new airfield.
His flight training program became very popular and under his leadership several hundred students from the surrounding area learned to fly. Some of the students eventually went into the military as pilots and some went to commercial airlines, but for the majority of his students, flying simply became a lifelong hobby. The names of the students who took flight training at O’Neal field are legend. A few are listed here: Ray Fortner, Joy McLaughlin, Red Place, Edward Frankum, and “Frosty” Jones became pilots for the airlines. Hugh Deffendall, Clyde Fellers and Claude Reed became certified flight instructors.
Former students who became military pilots included Jim Funk, who was one of the youngest students to solo at O’Neal field, flew for the 14th Air Force and the Pacific. James McDowell became a transport pilot with the Air Force and simply disappeared on a flight.Jim Beamon and Earl Leach joined the Air Force and wound up in China flying the hump. Oscar Johnson and Henry Laakman flew in World War II and later retired as Colonels. Claude and Jack Reed, father and son, were long active at O’Neal field – Claude as an instructor and Jack as a lifeguard at the O’Neal swimming pool, as a line boy and ‘gofer’ for the instructors, and later as a licensed pilot. Jack is still active as a pilot at 80 years of age. He flies sailplanes at George Field.
Just prior to World War II, Frank O’Neal joined with Vincennes University to train pilots in a civil pilot training program. Ground school training was offered at the University and flight training was completed at O’Neal field.
Following World War II Jim Beamon and Earl Leach returned to Vincennes and joined with the O’Neal to form the O’Neal Aviation Corporation. World War II veterans were offered flight training on the G.I. Bill. Upon Earl Leach’s death in 1964 the O’Neal Aviation Corporation ceased operation. The airfield operation was leased by O’Neal to Vincennes University. The University continues to operate the field and presently has an aviation maintenance training program based there.
Frank James O’Neal passed away on February 20, 1971 at the age of 71. He had devoted his adult life to aviation. He was not only an excellent pilot and promoter of flight, he was also a well-known airport operator and an astute businessman. At the time of his death, O’Neal was well respected in aviation circles throughout the United States.