As John Glenn Columbus International Airport -- formerly Port Columbus -- marks its 90th anniversary this month, it's worth noting that aviation in central Ohio got its start right here in our hometown of Whitehall.
In fact, in its own way, Norton Airfield played a part in the evolution of aeronautics in Ohio, as did at least one of its early pilot trainers.
In 1919, many returning veterans who'd flown missions during World War I wanted to continue flying. A group of those early pilots formed the Aero Club of Columbus by leasing land on East Broad Street that stretched from South Yearling Road to Fairway Boulevard and South Hamilton Road. The Pure Oil Co. paid for the club's lease of the farmland of James and Mary Lamp. (Their house stands today as the rectory of Holy Spirit Catholic Church.)
The club's members later lobbied the War Department to establish itself at the airfield and to name it after Fred William Norton, a Columbus native who died after being shot down over northern France in 1918.
Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh visited Norton Field in 1927 to assess its suitability as a stop for the Transcontinental Air Transport cross-country train-plane route. He found the field to be too small for the route's needs and recommended the city build a larger facility adjacent to the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
This brought about the construction of Port Columbus, dedicated July 8, 1929. It became the first stop of the Transcontinental Air Transport, where passengers exited a New York Central railcar and boarded a TAT Ford tri-motor passenger plane, headed for California.
While Norton Field served in a number of capacities during its existence, it always was a place where pilot training took place.
Among those early trainers was Benjamin Lee Miller, who in 1942 added Norton Field as an extension of his existing flying school at Port Columbus.
Miller was a self-made man with connections to Whitehall and Truro Township.
Born on a farm in New Albany in 1911, his family relocated to the Linden neighborhood of Columbus when he was a child.
Despite having dropped out of high school, he showed fearless determination, and by age 16, he had earned enough money delivering newspapers for five years to buy his own barbershop.
But he was bitten by the desire to fly, so he saved enough money to pay for flying lessons at the former Sullivant Avenue Columbus Airfield. He earned a commercial pilot license by the age of 18 and established his own Miller Air College there in 1936.
He later partnered with Gilbert Brant to form the Miller-Brant Flying School "on Poth Road, Port Columbus" according to its advertisements. It was from here that his wife, Marjorie, also a pilot trainer, branched out to Norton Field with two trainers.
Among their trainers was "Dutch" Swingle, who became the airfield's owner/manager; he was among a group of trainers who taught hundreds of pilots for service in World War II.
Miller was known by the nicknames "Whitey" -- a nod to his white-blond hair -- and "Mr. Aviation," but was "Lee" to his family and friends.
He joined Curtis-Wright Aviation as chief production pilot in 1942 and flew its renowned SB2C Helldiver dive bomber on its first test flights, as well as its experimental top-secret XP-87 Blackhawk supersonic jet -- the first jet plane to be produced in Ohio.
He joined North American when it took over the Curtis-Wright plant in 1950, continuing to be its chief production test pilot, where he garnered accolades from across the aviation spectrum.
Local resident Ray Belfrage, who for decades was head of quality control testing operations at North American for new planes delivered to the Navy's operations at Port Columbus, recalled Miller's dedication to perfection.
"We all knew the same thing about Ben Miller: When you sent one up with him for its first flight, you always knew that he'd bring it back in one piece," Belfrage said. "He knew the designs backward and forward, before they ever got off the drawing board."
Miller was a member of, and often headed, numerous flying organizations. Despite his notoriety, he was equally known for his calm, fearless and unpretentious demeanor.
"You could walk up to a plane to talk with it pilots for its first flight, and Ben would be snoozing in the cockpit, completely unaffected by the task he was about to undertake," Belfrage said. "He was soft-spoken, and said very little, actually. He didn't have to. He'd already thought everything through beforehand and didn't have to ask a lot of questions."
The Millers built their home near Whitehall on a large lot on McNaughten Road in 1954 -- around the time Norton Field was sold for residential development.
Benjamin Miller lived there until his death in 1971 at age 60.
Tragically, Marjorie Miller died in a plane crash during a competition over Cuba in 1956. Her best friend and co-pilot, Bonnie Butler, survived the crash and later married Benjamin Miller.
In a 1972 ceremony, Butler witnessed the placement of a bronze plaque in the Port Columbus terminal that bears Benjamin Miller's image and honors his storied career as "Mr. Aviation."
Steve McLoughlin is past president of the Whitehall Historical Society.