Final Flights: September 2006

 - September 13, 2006, 9:40 AM

Aviation business pioneer George Priester passed away August 17 at age 98. Priester owned and operated Chicago’s Palwaukee Airport (PWK) from 1953 to 1986, during which time it grew from four short gravel runways to five hard-surface runways, 200 employees and 300 acres. Under Priester’s tutelage PWK became the second-busiest airport in Illinois in the 1960s through 1980s and the busiest privately owned airport in the world, according to the FAA.   

Priester traced his flying roots to a 1928 airplane ride he received in exchange for working on a friend’s aircraft engine. Ignoring his father’s admonition against flying,
Priester became a private pilot, bought a Hess Warrior Argo and used it to court his future wife, Veta Bedwell, who lived some distance away on a family farm. They married in 1934.

Four years later Priester became an instrument instructor pilot for the war training service, and after the war he worked for the railroad and opened a school for instrument pilot training at Palwaukee. Over the years he tested more than 700 pilots for Civil Aviation Administration licenses and more than 1,000 for its successor, the FAA. In 1953 Priester purchased Palwaukee Airport.   

Over the next 33 years, Priester helped news organizations, political campaigns and businesses. He flew newsman John Cameron Swayze and his “Camel Caravan Newsliner” around the nation, and provided lift for presidential candidates Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.  

In 1986 Priester sold Palwaukee Airport to the City of Prospect Heights and the Village of Wheeling but continued to offer fuel, aircraft storage, maintenance and jet charter to the business community. A member of the Illinois Aviation Honor Roll, Priester was named Man of the Year in Transportation by the City of Chicago in 1973, who called his work “essential to the life of Chicago.” He was also the 1988 recipient of the National Air Transportation Association’s William T. Ong award.

Priester was preceded in death by his wife, Veta, in 1981 and is survived by his children, Charles, Sheila Priester Hughes and Sharon Priester Lewert, and by 11 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

William “Bill” Wood of Leawood, Kan., died July 21 from cancer. He was 59. Wood was a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War and later founded the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association. He was a test pilot for RCA and a sales and marketing executive with Sperry, AlliedSignal and Sandel Avionics. He was active in NBAA.