DOWNERS GROVE – Downers Grove resident Daniel Mitrius remembers sitting in grade school in the 1930s, drawing airplane dogfights, one plane chasing another with a stream of pencil-dot bullets.
He was captivated by the newest form of transportation then, a fascination that continued through the war years and during his family life later in the Chicago suburbs.
Luckily for a boy with a love for airplanes, Mitrius got to see flight’s progression from one technological advancement to another, often with a front row seat.
He even got to ride in the open-cockpit biplanes of the era. When he was a boy in Michigan, barnstorming pilots would come through town on the Fourth of July, offering plane rides to eager kids for $1.
Later, as a mechanic at an U.S. Army airforce base in England during World War II, spotlights would brighten the dogfights over head. He and others also saw a jet plane for the first time during the tour of duty.
“We captured a German jet,” he said. “They flew right over us. I said, ‘What kind of plane is that?’ All of our planes had propellers.’”
This year, his children thought of a perfect 90th birthday present to match his keen interest – a flight aboard a small, single-engine plane over the Chicago skyline and lake Aug. 11.
Mitrius had wanted to be a pilot in the years after returning from WWII, and tallied about 20 flight hours at an airfield near Hinsdale.
He and his brother, Paul, became intrigued in the small, Cessna-like planes when a friend flew them to a fishing trip in Minnesota.
“We said, ‘Hey, this is the way to go!’” he said.
But when he and his wife of 63 years, Ann, decided to build a home in the 1950s in Oak Lawn, there was no spare time, or money, left for lessons.
“So I gave up flying,” he said.
He never went back to finish earning his license, and in 1970 the family moved to Downers Grove. Looking at the gauges and cockpit of the modern single-engine plane Aug. 11 made him think about his days at the airport in Hinsdale, and what had changed.
He remembered his jittery flight instructor from the ’50s – the last thing a new pilot wants sitting in the next seat over.
“When I first started flying, the instructor was always nervous,” he said. “He was always popping pills, I don’t know for what.”
Eventually, he built enough flight hours that he could fly by himself.
“When that instructor got out of the plane, I was so relieved,” he said.
Flying the plane would have required a crash course in 50 years worth of cockpit technology.
“Looking at all the gauges on the planes, they didn’t look anything like the one yesterday,” he said. “It brought back a lot of memories of when I was flying. When you’re up there, and you’ve got control of everything, you’re feeling good about it.”