Remembering Vern



by Lou Drendel


I first met Vern Finzer in 1964. My logbook showed 15 hours of time in a J-3Cub, which I had worked all summer to log. My instructor was a student at Purdue University. Steve Albers was on a fast track to the airlines, and was getting his ratings as quickly as possible, building time in any way that he could. He was the jump plane pilot for our skydiving club in 1963, and promised to have an instructor rating by the following summer. A late-season injury caused me to re-evaluate my flying activities, and I decided that flying with the benefit of an airplane was preferable to trying it on my own. Steve flew the jump plane again in 1964, but he also found an old Cub which we were able to rent, and so began my flying experience. Steve returned to Purdue for his senior year, and I was sans airplane and instructor. I had heard that there were a couple of flying clubs operating from Naper Aero Club field southwest of town, so on a warm, clear early September evening, I drove out to see what they had to offer. At that time, there were only about a dozen homes in Aero Estates. There was no hangar, the runway was a very loose composite, and there were probably no more than 20 airplanes on the field. Of course, there was no Fox Valley Center, there were no subdivisions within five miles, Route 59 was a not-very-busy two lane road, 83rd Street was a gravel road, 75th Street did not go west of 59 or east of Book road, and what there was of it was gravel. Naper Aero really was out in the country! The two flying clubs on the field were the Business Men’s Flying Club and the Naperville Flying Club. The Naperville Flying Club had a Champ and a Tri-Pacer, while the BFC had a J-3 Cub and a Cessna 120. The BFC was an outgrowth of the Air Scouts. Vern had been very active in the scouts and during that time he managed to start several young men on the road to airline careers, including his own son Mel and Ken Anderson, both of whom are now retired UAL  Captains. Vern had the ability to make you feel like you were a life-long friend the first time he shook your hand......he was a great salesman.....a great advocate for aviation, and I was happy to be accepted into the BFC. The mid-sixties were a frenetic hiring time for all the major airlines. Jets had come into widespread use in the preceding decade, literally expanding the airlines horizons. They opened many new markets and created an unprecedented demand for pilots. The pilot shortage was so acute that airlines were hiring Private Pilots, who were only required to have a college degree and to finish their Commercial Ratings on their own. (At that time, the Instrument Rating was not required for a Commercial, and the airlines gave many new hires their ratings at their respective training facilities.) It was a situation not unlike the WWII contract flying schools that turned out fledgling military pilots in the 1940’s. It was made to order for the growth of flying clubs, which promised cheap flying and specialized in basic training. The BFC grew from 18 members and two airplanes in 1964, to over 50members and five airplanes within three years. Most of this growth was fueled by the demand for airline pilots and Vern was a very busy instructor.....Actually, mentor would be a better description. He wasn’t just an instructor, he was a counselor, cheerleader, and good friend to all the new young pilots who aspired to airline careers. He also managed the first growth spurt at Naper Aero, which included the building of the big hangar and creation of all the hard surface tie-down spaces. The BFC went through a lot of airplanes in going from 2 to 5. Along the way, we had a Cessna 140, another J-3 Cub, 2 Cessna 150s, 2 Cessna 172s, 2Cessna 182s, and a Citabria. There were several accidents, including a mid-air which cost the lives of 5 people, and a lot of buying and selling of airplanes. Through it all, Vern was the catalyst. He kept things moving and never lost his optimism or his great attitude. Vern was a “can-do” guy. There never seemed to be a problem that he wasn’t willing to tackle, and if hard work and faith in the future would overcome the problem, he usually got the job done. My first long cross country was a trip to Greensboro, North Carolina in the club 182, where I promptly got weathered in for several days. With no instrument rating, and no sign of improvement in the weather, I called Vern. He got on an airliner and showed up at the Greensboro airport within a few hours. His first question to me was; “Have you got the flight plan filed?” (He had been giving me instruction prior to the instrument test, but I was nowhere near ready for even the written.) He gave me on-the-spot instructions and sent me off to the FSS, while he loaded and pre-flighted the airplane. With me in the left seat, we climbed into the clag......which was pretty impressive. As I recall, the windshield leaked a lot of rain, and the turbulence encouraged a death-grip on the yoke. Vern, of course, relaxed in the right seat as if he were flying with Lindbergh. He actually fell asleep at one time, but when I ran a tank dry, his hand was on the fuel tank selector switch before mine! When he failed to pass his first class medical because of (as I recall) an irregular heartbeat, and was forced to give up airline flying years in advance of the mandatory retirement age, Vern was not bitter. (It has been my experience that many airline pilots never get over having to retire, even when it is a planned retirement.) Vern continued to work for United Airlines in another capacity. He spent more time on the golf course, but he still managed the airport and acted as the senior advisor to the BFC. However tough giving up flying was, he never let on to most of us.......he just maintained his great attitude. Vern was a visionary. He always wanted the airport to grow, but the price of the Book farm was always just a little bit out of the reach of Vern and partners Harold White and Al Beidelman. No one was happier to see Harold Moser and Ralph Smykal show an interest in the further development of Naper Aero than Harold and Vern, and when the two developers bought the Book farm, Naper Aero was sold to the developers, with the stipulation that Vern would remain as airport manager. It was an appropriate condition, since Vern had spent a great deal of his time, beginning in 1956, making sure that Naper Aero remained a viable.....and vital.....general aviation airport. Vern Finzer is gone, but for those of us who were fortunate enough to benefit from his friendship, he will never be forgotten. Unfortunately, our memories are ephemeral. They will fade and die when we do, and Vern’s dedication and selfless commitment to our little comer of the aviation world should be memorialized with something more permanent. Although he would never have suggested this himself, I can think of no more fitting tribute to his dedication to our airport than renaming the airport “Finzer Field”. I hope the equity members of Naper Aero Club will consider this proposal favorably. Footnote: This letter was addressed to the Naper Aero Club membership, but by the time of Vern’s passing, most of them did not share my experiences and they did not rename Naper Aero Club. Fortunately, the new final approach fix for the instrument approach was designated “FNZER”. One other footnote: I thought a missing man formation would be a fitting tribute to Vern, and I planned to execute the flyover at the conclusion of his memorial service, which was held at the Congregational church on Main and Benton. The weather that evening was IFR for sure, with ceilings at around 600-700 feet and visibilities about 2 miles. Nevertheless, I led a flight of 4 Lima Lima T-34s off the Naper Aero Club field during the service. We formed up East of Naperville, and with my wife Carol on the radio coordinating our time on target, we headed west with our landing lights on. Jim O’Donnell, a retired UAL pilot, was flying the number three position, and would perform the missing man. As the crowd filed out of the church, we appeared 3 miles East, smoke on and landing lights ablaze in the dusk. At a mile from the church, I gave Jim the miss signal and he turned off his smoke and lights and pulled up into the overcast, creating a most memorable miss! The missing man formation roared overhead at about 500 feet, making for a very memorable “in memoriam” for a great pilot and steadfast friend.