Lake crossing once no piece of cake
July 1, 2013
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  • BENTON HARBOR — There was a time when flying across Lake Michigan was a big deal.

    Like in 1913 — July 1, to be exact — when Logan A. (Jack) Vilas became the first pilot to do so. Yes, 100 years ago Monday, the 21-year-old Chicago area man, only the sixth person in the U.S. to obtain a seaplane pilot’s license, boarded his aircraft just off Silver Beach in St. Jo-seph and set off for the shoreline at Chicago’s Grant Park.

    It took him an hour and 40 minutes, said his granddaughter, Faith Vilas, who on Monday recreated the flight a century to the day after her grandfather made the trip.

    The 61-year-old Vilas re-called at a news conference just prior to takeoff from Benton Harbor’s Southwest Michigan Regional Airport that her grandfather received a hero’s welcome after com-pleting the 54-mile crossing.

    “He recalled … seeing hordes of people running to the beach because they’d never seen a seaplane be-fore,’’ she said.

    No, they hadn’t, not with the Wright brothers having made their groundbreaking flight just 10 years earlier and Charles Lindbergh’s his-toric solo crossing of the At-lantic Ocean still 14 years in the future. Jack Vilas was 21 when he flew across the lake, his granddaughter said, adding that a Benton Har-bor man (Will Bastar) served as navigator.

    “He (Bastar) said to keep the smokestacks in Gary on his left,’’ Faith Vilas said.

    Apparently, the only glitch was a water line that burst just prior to landing, she said.

    “He (Jack Vilas) had wa-ter spurting on his back,’’ she said.

    As a measure of how far aviation has advanced over the last century, Faith Vilas, a Seabrook, Texas, resident and a pilot since she was 17, completed her flight in about 45 minutes, or less than half the time it took her grandfa-ther. She said the crossing on “an absolutely crystal clear’’ day was “beautiful,’’ with the only rough spot the landing.

    As she feared before takeoff, the wind at the Windy City made for some choppy water in the break-water just off Navy Pier.

    “We approached three times before we set the plane down,’’ she said. “The third time had to be the charm or we were going to punt and land at the airport.’’

    An astronomer and senior scientist at the Planetary Sci-ence Institute in Tucson, Ari-zona, Faith will now set her sites on venturing into space as part of PSI’s Atsa Subor-bital Observatory project. Project particulars include scientists and students oper-ating a telescope aboard a re-useable spacecraft.

    On board to assist her Monday was Derek DeRuiter, whose company, Cadillac, Michigan-based Northwoods Aviation, owns the Cessna 185 amphibious plane Faith used for her flight. With a top speed of 120 miles per hour, the plane was much faster than Jack Vilas’ aircraft and, no doubt, much more comfortable.

    “It should be quite a bit more relaxing than what your grandfather had,’’ DeRuiter told Faith at the airport in Benton Harbor.

    Faith said she initially wasn’t aware of it but her grandfather, too, re-created his historic flight 45 years af-ter the fact. Described by Faith as an “adventurer’’ and “risk taker’’ who “felt he could fly anything with a motor and wings,’’ Jack Vilas was 85 when he died in 1976, she said.

    Aviation was, and still is, in the family’s blood as Faith’s father, Jack Jr., and aunt, Ariel, also flew. It’s no wonder Faith, too, took wing.

    “I grew up thinking any-one could be a pilot,’’ she said.