A World War II bomber landed on Route 66 in Springfield, Illinois

A bomber pilot made an emergency landing on Route 66 in Springfield, Illinois, in 1942, then took off from the same highway after his aircraft was repaired.

Reader Dave Todd forwarded me the brief story that was recounted in the Illinois State Journal newspaper on Dec. 30, 1942.

The pilot, Lt. John W. Graybill, 25, made an emergency landing of his Douglas A-20 Havoc bomber on the Route 66 Belt Line (now Dirksen Parkway) and Clear Lake Avenue on the city’s east side a few days before.

After a few days of maintenance, Graybill and his plane took off from the highway and, according to Army and civilian witnesses, steered it with only nine inches of clearance between the telephone poles on both sides of the road. An image of the bomber heading down the highway was printed in the newspaper.

An Associated Press story from that time archived on Newspapers.com also mentioned that Graybill cleared trees and powerlines “by only a few feet.”

Graybill returned the plane to an unspecified bombardment squadron in Missouri.

I found an obituary for a 2nd Lt. John W. Graybill of Elmhurst, Illinois, who died during a plane crash in Mississippi in 1944. However, the age and date of enlistment don’t match up with the fellow who landed the plane in Springfield.

Todd said he uses the Springfield State Journal-Register image of the plane taking off as a background on his desktop computer.

Stories about planes making emergency landings on highways and interstates pop up from time to time, including one that landed during the 1950s on Route 66 near the Painted Desert Trading Post in Arizona.

A longstanding old wives’ tale is the interstates were designed so every fifth mile was a straightaway to allow warplanes to land on them. Earl Swift wrote in his seminal book “The Big Roads” (Amazon link) that the possibility was studied but deemed unworkable.

(Image of the Douglas A-20 Havoc bomber taking off from Route 66 Belt Line and Clear Lake Avenue courtesy of Dave Todd)

3 thoughts on “A World War II bomber landed on Route 66 in Springfield, Illinois

  1. Interesting. As a private pilot, I am particularly interested in anything to do with aviation and Route 66. A few years ago I was able to fly with my friend, Ken Clark, in 2 of his ‘planes, over Sapulpa and the Blue Whale. Ken was kind enough to let me fly his J3 Cub and his 4-seat Cessna. I flew several times, including piloting to Colorado. Keep the stories coming. Peter, Bishopstone, England.

  2. I wonder if the guys at the Painted Desert Trading Post checked the air in the tires, checked the oil and cleaned the windshield? Great stories.


  3. “Nine inches from the telephone poles”? Looking at the still photo shows what appear to be telephone poles – and they are well clear of the plane. Maybe the road surface width was only just wide enough for the aircraft’s wheels. I’ve flown into and out of dirt airstrips in Cessnas (including one I help construct in Lesotho – Pelaneng) and into and out of some small airports with dodgy tarmac runways in the Caribbean and South America.

    As for the Havoc A-20, from Wikipedia:

    “A-20. The original American indifference to the Model 7B was overcome by the improvements made for the French and British, and the United States Army Air Corps ordered two models, the A-20 for high-altitude bombing and the A-20A for low and medium altitude combat. Both were similar to the DB-7B. The A-20 was to be fitted with turbosupercharged Wright R-2600-7 engines, but these were bulky and the prototype suffered cooling problems, so the remainder were completed with the two-stage supercharged R-2600-11, 59 as P-70 fighters and 3 as F-3 reconnaissance aircraft. One A-20 was evaluated by the U.S. Navy as the BD-1, while the U.S. Marine Corps flew eight as the BD-2.”

    What was the mixture of fuel the light aircraft pilot was supposed to have filled up with? Surely its single engine ran on high octane leaded Avgas? And what pumps would a rural US filling station have had in 1942? Most likely kerosene for agricultural machinery, perhaps diesel for lorries/trucks, and some type(s) of petrol/gasoline (high and low octane) for other vehicles. And wouldn’t the gasoline have been leaded in 1942? As was Avgas then (and perhaps still is). What is the “glazo” Joy Nichols talks of in the video? Why mix it with high octane gasoline? Does anyone know?

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